Results tagged “the church” from Reformation21 Blog

The Cost of Leadership

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In the business world, there's regular talk of building the right team and how to woo the right people in order to steer the ship when current commitments seem to be hindering production. With the right relationships and the right amount of money, business gurus tell us that it's possible to put together a team of leaders that is equivalent to the five starters for the Golden State Warriors and their entire bench! Sadly, the same logic is applied by many local churches. Though it may not be evident at first, the fall out of such an approach is detrimental to the life of the church. People will overlook a man's angry rants in the boardroom or vitriolic attacks on co-workers because of what he offers in a fortune 500 company (after all, isn't that what makes him successful?); however, God will not allow the church to thrive in a spiritually healthy way if its members overlook a lack of biblical qualifications because a man possesses some other seemingly valuable gift set.

The Bible gives exceptionally clear guidelines as to what qualifies a man to hold the office of elder or deacon in a local church. In his letters to both Timothy (1 Timothy 3:1-13) and Titus (Titus 1:5-9), the Apostle Paul set out very clear character and leadership qualities that mark a man off as being fit to be set apart to fill the office of elder (pastor) or deacon.

Although the biblical qualifications are quite straightforward, there are two ways that many churches have abandoned what God has said about biblical order and leadership and have inserted worldly qualifications into the equation.

Show Me the Money

There is a pastor of a very large church that has a monthly meeting with the church's top 50 financial contributors. In those meetings, the pastor asks them to comment on the current trajectory of the church, solicits their opinions on future plans, and reminds them how important their continued financial commitment is to building their brand. Regardless of who the church has put into formal leadership, this group of men and women are ipso facto elders. Their qualification is that they have money and they have been faithful to give it. While generosity is always commendable, holding places of influence and privilege in the church on account of wealth cuts across the clear teaching of James 2. 

Money buys access; and, access often provides far more influence than holding the office itself. We see this in politics in a fallen world. We assume that those with a financial platform will use it in the shrewdest way in order to meet their own wants and needs. The entire Political Action Committee (PAC) system is built on this premise. The church, however, must not be concerned with what people want. It has been tasked by God to identify the needs of God's people--spiritual needs that can't be remedied by worldly or financial means. 

If You Like It, It's Yours

About ten years ago, I sat in on a church growth seminar. Everyone in attendance was enamored with the main presenter. In the course of his presentation, this man recounted a story about how he had wanted a certain man on his ministry team, but the man was serving at another church on the other side of the country. He continued conversations with the man, gathering information about his family and hobbies, and eventually boarded a plane for a visit. Learning that the man he was pursuing loved baseball, this church growth expert brought that man a ball signed by his favorite player, along with gifts for the wife and kids. "This," said the presenter, "was the thing that sealed the deal." The take away? You can purchase church leaders if you are willing to fly across the country and deliver a well-researched gift.

Most local churches aren't flying their pastor(s) around the country to build a dream-team; but, the principle is no less applicable in less extravagant contexts. Pastors often "sheep steal" from other local churches by telling the potential new member, "You know, we really need some deacons right now. Is that something you have any interest in..." or, "I really can't understand why your church hasn't made you an elder or deacon yet. We would love to have someone like you with us." Proverbs 17:8 says, "A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers." For some, buying church officers is as easy as offering the office to someone who has been deemed to be unqualified by another congregation. The subtlety of this approach can also occur after a man joins a local church. In order to keep him, his family and his financial commitments in the church, the current leadership places him in office. Such an approach appeals to the flesh by telling a biblically unqualified individual that he is important and capable. Stroked egos are easily purchased. 

Bribery is a wicked and deceptive tactic. The Preacher tells us, "A bribe corrupts the heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:7). The pastors/elders who will essentially bribe men with an office in the church are the same men who will operate on worldly principles in other aspects of ministry. The church that approaches God's offices in a worldly fashion will functionally operate by asking, "How can we get what we want" rather than "How can we do what God wants?" Every church is working to build one of two kingdoms. The important question is, "Which kingdom are we building?" The way in which the local church identifies, calls, and installs officers goes a long way in answering this extremely important question.

The Greek Orthodox Answer Man?

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The news of Hank Hanegraaff's conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith has--not surprisingly--elicited a variety of responses from individuals online. On Twitter, one controversial progressive pastor welcomed Hanegraaff (quite ironically, I would add) to "a greater tradition than biblicism." Christianity Today featured an article in which the author drew the conclusion that "Hanegraaff's conversion gives evangelicals one more bridge to Orthodoxy." A Protestant blogger has sarcastically suggested that "Hanegraaff...should try doing his radio program for a month while relying strictly on Orthodox resources." The spectrum of opinions has been exceedingly wide ranging; yet, very few have dealt, in any substantive way, with what the Greek Orthodox Church actually believes. It seems to me that before any of us draw conclusions about Hanegraaff's "conversion," we should want to understand that to which he has "converted." 

Frank Gavin--the Anglican Priest and noted Orthodox scholar--has written a thorough and trustworthy Systematic Theology of Greek Orthodox dogma that goes under the title Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought. The breadth of this work serves as a helpful resource to which one may turn when seeking to answer the question, "What does the Greek Orthodox Church believe?" While all pastors and seminarians should do themselves the enormous favor of working through the totality of this work, I want to limit this post to a brief consideration of what the Greek Orthodox Church believes about authority, justification and the nature of the Church. 

Under the heading "Sources of Dogma," Gavin noted that in the Orthodox Church, Scripture and tradition "are of equal weight." In the Orthodox Catechism, we read, "Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles." As the Greek Orthodox theologian, Chrestos Androutsos, has put it in his Dogmatics, "Holy Tradition is not only the continuation of the Word of God contained in Holy Writ, but also the trustworthy guide and interpreter of it." Just as the Roman Catholic Church places additional sources of authority on par with Scripture, so too does the Orthodox Church. This, of course, lays the foundation for the Greek Orthodox Church's deviation from biblical Christianity. 

Since human tradition is placed side by side with Scripture, it should not surprise us to discover that similarities exist between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification. In contradiction to the Protestant belief that Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the Orthodox Church teaches that "Justification as an actual change in man is both the doing away with sin and guilt, and the implanting of a new life...negatively, the remission of sins, and positively, sanctification." The implication of such teaching is found in the Orthodox belief that one may lose his or her justification before God. Androutsos noted, "no one may be sure of his own salvation nor may he predict with certainty that he will be able to keep himself from grievous sins in the future and remain in (the state of) justification." Such semi-Pelagian views of soteriology are consistent with the Orthodox Church's views of authority. 

The Greek Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, also embraces the idea that it is the "one true Church"--as over against all other visible organizations that bear the title "Church." Gavin explained:

"The notion of an invisible and ideal church, of which the various bodies of Christians formed into distinct organizations and calling themselves 'Churches', are partial and incomplete embodiments, is utterly foreign to Orthodox teaching and to historical and biblical authority."

In Orthodox belief, there is only one visible Church made up of the invisible Church of the faithful. "To be outside of the Orthodox Church," wrote Gavin "is to be outside of the sphere in which the Holy Spirit works through the sacraments. Orthodoxy acknowledges no sacraments as valid save those of the one true Church, that is, herself. To do so would be to acknowledge the parity and equality of heretics and schismatics with the Catholic Church, which, as will be seen, she may not do. But in cases where the Orthodox Church has deemed it for the good and need of souls, she may as 'the sovereign over the sacraments...according to circumstances change invalid rites into valid sacraments.' This she does by 'economy' when she deviates from her normal and strict manner of administration. It is impossible to discover the principle governing the use of 'economy' in this matter, nor is there a rationale to determine the exercise of 'economy' in any given case. Yet the Church exercises this right as mistress of the Grace of God, and has allowed as valid the baptism of heretics, which normally and regularly she pronounces entirely invalid. It is not a question of the due matter and form, or of the proper intention: a body even with formally valid orders outside the Church has lost the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by whose agency only the Sacraments become realities."

While there are striking similarities in their beliefs about the nature of the church, the Orthodox Church sees itself in strident opposition to Rome. Herman Bavinck has helpfully summarized the dissimilarities that exist between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox conception of the church, when he wrote: 

"The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is closely related to that of the Roman Catholics, and yet differs from it in some important points. That Church does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church as the true Church, but claims that honor for itself. There is but one true Church, and that Church is the Greek Orthodox. While it acknowledges with greater frankness than the Roman Catholics the two different aspects of the Church, the visible and the invisible, it nevertheless places the emphasis on the Church as an external organization. It does not find the essence of the Church in her as the community of the saints, but in the Episcopal hierarchy, which it has retained, while rejecting the Papacy. The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but this infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods."

The Orthodox Church asserts unique ownership of doctrinal infallibility--as Gavin explained: 

"All Orthodox formularies and pronouncements claim clearly and distinctly that the Orthodox Church has kept the Faith immaculate and intact, without addition or subtraction, without alteration or omission, as taught by Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Inasmuch as the holding to the Faith 'as once delivered to the Saints' constitutes one of the fundamental and essential notes of the Church, deviation from true teaching involves loss of continuity with the life of the Church.

Androutsos set out the rationale for the Orthodox Church's belief in its own infallibility when he wrote: "It is an obvious truth that this Church (the Orthodox Church) is now the only Church which remains faithful to the ancient Ecumenical Councils, and in consequence she alone represents the true Catholic Church of Christ, which is infallible." 

It is my hope that the citations above will serve to introduce our readers to a few, very basic elements of the dogma of the Orthodox Church. In regard to its beliefs about authority, justification and the nature of the Church, the Greek Orthodox Church differs very little from Roman Catholicism--though it has a longstanding commitment to the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church. Now that it has an "Answer Man" who can serve as its media apologist, it is possible (though highly unlikely) that we will get a careful treatment of Greek Orthodox dogma. After all, laying bare its beliefs will not likely win many who are interesting in getting answers about what God has said in His word. 

Last week the Barna Group informed us that a whopping ten percent of America's population "love Jesus but not the church." Lack of "love" for the church, for Barna's purposes, is essentially measured by lack of attendance at religious services. Few of those self-identifying with this group would profess contempt for the church. Some, to be sure, do have an admitted bone to pick with the church, but most, it seems, simply can't be bothered with her. But on the principle that neglect is really a rather potent form of contempt, I think we might define these individuals collectively as professed Jesus-lovers but church-despisers.

The really remarkable thing about this segment of our population is that, at least according to Barna's editor-in-chief Roxanne Stone, they "still believe in Scripture." To be sure, the numbers reveal they rarely read Scripture. I'm not sure how convincing or compelling one's "belief" in Scripture can actually be labeled if the one in question never reads the Bible. Presumably the conviction that Scripture is, say, God-breathed and profitable for doctrine and praxis would inspire one (no pun intended) to pick it up occasionally. Still, we're told that these individuals "believe in Scripture," and yet feel no apparent compulsion to follow the rather obvious biblical injunctions to assemble and participate in those rituals that Jesus ordered his assembled followers to perform.

Forgive my bluntness, but claiming to love Jesus while wanting nothing to do with the church is just stupid. If the "Jesus" we're talking about is the God-man whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension is described and defined for us by the inspired writings of those he commissioned to disciple the nations, then the "church" we're talking about must be the entity described and defined for us by those same writings. The "church," according to those writings, is Christ's bride, whom he loves, whom he nourishes, whom he died for (see Eph. 5:25-32). As the hymnist puts it: "From Heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died." Professing love for Christ but little for the church makes about as much sense as saying you like me and want to spend time with me, but really can't stand my wife and would prefer not to have her around. You can imagine the response you'd get if you invited me around for dinner, and then added, "but please leave Louise at home. We really want nothing to do with her. It's only you we want to get to know. It's only you we want to spend time with."

The things about couples is that, well, they come as couples. That's just as true of the archetypal husband and wife (Christ and the church) as it of ectypal husbands and wives (me and my wife, for instance). That doesn't mean that husbands and wives lose their own unique identities. Christ is not the church. The church is not Christ. But, simply put, "you can't have one with the other" (as someone once sang of love and marriage). The futility of trying to sever Christ from the church becomes, perhaps, even more apparent when one factors in other biblical descriptions of the relationship between these entities. The church is Christ's body (Eph. 5:23). How does one love a head but despise the body attached to that head? Trying floating that claim with regard to any other organism!

It's difficult to know how seriously to take the claim that one might love Jesus but despise his bride and body. Part of me wants to merely role my eyes rather than seriously engage such a sentiment, much as I prefer to counter liberal efforts to strip Christianity of its supernatural elements with a pronounced yawn rather than serious argument. But the prevalence of those who believe they can have Jesus without his bride/body suggests, perhaps, the need for some more intelligent response. Maybe a first step in such might be recognizing the part that evangelical Protestantism itself has played in cultivating the naïve assumption that Christ can be had without his bride/body. Are we, dare I say it, largely to blame for such stupidity, by virtue (for instance) of the dismally weak ecclesiology and sacramentology we have championed in the history of American evangelicalism? Or perhaps by virtue of the tolerance we have shown to parachurch organizations that too often subvert rather than support the church by presuming to play the part the church is divinely appointed to play in the lives of believers? Who needs Christ's bride around when you can have his less obnoxious distant cousin?

Statism and Parachurchism

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Several weeks ago I re-read J. Gresham Machen's pivotal, early twentieth-century work Christianity and Liberalism in preparation for giving the final lectures of a seminary course on modern church history. Having originally read the work more than a decade ago, I had forgotten how much political commentary lies scattered throughout the book -- commentary which, it seems to me, remains just as relevant as Machen's stinging critique of Protestant Liberalism for our time. At several junctures in the work Machen highlights the danger of an ever-increasing statism in his day, particularly as such manifests itself in the state's encroachment upon the rights and responsibilities of parents in matters and decisions related to their children's education.

"Personality," Machen writes early in his work, "can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. The tendency is making itself felt especially in the sphere of education. The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority. Idiosyncrasies in education, therefore, it is said, must be avoided, and the choice of schools must be taken away from the individual parent and placed in the hands of the state."

However alarmist Machen's words on this score might have sounded in 1923, they seem prophetic now, as both traditional approaches to education (think classical) and more and more fundamental truths about human beings and the world we inhabit -- truths preserved in Christian doctrine -- assume the character of "idiosyncrasies" in western cultural perspective. Machen returns to this point later in the work in an aside about the "family" as "the most important of ... institutions" which "are not specifically Christian" (as opposed to, say, the Church). "The family," he observes, "is being pushed more and more into the background. It is being pushed into the background by undue encroachments of the community and of the state. Modern life is tending more and more towards the contraction of the sphere of parental control and parental influence. The choice of schools is being placed under the power of the state; the 'community' is seizing hold of recreation and of social activities. It may be a question how far these community activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the home; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain -- the lives of children are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the Christian home, but by the utilitarianism of the state."

Machen, needless to say, is no anarchist. His whole argument, it seems to me, trades on a very positive view of the state as a common grace institution which -- "when reduced to its proper limits" -- serves and supports both family and Church as institutions distinct from itself. Properly conceived the state is a para-family institution. It is not inherently -- that is, by God's design -- opposed to the family; it rightly exists to come alongside of the family and support the family in those tasks (the nurture of children and others) properly entrusted to the family. Machen even goes so far as to highlight a praiseworthy motive on the state's part when it begins to overstep its boundaries. The state sees "a void which even apart from [it] had already appeared." It sees, for instance, children suffering from parental indifference towards their well-being. But it offers a cure that is arguably worse than the disease. It seeks to fill the observed "void" by assuming functions of the family, thereby ultimately producing far more indifferent parents -- parents, that is, who take no active interest in nurturing their children's minds because they increasingly assume such intellectual nurture is entirely the state's responsibility.

Whatever one makes of Machen's worry about statism as reflected in western educational trends, it seems to me that the problem he describes provides a rather apt analogy for para-church organizations and the problematic posture they are susceptible to assume in the relationship they sustain to the Church. Para-church organizations, like the state in relation to the family, recognize "a void which even apart from them had already appeared." The "void" in question isn't difficult to discern. It's the "void" that will always be found in the Church militant; namely, members (both clergy and laity) who get it wrong in terms of doctrine and piety. The vast majority of para-church organizations exist, according to their own rhetoric at least, to educate the members of Christ's church and/or cultivate within them more fervent love for God and neighbor. Such, of course, is an admirable purpose. But. Just as the state in its capacity as a para-family institution seems prone to assume more and more functions of the proper family, para-church organizations seem unable to resist the temptation to assume more and more functions of the proper Church.

Even the briefest perusal of recent activities by the most prevalent evangelical and Reformed(ish) para-church organizations of our day seems to support this claim. No longer content with a straightforward task of providing resources (books, media, conferences) which (arguably) improve theological literacy and piety, we see, for instance, para-church organizations attempting to define the Church's doctrine, or even write her liturgy, by drafting (and, of course, heavily marketing) theological statements in creedal form. Or again, we see para-church organizations exonerating individuals, placing them on the conference-stage and touting them as "trusted," who have been disciplined and/or defrocked by entirely legitimate congregations/denominations, a task (restoration) that rather obviously belongs to the courts of those congregations/denominations.

Of course, one could, with a view towards Machen's point regarding statism and schools, take this critique even further and ask if para-church organizations aren't actually aggravating the fundamental problems they seek to redress -- problems of theological illiteracy and lukewarm love -- by their most basic efforts to raise theological awareness and bolster piety. After all, it is the Church's task to catechize her people and cultivate, through discipline (properly defined), their piety. Employing the logic of Machen's observation, it seems likely that the Church will only grow more lax, indifferent, and inept in fulfilling those tasks properly entrusted to Her by Her Lord the more that para-church organizations assume those tasks, regardless of their initial motive in doing so. Is it possible that para-church organizations are a significant cause of the very disease they purport to cure?

At the risk of sounding rather dooms-day-ish, then, I think we need to wake up to the danger of parachurchism (vis-à-vis the Church) in our day, a reality corresponding to that problem of statism (vis-à-vis the family) which has, of course, only increased since Machen's day. Notice how well Machen's words critiquing the state's assumption of tasks properly entrusted to the family can be employed to summarize the trend of para-church organizations assuming tasks properly entrusted to the Church: "It may be a question how far these [para-church organizations and their] activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the [Church]; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain -- the lives of [believers] are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the [Church], but by the utilitarianism [read 'impersonal and unregulated "ministry"'] of the [para-church institution]."

But if the danger of parachurchism is real, Christian consumers of para-church services must shoulder their share of the blame. Who, after all, wouldn't prefer at times the impersonal "care" and "ministry" offered by the para-church to the very personal, imperfect, and at times seemingly invasive (albeit God-ordained) care of the local church?

[Editorial Note: We have edited our posting above to include a section of the original post that we had removed. It is our sincere desire that this will help serve the force of the argumentation of the post as a whole.]

The World's True Hope

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Americans have come to one of the more exciting portions of the quadrennial election cycle in the national conventions of the two main parties. This invariably means non-stop media attention, partisan revelry, messianic symbolism, and the occasional significant speech. Without dwelling on the details, it may suffice to say that Christians are considerably less enthusiastic in 2016 than in prior years. The evangelical hope of cultural power through political engagement has dimmed, both on the left and on the right. American Christians look to the political parties and see little hope for the values and principles we have held dear.

Instead of confronting this situation with dismay, biblical minded Christians will have seen this coming, based on the Scripture's assessment of secular culture and history. Consider the very start of secular culture in Genesis 4. Here, we may deduce precisely the values and priorities that have in time captured American culture. It all started in Genesis 4:17, when Cain "built a city." (It was probably a fairly small walled town, but it was a start for human culture.) Its founding premise was self-will in place of reliance on God's will. There can be little doubt that Cain built his city as protection from the threat of harm, since he expressed this very fear in Genesis 4:14. Yet Cain did not need walls, for God had promised him protection (Gen. 4:15). Moreover, Cain's punishment for slaying his brother Abel was to remain "a wanderer on the earth" (Gen. 4:14). That didn't fit Cain's plan at all, so usurping God's will through self-will, he founded secular culture in his own city.

Notice, too, how Cain names his city. Throughout Genesis, godly people named places for the praise of God's glory. Not Cain! "He called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch" (Gen. 4:17). What Cain cared about was the glory of his own achievements and those of his progeny. Likewise, secular culture is all about self-glory, with no concern for the glory of God.

Fast forward few hundred years to the seventh from Adam in the line of Cain, Lamech and his three sons. Here we see how secular culture is fixated on the sensual and worldly, with no concern for godly spirituality. Genesis gives the names of Lamech's two wives (imagine that - a reinvention of marriage!) and his daughter. Without giving the details, they all refer to the beauty and sex appeal of the women. How we have evolved since then! Then we consider the staggering achievements of Lamech's sons, who between them pioneer economics, the arts, and science (Gen. 4:20-22). These are good things in and of themselves, just as American culture is extraordinarily impressive in its worldly achievements. Noticeably absent, however, is worship and the knowledge of God. If Lamech founded a university, it would have impressive colleges of business, arts, and science, but alas no school of divinity.

So here was the founding of secular culture, based on the brilliant talents of the earliest humans. It is impressive and forward moving! But it is also self-willed, self-glorying, and sensual/secular. Sound familiar? Were we expecting something different due to American exceptionalism? The biblical fact is that once the influence of God's Word has receded from public life, there is no other possible trend for fallen human society. To cap it off, Lamech determines to use these cultural achievements not for civic refinement but to cement a tradition of rivalry and war (see Lamech's song, Gen. 4:23-24, undoubtedly performed in gangsta rap.)

As the Democratic and Republican conventions meet this month prior to squaring off in the fall, a biblical analysis of them is bound to see far more in common than in distinction. To be sure, there are meaningful differences in the two parties and I would never say they don't matter. But as twin secular movements, they are bound to draw from the playbook of Cain and his offspring. Thus, both conventions will give no place for God's Word, will glory in men, women, and earthly prowess, will highlight the fleshly desire for pleasure and prosperity, and both will take up the combative militancy of Lamech: "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me" (Gen. 4:23). To be fair, much of this is what political parties are supposed to do: they need to care about the economy, promote their own candidates, and sharpen swords against enemies, even if their primary enemies are sadly one another. But for the moral and cultural concerns of the followers of Christ, the likelihood of hope emerging from a now strictly secular process was never going to be great.

So where are Christians to look in seeking for hope in 2016? This answer is given in the last two verses of Genesis 4, which recount the line of the godly through Adam and Eve, Seth, and then Enosh. Here is the great statement that should fuel the imagination of Christians in America today: "At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 4:26). Here we see the church in its infancy: in worship, prayer, witness, and faith in Jesus Christ.

Let me work this out briefly. Notice, for the first time in biblical history that there is public gathered worship of the people of God. While Cain and his line built their city, Seth and his family made of the church their spiritual city. Calling on the name of the Lord means that they worshiped according to God's self-revelation. They put their focus upwards towards God and prayed publicly. (Is there any greater indictment of evangelicals amidst the cultural ruin of our time that we still have so few prayer meetings?) They bore testimony to God and his saving promise (notice in verse 25 that Eve named Seth as the new "offspring" to replace Abel - i.e., she was trusting in the promise of the Savior through her line - Gen. 3:15). Their hope was in the Savior to come and they bore testimony to him before the world.

The world before the flood is a microcosm of all history. Genesis 4 details stunning earthly achievements and growing power in Cain's secular line. The church's spiritual presence seems so small in comparison. But Adam's line through Seth kept meeting, praying, and proclaiming the promised Savior. While Lamech's sons pioneered arts and industry, Seth's sons promoted worship according to God's Word. Throughout those long centuries, God preserved and blessed his godly people. In time, God's judgement fell on the wickedness of Cain's culture and by Genesis 6 all that was left in the world was the church.

What is the hope to which Christians should be looking in this world? Our hope is not in the secular city, which in time always reverts to the Cainite mean. Our hope is in God, on whom we call, to whom we pray, to whom we offer worship, and for whom we proclaim the saving work he has done and is doing through his Son, Jesus. This means that the world's true hope is in the faithful Christian church. So if you find yourself frustrated watching CNN or FOX News, perhaps you might turn off the television and gather for family worship. While I would never want to discourage Christians from legitimate callings in the public arena, you will find true hope by investing in your church. If there is to be a Christian hope for America in our time it will be because what was said of the line of Seth is said of us: they "began to call upon the name of the Lord." And let us not forget the gospel promise that goes alongside: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13). There is the true and only hope for the world in 2016. Centered on this hope, Christians need not be dismayed after all.

 

Longing for a Multi-Ethnic Church

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If Charlotte's Web were real, Charlotte might have written the following about the events of last week: "SOME WEEK!" "HORRIFIC" "DEVIANT" "HUMBLING". Two young black men shot dead by police officers, one in my home town of Baton Rouge. Five police officers shot dead by one young black man in Dallas. Much has been written, tweeted and posted about these events and their larger significance for race relations in our country, as well as how Christians should respond.

The tragedies of the past week affected me in part because over the past two to three years the church I serve as Associate Pastor has taken increasingly concrete steps toward becoming a multi-ethnic congregation, to better reflect the neighborhood in which our building is situated, and the kingdom of God in glory. Our elders have expressed their desire to call an African-American teaching elder - a possibly difficult endeavor, given the relative supply and demand of ordained or ordainable African-American men in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America; our location (as one man put it, the presence of Reformed Theological Seminary makes the Jackson, MS, metro area "less undesirable" - not a huge vote of confidence for my city); and the fact that we desire to transition from an essentially all-white church to a multi-ethnic church, rather than plant a multi-ethnic church from scratch. As I have meditated on the sorrowful happenings of these last days, my thoughts have turned to the prospects of serving in the church we say we yearn to become. What will pastoral ministry look like if the Lord gives us the desire of our hearts - an African-American pastor and a racially diverse church - and then more police officers and/or young black men die at one another's hands?

Co-laboring with a black brother in a multi-ethnic congregation through times like these will undoubtedly affect our preaching, in terms of text selection, application, and illustration. It will impact the content of the prayers in our worship service, the songs we sing, and even the manner in which we sing them. Even this past Lord's Day, in our nearly homogenous congregation, our words to God and our words to men were tinctured with the sober realities these lamentable days have again thrust upon us. Co-laboring with a black brother in a multi-ethnic congregation through times like these will enable us to continue to learn how to listen to, and understand, the various viewpoints, concerns, fears, and desires of my African-American brothers and sisters. Even this week, I have heard again the apprehension some of my black friends have for their sons going out into the world each day - an apprehension, for the most part, I need not have for my own sons. Even this week, I have been reminded that throughout our nation's history, racism has so often found its terminal point on the black body, and that this tendency is what arouses so much of the angst, anguish and anger of those who cry out that black lives matter too. Pastor Leon Brown has put it well: "When you pray for diversity in your church, you're praying for more than a change in the color of your congregation, you're also praying for a change in the content of your conversations, which will necessarily include matters of justice, equality, and the image of God." Those conversations will transform me in ways I long to be transformed, that I might become quicker to hear, slower to speak, and slower to anger or frustration (James 1:19).

Co-laboring with a black brother in a multi-ethnic congregation through times like these will give us new eyes on what it means to be salt and light in our community. What does it practically look like to do justice and love mercy, standing up for those suffering and mourning? How do Christians continue to speak out and live out against the sin of racism and prejudice? What can Christians do in a local community to help alleviate poverty without hurting the poor? How do we engage as evangelicals with the issues of a movement like Black Lives Matter? I look forward, God willing, to having the wisdom, counsel, and experience of one who understands what it means to be a minority in a majority culture.

Co-laboring with a black brother in a multi-ethnic congregation through times like these will help us know how to read and refer more wisely and winsomely to our theological forefathers who taught so much gold yet also taught, practiced and/or tolerated so much dross in regard to race, slavery, and segregation. The doctrines of the imago dei and progressive sanctification should prevent us from demonizing or lionizing any of those who went before us, whether from the 1860s or the 1960s. What John Piper wrote of Martin Luther King, Jr., applies aptly to our own denominational ancestors: "From a distance we can make distinctions. We can say: This was an admirable trait but not that. This we will celebrate, and that we will deplore." There is a baby in the bathwater, though we must be careful not to imagine that we can lift him out of the tub unsullied by the dirty water - careful acknowledgements of the biblical and theological blind spots and practical failures to work out sound theology will go a long way toward softening the heart of the suspicious toward the skeletons in our common closet. And laboring alongside and ministering to men and women of differing races will open my mind and heart to resources outside my own tradition or experience, by which the Holy Spirit will only grow, stretch, and mold me more and more into the image of our Savior.

The events of this past week have reminded me again that we Christians are strangers and exiles on the earth, and they have made me long for the better country, the lasting city, the city that is to come, the city prepared by God, the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10, 13, 16; 13:14). I trust this past week, and my reflections upon it, have also made me more humble and more teachable; made me more ready to acknowledge that though the Presbyterian Church in America has adopted a statement repenting of racial sins and recommitting to racial reconciliation, there is still so much work left to do in proclaiming and applying the gospel in our own country; and increased my desire to do that work through our church with a diverse leadership and a diverse membership. Even so, come Lord Jesus.


Caleb Cangelosi is the Associate Pastor of Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, MS. He is currently working on his ThM at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

This past Lord's Day evening, our church saw the ordination of Rev. Gabriel Fluher.  Gabe is a recent graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and has been a most outstanding intern at our church for the last few years.  We have called him to our pastoral staff primarily to minister to our youth.  I had the enormous privilege of preaching Romans 1:16, the same passage James Montgomery Boice preached at my ordination (which says something about what I think of Gabe).

Ordination services are important, and I'd like to note a few reasons why I love them:

Trueman's Hypocrisy

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Trueman's use of a Welsh poet to kick off his inaugural, so ably pointed out by Rev Del Thomas, is just another example of the pathetic hypocrisy of this poor excuse for a historical theologian.  I mean, at a recent liturgical-dance-and-share-and-hug meeting at St Olaf's the Sublime, I gave the Ashton Kutcher lecture for Friends of the Humorless on `Vlad the Impaler, Carl Trueman, and Other Vile and Evil Dudes of History.'  Did you know that Trueman rejects the ordination of women but -- get this, sisters -- has a PAT BENATAR album on his iPod!!???  Hypocrite or what???? It surely stands to every non-foundationalist, post-imperialist, gynocratic reason that if a woman can produce a kickin' rock album like Pat, then Mr High and mighty Trueman, why shouldn't she preach the word and administer the sacraments???!!!    Come on, hit me with your best shot, wise guy!!!!!  And don't start quoting Paul at me - we live in a postMadonnist world which has liberated us from the need to obey the clear teaching of the word of God and allows us simply to subject it to our own cultural tastes (surely some mistake here? - Del T)

"It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant. To live by the truths of historic Protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today's context."

Why? Wells answers:

"The truths of historic Protestantism are sometimes no more welcome in evangelicalism than they are in the outside culture."

from The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008).

Adult Sunday School Material

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If you are looking for adult Sunday School material, written from a "means of grace", confessional point of view, I am enthusiastically suggesting that you take a look at the material being produced by the ARPs (Associate Reformed Presbyterian): The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Adult Quarterly, published quarterly under the editorship of Dr. Bill Evans (of Erskine College, SC). They come with a Teacher's Guide that is second to none as far as I know. Subscriptions are $2.00 per quarter plus pp. Teacher's Guides are $1.50 plus pp. If you are interested in seeing a copy, write Christian Education Ministries of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, One Cleveland Street, Suite 110, Greenville, SC 29601 (Tel. 864-232-8297, Ext. 233).

An Apostolic Church

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Last night I began a Wednesday night series on 1 Timothy.  My main topic last night was apostolicity, drawing from Paul's salutation.  I am often struck by how significant some of these issues are and how poorly they are appreciated today.  Especially, I think there are three main points about apostolicity that have great bearing on our ministries today:

1.  Apostolic Succession

2.  The Word of the Apostles as the Word of Christ

3.  Apostolic House Building

Results tagged “the church” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 31

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i. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils; and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church.(1)

ii. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.

iii. All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

iv. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. 

Does the doctrine of the church really matter? Isn't it of far less importance than the gospel, personal piety, or mission? So what if your congregation is independent, congregationalist, presbyterian, or episcopalian? What difference does it make? Our confession is that God's Word provides answers to these questions. 

When it is faithfully lived in coherence  with the Word of God, the doctrine of the church is not some dry, arcane, or at best third-tier thing. It is a living testimony of the fruit of the Spirit, a living witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It brings glory, honor, and delight to him, just as much as showing mercy to orphans or singing his praises does. The scripturally revealed doctrine of the church is Christ's mandate for the shape and function of the kingdom of heaven in its earthly manifestation. Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, building on previous chapters (cf. 25, 30), summarizes the teaching of Christ by his Word on the church, in this case focusing particularly on "synods and councils".

Synods and councils are scripturally warranted (cf. Acts 6:2-3; 11:27-30; 15:2-6, 23-25; 21:15-25) and should be called to meet together by teaching and ruling elders of local church bodies, "as often as they judge it expedient for the good of the church". The book of Acts testifies to this pattern with regular occurrences of gatherings of the apostles, ministers, and elders to deliberate on and address issues of importance for both local congregations and the broader church as a whole. Local church bodies are to be connected with others in a meaningful mutual accountability, particularly through (and including) their ministers and elders. Our confession notes that this is a part of the delegated and derivative authority, the "power"  given by Christ to the overseers of the church, "by virtue of their office".

The Confession next addresses the nature and extent of the work engaged in by synods and councils. Following the paradigm of the book of Acts, the role of synods and councils is (1) "to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience", (2) "to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church", (3) "to receive complaints of maladministration, and authoritatively determine the same." Following Scripture's pattern, we are to maintain a high view of these actions and decisions of synods and councils when their actions and decisions are consistent with God's Word. Our confession is that "they are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word." Like Paul in his challenge to an erring Peter (Galatians 2:14), in love for Christ, his church, and fellow overseers, we are called to make use of the means God has given in ordaining synods and councils in dealing with needs and problems in the life of the church.

Section three of this chapter reminds us that synods and councils do not possess infallibility. They "may err, and many have erred." Our confession reminded us in the previous section that the Word of God is the rule of life and practice; it now reaffirms this by reminding us that synods and councils "are not to be made the rule of life and practice". They are "to be used as a help in both" life and practice of the church and her members (2 Corinthians 1:24), but remain subordinate to the Word of God (1 Corinthians 2:5). 

Taking hold of these concepts does great good in promoting the prosperity of the church in peace, unity, and truth in Christ. Is there an unresolved problem in your local congregation despite all attempts to resolve it locally with the church session or consistory? Bring it by appeal to the broader and higher courts (presbytery, synod, and/or assembly) of the church, seeking resolution according to and in harmony with God's Word. Do you find that you disagree with part of the church's confession on scriptural grounds? Bring it to the higher court of the church--the presbytery. Do so prayerfully looking to God and His Word, and honoring the means the ascended Christ, the head and governor of the church, has given to address the issue. If outstanding disagreement remains and you cannot submit in good conscience before God to what you believe is an erring court, then appeal to a yet  broader and higher court--the synod or assembly. By scriptural paradigm (cf. Gal. 2:14; Acts 15), the Confession indicates that broadest and highest court of the church, in its entirety, ought to be the place of final appeal; where denominations have judiciary committees or commissions at the synod or assembly level, these committees and commissions ought to report in a manner open to review and reconsideration by, and requiring the ratification of, the entire body of the synod or council. If you believe that a synod or council of final appeal errs in its deliberation and determination, and you are convicted you cannot acquiesce or remain in fellowship, then tell them, and prayerfully determine together with them (if possible) what to do.

The final section further addresses the limitation of the scope of the work of synods and councils: "they are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth." (Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36) The responsibility of synods and councils is restricted to issues of the life of the church: controversies of faith; cases of conscience; public worship; church government; and complaints of maladministration of these. At its broadest definition this includes the ecclesiastical church as an entire body, with its courts, particular congregations, and their agencies of ministry. Synods and councils are only to make comment on "civil affairs which concern the commonwealth" in "extraordinary cases", and then by "humble petition" to the secular government. They are to provide advice and counsel to the magistrate when required or requested to do so. 

Our confession provides great wisdom as it summarizes Scripture's teaching, given by Christ to and for his church. We confess that the doctrine of the church, including her form and function of government, matters. It matters because Christ has displayed in his Word how the church is to be shaped and governed for her good and His glory. 

Dr. William VanDoodewaard is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and serves as Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

NOTES:
1. This version of the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 31, is that which is held by the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is an American modification of the original chapter, rewording the role given to the civil magistrate in the calling of synods and councils in response to concerns in the late 1700's that the original version allowed for interference by the civil magistrate in the life of the church. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church's version of the Westminster Confession of Faith retains a closer form to the original, though its revision also narrows the potential role of the civil magistrate in calling synods and councils to "extraordinary cases" in which it is "the duty of the church to comply." This is further qualified by an annotation on the relationship of church and state, noting that the church "does not accept the principle of ecclesiastical subordination to the civil authority, nor does it accept the principle of ecclesiastical authority over the State." The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America maintains the original wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith but amends its meaning through its Declaration and Testimony, with results similar to the revisions of the PCA, OPC, and ARP. To see an explanation of the original version consult David Dickson, Truth's Victory over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 2007), 253-254.

Chapter 26.2, part two

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ii. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. 
The communion of the saints is not merely local; it is also global. As God gives us the opportunity, the Confession says, our co-union in Christ "is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus." 

This statement casts a surprisingly expansive and inclusive vision for the communion of saints, especially when we remember the context in which it was written. Recall that the Westminster Confession was drafted during England's civil war. Remember as well that this was centuries before the missionary work of the gospel became a priority for most reformed and evangelical churches. Nevertheless, the pastors and theologians of the Westminster Assembly believed that they were part of a spiritual communion that was, in principle, as big as the whole wide world.  

The communion of the saints includes every believer--anyone who names Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. No distinction of gender, determination of age, or discrimination of ethnicity should set a limit on our love or establish a boundary on the care we offer to the bodies and souls of other believers. The Confession thus establishes--ahead of its time, in many ways--a principle of Christian inclusion that can break down generational barriers, destroy sexism, and defeat racial discrimination. Our co-union with Christ connects us to every other Christian.

To repeat a qualification that has already been made, this does not mean that we have an obligation personally to meet every need. Even if we have communion in Christ with saints in far places, we may not always be aware of their needs or in the best position to meet them. But the Confession rightly calls us to look far beyond our own immediate context and to consider how God may call us to serve any believer anywhere.  

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 26.2

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ii. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. 
Having firmly grounded our communion as saints in our union with Christ--and having introduced our calling to bless one another both spiritually and materially--the Confession mentions some ways that we can put our communion into practice.

One is by maintaining fellowship in the worship of God. Here the Confession echoes the exhortation of Hebrews "to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another" (Heb. 10:24-25). While regular participation in public worship is a blessing to us, it is every bit as much a blessing to others.  

Another way to practice the communion of the saints is by "performing such other spiritual services as tend to mutual edification." Examples here would include meeting with other Christians for prayer and Bible study, sharing Christian literature, and sending notes or messages of spiritual encouragement.

Next, the Confession encourages the saints to "relieve each other in outward things." This somewhat archaic expression refers to physical needs. "Outward things" are life's material necessities, such as food, clothing, and shelter. When we take a hot meal to a family in distress, or welcome a brother or sister who needs a place to stay for a while, or perform a home repair for a widow from our church, we are practicing the communion of the saints. 

None of us can perform all the spiritual services or meet all the outward needs that our fellow saints may require. But as we have the ability and opportunity, we should do what we can.  

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 26.1, part two

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i. All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other's gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.

Because we are united to Jesus Christ, we are also united to one another--a communion of love. 

The love we share within the communion of the saints is not a mere emotion. Still less is it a spiritual abstraction. Rather, the love that unites us comes to practical expression as we share our "gifts and graces" with one another.

In referring to "gifts" and "graces," the Confession is not trying to make a careful theological distinction, but to be all inclusive. Whatever we have--natural abilities, spiritual gifts, material resources--is meant to be shared with other believers in Christ. 

God has not given us these "gifts and graces" solely for our own benefit, but for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in Christ. What belongs to one person is meant to be shared with everyone. This is what it means to have communion "in each other's" spiritual and material blessings: what God has given to us is designed to be used for others, so that we can all share in his blessing.

This principle--that the communion of the saints means sharing our gifts and graces--gives every believer the holy duty to do all the good we can for one another. 
We will do some of this good in public, such as the pastor who uses the gift of preaching the spiritual benefit of his congregation. Some of the good we do for one another will be done in private, such as the gift card we leave in the mailbox for a family with financial needs. The communion of the saints calls us to care for the bodies and the souls of our brothers and sisters in the family of God.  

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 25.6

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vi. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

The biblical doctrine of the church revolves around Jesus Christ. He is the head of the church, which is His body, and He must have the preeminence (Col. 1:18). He has supreme authority (Col. 2:10). The church submits to Him as its Lord (Eph. 5:22-24). He is the source of our life (Eph. 4:15-16). When men claim to follow Christ but really follow their own personal notions or traditions and manmade rules and forms of worship, they are not holding the Head (Col. 2:18-23). Christ must always be first, or we have ceased to be the church of Christ.

One of the great heresies of the Roman Catholic Church is their exaltation of a man to the place of Christ. The Pope or Bishop of Rome takes the title "Vicar of Jesus Christ," meaning that he acts as Christ's representative, ruling as the supreme head of the church on earth. He is also called "Pontifex Maximus," meaning supreme or great high priest (Lev. 21:10, Vulgate), but the Bible says our great high priest is Jesus, the Son of God (Heb. 4:14). Invoking the authority of Peter, the Pope claims to speak infallibly on matters of faith or life, placing his own words on the level of the words of Christ.

It may surprise modern readers that the Westminster Confession calls the Pope the Antichrist. Today the Antichrist is popularly conceived to be a great military leader who will rule the world with supernatural powers. But in the Scriptures, the word antichrist is used of false teachers who deny fundamental teachings of the faith. John wrote, "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists" (1 John 2:18; cf. 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7). 

The Lord Jesus warned that "false Christs, and false prophets" will come (Matt. 24:24). Paul foretold that the coming of the "man of sin, the son of perdition" who would exalt himself to the place of God in the temple (2 Thess. 2:3-4). The Westminster divines believed (and make a good case for their beliefs in their frequent writings on this subject!) that the office of the Papacy (not any one individual Pope) fulfilled these prophecies,  asserting its claim to rule the universal church, which is the New Testament temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16). 

Thus the Westminster Confession closes its chapter on the church with a solemn warning. Christ alone is the head of His church. He who dares to usurp Christ's place becomes an enemy of Christ. The confession of the true church has ever been, "Jesus is Lord!" It was this conviction that led early Christians to choose death rather than to worship the emperor of Rome, and the same conviction strengthens the church in every age. The blessed hope of the church is the return of her King, and her prayer is ever, "Come, Lord Jesus!"

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.4, 5

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iv. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

v.The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.

Where was your church before the Reformation? Roman Catholics have thrown this question at evangelicals over the centuries. Of course, we might quip, "Our church was in the Bible, where yours never was!" We could point out that the Roman papacy was an innovation that arose long after Christ, and in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries was split among two or three rival popes. 

However, we might also respond with the Westminster Confession that the church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. This means that the true church passes through times of darkness, weakness, or persecution when it is largely hidden. We think of Elijah crying out, "I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away" (1 Kings 19:10). The official church of Israel had given itself over to idolatry. Yet God had preserved seven thousand faithful worshipers, a hundred of whom were hiding in a cave (1 Kings 19:18; 18:4).

We should not take Christ's promise to preserve His church (Matt. 16:18) to mean that the visible church will always be faithful or that the true church will always be strong. In the fourth century, godly Athanasius was repeatedly forced into exile because many powerful leaders were Arians, that is, they denied that Christ is the eternal Son of God. But the faithful overcame this heresy and purified the church.

The Confession calls us to a realistic view of local churches. Congregations are more or less pure with respect to what is taught in them, how the sacraments are administered, and how public worship is conducted. One need only read Christ's words to the seven churches (Rev. 2-3) to see that churches often slide into errors of doctrine or practice. When someone says he wishes we could go back to the ways of the first-century church, perhaps we should ask if he means the church in Corinth? They had problems with division, pride, a celebrity mindset, incest, failure to implement church discipline, fornication, people getting drunk at the Lord's Supper, and false teaching about the resurrection. Nevertheless, Paul addressed them as "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2). 

The best of churches are subject both to mixture and error. There may be hypocrites among of the members of a true church and great Christian leaders can make great mistakes, though they are sincere believers. Sadly, some churches and denominations have fallen into such profound errors that they can no longer be called true churches of Christ. Though it is possible that some true believers remain in them, the official teachings and practices of their churches deny fundamental truths of God's law and gospel. Let us watch and pray, lest our churches slip into this terrifying pit.

However, we should not fear that the church will disappear from the earth, for there shall be always a church on earth. The Son of God said, "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). One name for believers is overcomers. The world wages war against Christ and His church, but "the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev. 17:14). Though we are called to watchfulness, we are to watch in hope, for the wedding day of Christ is coming, and His bride, the church, will be beautiful on that day (Rev. 19:7-8).

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.3

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iii. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.

Some people think that true spirituality is so mystical that we really do not need the church with its creeds and confessions, and its forms of worship, so long as we follow what God says to our hearts. A personal relationship with the Lord trumps everything else, even the plain teaching of the Bible. Other people put so much stock in the sacraments that they think receiving baptism, attending church, and taking the Lord's Supper virtually guarantees their salvation unless they do something really bad. Reformed Christianity, in contrast to these extremes, does not separate the life of the visible church and the invisible work of the Spirit, but emphasizes both as crucial to knowing and pleasing God.

We treasure the church because Christ has given to the visible church the means by which He saves His people. First, Christ gives them the ministry, that is, men gifted and called as servants of the Word. Paul taught that the ascended Christ builds up His body by giving ministers of the Word to the church (Eph. 4:10-12). These men are not saviors but only servants of God and stewards of God's truth (1 Cor. 4:1). Still, ministers who are faithful in their lives and teachings are instruments by which God saves the church from sin and brings it to glory (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:10).

Second, Christ gives to the church the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1-2), the Holy Scriptures. I am grateful that in America we live in an age of unprecedented access to the Scriptures (just a click away on the internet). But the church, as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:15), still plays a central role in preserving the Scriptures, guarding their faithful translation and interpretation, promoting education and literacy, reading them as part of public worship, and encouraging the private reading of the Bible in personal devotions and family worship.

Third, Christ gives the ordinances to the church. By "ordinances" the Confession refers to the public means of worship which Christ ordained or commanded, such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, public prayer, and singing praise to God (see Confession, 21.5). The holy God inhabits the praises of Israel (Ps. 22:3), and many times God's people have experienced His presence dwelling with them as they worship together on the Lord's Day. Indeed, Christ promised His special presence when believers assemble in His name (Ps. 22:22; Matt. 18:20).

Christ commanded His church to preach the Word and to use the ordinances, and promised, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20)--implying that these means of grace will never grow obsolete and we must faithfully use them to the end of the world. Far from despising the means, we should use them with great expectation, for as we use the means, Christ is present with us. And Christ will not let His church fail.

However, we do not turn the means of grace into a surrogate Christ, but instead, as the Confession says, believe that Christ must make them effective by His own presence and Spirit. Mechanical rituals and even the preaching of sermons do not have any inherent power to do spiritual good. Reformed Christianity rejects the ex opere operato ("by the work having been worked") principle of the Roman church where the mere performance of the liturgy confers grace. Instead, we do the work of the church constantly remembering Christ's words, "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5).

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.2

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ii. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

In this section the Westminster Confession discusses the visible church. In my last post, I considered what the Confession means when it speaks of the invisible church. We make this distinction because the church is a people called together, but the call is twofold. There is an external call through voice of the preacher (Matt. 22:9-10, 14), and an internal, effectual call through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit upon the soul (1 Cor. 1:23-24). We can see the people who have outwardly responded to the preacher's call, but we cannot directly view the inward working of the Spirit. 

Sometimes people find the distinction of visible/invisible to be confusing with regard to the church. Are we talking about two different churches? By no means! Perhaps an analogy would help. An old Dutch divine, Wilhelmus à Brakel, compared it to the soul and body of a man. We recognize that human beings have an invisible aspect and a visible aspect to their lives. The soul is hidden within the body. But we do not divide the soul and body of a living man. We do not expect people to walk around as souls without bodies. Nor do we say that a body without a soul is really a man--it's just a corpse. 

In the same way, we recognize that the church has an invisible aspect and a visible aspect. The invisible church is hidden within the visible. But we do not divide them into two churches. The claim to be part of the invisible church while having nothing to do with the visible church is as plausible as spirits walking around without bodies--and almost as frightening. On the other hand, a church without a vital union with Christ by the Holy Spirit is not a true church. It is an institutional corpse. In reality, the invisible church shows itself on earth in and through the visible church.

The Confession teaches us that the visible church is also universal, adding the explanatory note that it is not confined to one nation. From the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God's visible church consisted of Israel and those few foreigners such as Rahab and Ruth who were joined to Israel. The risen Christ commissioned His servants to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), and this they did by planting churches in many lands (Acts 14:23). 

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have taught that the universal church is visible not only in local churches but also in the order or structure that binds many congregations together into one, such as classes or presbyteries, and synods or general assemblies. This church polity is distinguished from Congregational (and Baptist) polity, in which the visible church has no higher authority than the elders who rule over local congregations, though congregations may consult together and cooperate in missions.

The visible church consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion. That is to say, membership of the visible church is defined by those persons who confess the faith, who publicly declare that they believe in Jesus Christ and obey the teachings of Christianity. The New Testament argues that personal trust in Christ will produce a public confession of Him before men (Rom. 10:9-10), and warns that those who refuse to confess Christ will not be owned by Him on Judgment Day (Matt. 10:32-33). A profession of Christ as Lord also includes receiving the sacraments, and walking in obedience to God's laws (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, 41; 1 Cor. 11:26). The visible church has a responsibility to exclude from its membership those who embrace serious error or sin and refuse to repent.

In addition to professing believers, the confession declares that the children of those that profess the true religion are also members of the visible church. Here the Confession stands on the pattern of the covenant that is universal in Scripture, whereby promises made to believers are extended to include their children (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). Note that membership in the visible church is no guarantee of membership in the invisible church. Nonetheless, the practice of the visible church must conform to the promise, and so children of believers are to be baptized and received as members of the church. 

Though it is true that some in the visible church are not saved, we should never fail to cherish the visible church. The Confession says that it is the kingdom of Christ and the house and family of God. The exiled Judean poet expressed it well: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" (Ps. 137:5, 6).  

It may shock modern evangelicals, but the Confession also says that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the visible church. The Book of Acts tells us about many miracles done by the apostles, and visits from angels. But in every case where someone is saved from sin, it is by the ministry of the church. Even when an angel visited Cornelius, the angel proclaimed the gospel to him, but directed him to the apostle Peter, "who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:14). We do not deny that God may use a gospel tract or well-placed Bible to convert a sinner. But His ordinary means are set forth in Paul's argument for the necessity of preaching: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). Therefore, cherish the visible church, faithfully attend its assemblies, make diligent use of the means of grace it provides, for God is pleased to use the preaching of the Word to save sinners.

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.1

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i. The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord makes this remarkable pronouncement: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). The Greek word translated "church" means a number of persons called together in a public assembly (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). When the Jews translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, this word was used for the congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Deut. 4:10; 9:10), and later assemblies, especially for worship (2 Chron. 6:3, 12, 13; Ps. 22:22, 25; Joel 2:16). 

Christ seized this word with a rich history in Israel and claimed it as His own: My church. He is the Lord of the congregation of God's worshipers, the King of the true Israel (Phil. 3:3). Christ builds the church by His power, and He promises that Satan will never overthrow it.

This church transcends each local congregation of worshipers. A local church can die spiritually (Rev. 3:1). Christ Himself may remove its light (Rev. 2:5). There are many sad sights of empty buildings where a church once met, or where formerly faithful churches have fallen into heresy. But Christ said that His church cannot fail.

Therefore Christ spoke of what the Westminster Confession calls "the catholic or universal church," both the church worldwide and the church in heaven and on earth. The word "catholic" comes from a Greek word meaning universal or international, and does not necessarily or exclusively refer to Roman Catholicism. Some of the church's members are already in glory (the church triumphant). Some still fight the good fight of the faith on earth (the church militant). But all are one people called out of the world into holy union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). When we meet in local congregations, we join with saints in heaven and throughout the earth to worship God through Christ as one great assembly (Heb. 12:22-24). The Confession has a number of things to say about the universal church.

First, this church is invisible. That does not mean its members are ghosts that meet in phantom buildings. It means that the universal church is defined in ways that are spiritually discerned and not physically seen. The church is not a building, but a people who worship in spirit and truth, a temple built with living, personal stones (John 4:20-24; 1 Peter 2:5). It is not a particular denomination and cannot be defined by allegiance to any mere man such as the Pope of Rome (1 Cor. 1:12-13). At certain times and places, the true church may exist as hidden gatherings of believers fiercely persecuted by leaders of the visible church (Rev. 13:11-15). 

We cannot produce a complete list of the church's members, for some whom we thought to be saved fall away and show that they never really belonged (1 John 2:19). Not everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is known to Him or saved by Him (Matt. 7:21-23). The church's membership is not defined by participation in baptism and the Lord's Supper, for some who receive the sacraments are not in Christ (Acts 8:13, 18-24; 1 Cor. 10:1-8), and some true believers do not have the opportunity to receive them (Luke 23:39-43). 

The true church is defined by invisible factors. The qualifications for membership are the secret election of God and the internal work of the Holy Spirit to produce faith. We can see evidence of these divine operations in the fruit of the Spirit, but the true identity of the church is invisible. Yet it is visible or known to God: "The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Tim. 2:19).

Second, the church consists of the elect. God elected or chose individuals in order to save them from their sins, adopt them as His children and heirs, and make them holy by union with Christ (Eph. 1:4). The church is "a chosen generation," joined to Christ who is Himself "chosen of God, and precious" (1 Peter 2:4, 9). The Bible says, "Christ died for the church" (Eph. 5:25), that is, He decreed to redeem the elect long before any of them were born. Their names were "written in the book of life from the foundation of the world," and when they believe in the Lamb they overcome the world because by God's grace they are "called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev. 17:8, 14).

Third, the church is in union with Christ as the bride or spouse of the Lord. The church was promised to Christ in God's eternal counsels (2 Tim. 1:9), and is betrothed to Christ by the Spirit in effectual calling (1 Cor. 1:9; 6:17). As Christ's spouse, the church is the object of Christ's redeeming love and His nourishing and cherishing affection (Eph. 5:25, 28-29). 

Fourth, the members of the church are joined to Christ in a living, organic, and personal union, knit to Him as closely as the members or parts of a man's body (Eph. 5:30-31). Since Christ is the church's head, he rules over it as Lord and the true members of the church submit to His Word as it washes them clean (Eph. 5:23, 24, 26). 

This unspeakable privilege of union with Christ makes the church the recipient of the fullness of Christ's graces, "his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23). There is no station in life higher or more privileged than to be a member of the true church!

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.