Results tagged “the church” from Reformation21 Blog

Something is terribly wrong when professing Christians do not identify with the church and love being a part of her. Something is wrong when professing Christians fail to be passionate about every aspect of the church and long to invest themselves in her, taking all that the church represents and does to heart. Listen, for example, to the way Paul instructs the Ephesians: "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27).

I fell in love with the church the moment I was converted as a freshman in college in 1971. Having never attended any church until then, I discovered a community that was, to me, like a family: caring, loving, and nourishing. The church I found was able to tell me that I was wrong about some things without driving me away. I knew that I was loved. The church showed me acts of kindness and fellowship that I recall with affection to this day. I was introduced to expository preaching from the start - a style of preaching that puts the Bible above the personality and idiosyncrasies of the preacher. I discovered communal prayer times, and joyful singing, all of which have been the mainstay of my Christian life ever since. True, I have had my share of worship wars, when Christians disagree over important things and sometimes trivial things; but for all that, I have taken delight in her rituals of song and sacrament, prayer and proclamation, more times than I can relate. I love the church. I fully endorse Calvin's way of putting it (and the shadow of Cyprian that lies behind it): "For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels" (Inst. 4.1.4). In the church, I have discovered saints and angels (though not, as far as I know, real angels). I have witnessed deeds of extraordinary kindness done to myself and to others, and I have been the beneficiary of kindnesses done to me by those who remained anonymous.

Yes, there is a dark side to the church as there is to all things in this fallen world. The church is not perfect. It has her share of malcontents and killjoys, her energy-sapping attention-getters and despondent hearts. Adullam's cave has nothing on some churches I have seen, but none of this robs me of my love for the church. Even at her most eccentric - the King James Version's rendition of 1 Peter 2:9 as "ye are ... a peculiar people" is painfully accurate, if quaint -- she is still Christ's body. "Love me, love my church" is what Jesus seems to say in the Bible. I would not have it any other way. Would you?

*This post is a modification of a post originally published at Ref21 in September of 2009. 

The Mission of the Church in the Story of Jesus' Birth


As 2018 draws to a close, we look back on a year in which perhaps the most pressing issue for Reformed Christians is the relationship between the church and the world. How does the church respond to cultural shifts in terms of human identity and sexuality? And what is the mission of the church when it comes to matters of social justice?

It occurs to me as I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth that here the question about the church's mission finds an answer. Consider three episodes in the birth narratives, each of which focuses the purpose of Christ's birth on the spiritual mission of redeeming his people from sin:

In Matthew 1:20-21, Joseph has just learned the troubling news that his fiancée is pregnant. But an angel informs him that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel declares: "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Notice two things about this declaration. The mission of Jesus is directed toward "his people," that is, the elect. Moreover, the aim for which Jesus was born was salvific, delivering believers from sin.

In Luke 1:30-33, the angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that she will conceive a holy child. Here again, his name will be "Jesus," meaning, "Yahweh saves." His mission is conceived not in terms of the influence he will exert in worldly society but in raising up the kingdom of God: "the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk. 1:33).

Luke 2:13-14 reports the angel song before the astonished shepherds outside Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Here again, the incarnation is directed towards the elect (those with whom he is pleased) so that they would receive peace with God and peace from God. This is the work of the gospel, bringing the spiritual ministry of saving grace into the lives of God's elect people.

How clear and striking it is, as we hear the voices announcing the birth of Jesus, to see the spiritual focus on the gospel work of salvation from sin. The angels did not announce a reform agenda for Herod's regime or a critique of class distinctions in Caesar's Rome. They announced a Savior, born on earth from heaven, as the Son of God incarnate, and his mission of delivering his chosen people from their sin. As we conclude 2018 and look ahead to a new year that may be counted on to be filled with struggle and strife among men, our calling as a Church is to spread forth the good news of the angels: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk. 2:11).

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 8, The Church


[Editorial Note: This is the eighth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

Article 8: The Church

WE AFFIRM that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord's Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.

WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church's mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.

The church (ἐκκλησία) is the assembly of God's people who are saved by faith alone in Christ alone and gather together in local assemblies for both service and worship. In a literal rendering of the Greek - the term means a called out assembly. Christ founded his Church and made a definitive statement - "The gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). It has been God's plan from the beginning for his people to associate together, help one another, and assemble for worship and service in a community of a local church. In short, the church is God's will for your life. The high mark of the believer's life should be centered in and through the local church rather than politics or any other humanitarian outlet or organization.

In recent days, Russell Moore has suggested that the goal of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" was primarily about race. In fact, Russell Moore talked to Laruen Green of Fox News and in that interview he stated the following about the Statement:

What we're really talking about is race. And so, I think we have a long lasting issue within evangelicalism of people saying 'Let's not talk about issues of racial reconciliation, unity, and justice--that would be a distraction from the gospel. That's exactly what was happening in the 19th century as it related to human slavery. That's exactly what was happening in the 1920s and 1950s as it related to Jim Crow and it persists among us.

The main focus of the Statement is not centered on race. Out of the fourteen articles, the Statement contains two that focus on race and twelve others that focus on other matters including biblical manhood and womanhood and the mission of the Church which is Christocentric with the gospel at the center.

In fact, the main reason for the need for the Statement in the beginning was based upon three really important issues that need to be addressed--and it's not all about race. While race and the idea of systemic racism and systemic oppression is certainly one issue we want to address in the Statement--there are other issues such as the rise of egalitarian methods within evangelicalism and the category of LGBT Christianity. In may ways, biblical manhood and womanhood are the focus of the Statement.

Each of these subjects, within evangelicalism, are impacted by our culture with a shallow and often skewed understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ. For that reason we included an article in the Statement that helps unpack the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Mission of the Church

As "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" articulates, "the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord's Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost." This is a good summary of the work and mission of the local church.

As Ephesians 4:12 makes clear, the work of the pastor is centered on equipping the saints for the work of ministry. When the primacy of the gospel is maintained, this equipping ministry of the local church will impact the culture which is filled with the brokenness of sin. Charles Hodge writes:

The works of God manifest His glory by being what they are. It is because the universe is so vast, the heavens so glorious, the earth so beautiful and teeming, that they reveal the boundless affluence of their Maker. If then, it is through the church that God designs specially to manifest to the highest order of intelligence, His infinite power, grace and wisdom, the church in her consummation must be the most glorious of His works.1

As the Scriptures are expounded in the context of the local church, the followers of Jesus submit to his authority and desire to walk in obedience to his commands. Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). One of the clear teachings of Jesus is found in his response to the scribe who sought to trap him just two days before his brutal crucifixion (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus responded to the scribe's question by saying:

The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31).

To love God supremely results in loving neighbor sacrificially. This is not something that flows out of a secular social justice movement, it's right out of the mouth of Jesus himself. When a culture is filled with strong churches, the mission of Christ will be alive and well throughout the society. When a culture is lacking the presence of God's people or filled with shallow churches, the mission of Christ will lacking in the society as a whole.

The Mission Drift of the Modern Church

The local church in many contexts has been swept away in the tsunami of politics and social justice interaction. In other cases, the local church has been turned into a humanitarian aid station for the poor in the community or the poor in other nations (digging wells and supplying clothes for impoverished tribes in South America). While getting involved in such efforts to care for the needy is a fine ministry, but it's not the overall mission of God's Church.

When we examine the number of organizations that a person can join in a specific city, it can be a bit overwhelming. There are numerous groups that a person can identify with such as:

  1. American Red Cross
  2. Salvation Army
  3. Kidney Foundation
  4. AARP
  5. NRA
  6. YMCA
  7. Boy Scouts
  8. Girl Scouts
  9. Ronald McDonald Foundation
  10. Republican Party
  11. Democratic Party
  12. US Military
  13. Homes for our Troops
  14. National Military Family Association
  15. Special Olympics
  16. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
  17. Boy's and Girl's Clubs of America
  18. Local or National Chess Club
  19. Local Bowling Club
  20. Local Gardening Club
  21. Local Dancing Club
  22. Local Running Club
  23. Local Bird Watching Club
  24. Local Yacht Club
  25. Local Horse Riding Club
  26. Local Dog Training Club

Add to this list a quickly growing number of parachurch ministries designed to engage in the work of ministry. However, the mission of the church is far different than any of these popular organizations and clubs and far more essential than any parachurch ministry. Even those organizations that focus on humanitarian care and social involvement, the local church has a far higher mission that centers upon glorifying God and exalting Christ throughout the world.

The church was once focused on the worship of God through the Scriptures, but today many pulpits have been replaced by political stumps and the gospel has likewise been replaced by political talks filled with social justice jargon. The very moment that a church trades the mission of Christ for the mission of political social justice--that group ceases to be a true church. Furthermore, their message cannot lead people to freedom and true liberation. Instead, they lead people into the darkness of oppression and injustice. Only through the gospel can a person's heart be changed resulting in true submission to God.

Furthermore, as the local church is driven by the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of God through holy Scripture--the more likely the local church will trade in their prayer for civil leaders for the slander of partisan politics. The church has been called to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2) rather than slandering them under the banner of the gospel. Far too many "Social Justice Warriors" find it cool to slander leaders rather than lead their congregations to pray for them.

We must reject the idea that political involvement and social justice engagement is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. While we can work through proper channels and use voting privileges lawfully, the mission of Christ has never changed or shifted from the day Christ founded it. Alistair Begg has stated the following in a sermon:

We are not in the world today to reform the world. Our mandate in the world is not political, it's not social, and it's not economic. The fact that many of us have lived through a period of time in the United States where by the social, political, and economic concerns have increasingly encroached upon the minds of those who should know better and have begun to take on virtually a life of their own whereby we have begun to be seduced by the idea that these really are the issues. That if we could fix this, and fix this, and fix this--then we would be fine. But we were never invited to fix this and this and this. The calling of the church is to proclaim the gospel. And whenever that which is central, namely the gospel, becomes peripheral--then that which is peripheral inevitably becomes central.

However, that is precisely the opposite of the social justice agenda of our present culture. Eric Mason, in his book, Woke Church, makes the following bold assertion:

To apply this we must be awakened to the reality of implicit and explicit racism and injustice in our society. Until then, our prophetic voice on these matters will be anemic and silent. Being woke is to be aware. Being woke is to acknowledge the truth. Being woke is to be accountable. Being woke is to be active. This is the call of God on the church and on every believer.2

To make the claim that the mission of the church is to be "woke" is to be guilty of false advertising at best and egregious mission drift at worst. Furthermore, Jesus doesn't need to ride the wave of pragmatic cultural trends in order to complete his mission through the Church. I would further argue that Jesus was not "woke" in his earthly ministry and doesn't need that label for his Church today.

The term "woke" has been defined by Eric Mason in a sermon at Dallas Theological Seminary as an "urban colloquialism used by black nationalists and those who are in the black consciousness movement." The term did not emerge from gospel of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. It's safe to say that it doesn't have the best past. Therefore, it's unwise to hitch the Church of Jesus to such a culturally perverse term. Such a move on the part of Mason leads to confusion rather than clarity. It may lead to book sales, but it doesn't help in clarifying the mission of the local church.

To make the bold assertion that it's the mission of the church is to lead the people of God off track. Any step toward the "woke" movement is to follow the footsteps of culture rather than Christ. This is true not only in terms of the witch hunt for systemic racism, but it's likewise true regarding any movement that distracts God's people from their mission which will always be centered on the good news of salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord.

The real question that needs to be answered is--how does the "woke" church movement and the hyper emphasis upon social justice differ from cultural Marxism? I've yet to hear a good clear differentiation between the two.

What you believe about the church matters. How the local church engages in the mission of Christ matters. When we follow the plan of Jesus - it will lead to more just and equitable societies throughout the world. Only the gospel can cause people to bow in submission to King Jesus and as a result, those same people will submit to the laws of society. Those same people will labor in the gospel ministry in a local community through their local church resulting in lasting change that brings glory to God.

1. Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Accordance electronic ed. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1856), 174.

2. Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, (Chicago: Moody, 2018), 32.

'Til Kingdom Come


So much recent debate surrounding social justice seems to boil down to fundamental disagreements and misunderstandings about the relationship between the "Kingdom of God" and the "Church."  Many have conflated these two biblical concepts so as to lose the clear lines of demarcation regarding the mission of the church and the activities of believers in the world. Others have so pitted them against one another as to bifurcate any necessary correlation. In vol. 5 of his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos made a number of profoundly important points regarding both the distinctness and interconnectedness of these two biblical concepts when he wrote,   

"On the one hand, 'kingdom of God' is the narrower, and 'church' the wider concept...On the other hand, the 'kingdom of God' or 'of heaven' is a broader concept than that of the church."1

Concerning his observation about the "Kingdom of God" being a more narrow concept than the "Church," Vos noted, 

"While the Church has both a visible and invisible side, and so can often be perceived of an entire nation, the kingdom of God in its various meanings is the invisible spiritual principle. It is the lordship Christ exercises over our souls if we truly belong to Him, our submission to his sovereign authority, our being conformed and joined by living faith to His body with its many members. It is the gathering of these true members and subjects of Christ. It is called the "kingdom of heaven" because it has its center and its future in heaven. All the spiritual benefits of the covenant are linked to it: righteousness, freedom, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit [cf. Rom 14:17]. As such a spiritual entity, it is within man and does not appear with an outward face. Understood in this sense, the kingdom of heaven equals the invisible church, but then in its New Testament particularity, for Christ preached that the kingdom of heaven had come near, namely, through His coming. He is the king, and through His clear self-revelation and through His completed work, the invisible church also receives a new glory that it did not have previously, so that even the least in this kingdom is still greater than John the Baptist [Matt 11:11]."2

With regard to the insistence that the "Kingdom of God" is the broader, and the "Church" the narrower concept, Vos explained,

"The Kingdom of presented to us as leaven that must permeate everything, as a mustard seed that must grow into a tree that with its branches covers all of life. Plainly, such a thing may not be said of the concept 'church.' There are other spheres of life beside that of the church, but from none of those may the kingdom of God be excluded. It has its claim in science, in art, on every terrain. But the church may not lay claim to all that. The external side of the kingdom (the visible church) must not undertake these things; the internal essence of the kingdom, the new existence, must of itself permeate and purify. It is precisely the Roman Catholic error that the church takes everything into itself and must govern everything. Then there appears an ecclesiastical science, an ecclesiastical art, an ecclesiastical politics. There the kingdom of God is identical with the church and has been established on earth in an absolute form. According to us, it is otherwise. The true Christian belongs in the first place to the church, and in it acknowledges Christ as king. But besides that he also acknowledges the lordship of Christ in every other area of life, without thereby committing the error of mixing these things with each other. The Old Testament church-state, which comprehended the entire life of the nation, was a type of this all-encompassing kingdom of God."3

These distinctions lead naturally to certain conclusions concerning the complex interrelatedness of these two spheres of God's rule and reign in His people and in the world. Vos wrote, 

"If now one compares the visible church and the kingdom of God viewed from the first side, then one can say that the former is a manifestation and embodiment of the latter.

If one compares the visible church and the kingdom of God viewed from the second side, then one can say that the former is an instrument of the latter.

If one looks to the final outcome, then one must say that the church and kingdom of God will coincide. In heaven there will no longer be a division of life. There the visible and the invisible will coincide perfectly. Meanwhile, for now the kingdom of God must advance through the particular form of the church."4

The complexity of these two concepts necessitates that we give the utmost care to our consideration of both their distinctness and interrelatedness. It is only as we do so that we will profitably enter into conversations about the mission of the church, social justice, mercy ministry, the individual and the corporate, the sacred and the secular, and the myriad of others associated matters about which Christians love to spend inordinate amounts of time debating online. Though a daunting task, in and of itself, it will prove a worthy endeavor sure to yield great benefit to fellow members in the church.  

1. Vos, G. (2012-2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, pp. 8-9). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

2. Ibid., vol. 5, p. 8.

3. Ibid., p. 9

Fences and Fellowship


I've tried not to be, but I can't help it...I'm a Baptist. I've read all I could about pedobaptism, I've talked to many friends, I've prayed for wisdom and clarity, and in the end, I've been all the more convinced of Baptist principles (of the 1689 London Baptist Confession variety). The truth is, Reformed Baptists (or Particular Baptists, if you prefer) have far more in common with confessional pedobaptists than we often do with others who identify as Baptist. We share a very similar confessional heritage and an overwhelming percentage of our doctrine is identical. There is no good reason why confessional Baptist and confessional pedobaptist brothers and sisters cannot enjoy intimate ecumenical fellowship with one another.

I have several friends with whom I cannot fellowship. Some of my friends aren't Christians, and others are acquaintances whom I have not had the opportunity to invest much time. Fellowship is only fellowship when friends are committed to a common cause or goal, and it flourishes through our common pursuit of that cause or goal. For the Christian, the shared goal ought to be the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. Without a conscious effort to utilize our God-given relationships to achieve such an end, we may have friends, but we don't have fellowship. However, I don't believe true fellowship exists only among those with whom we share complete agreement on every issue. Baptists and Presbyterians can, and should have true fellowship with one another (in addition to other relationships with Christians in other faithful circles).

A lot of reformed believers seem reluctant to use the word ecumenical, and often for good reason. We are confessional for a reason: we don't abide by the namby-pamby spirit of everyone just getting along for the sake of getting along. Our distinctions really do matter. What we believe to be true from Scripture is worth maintaining and standing on. Every Christian's conscience and every church needs to be conformed to the truth as we understand it. It would be wrong to assume that fellowship requires a Baptist to baptize their infants, or a pedobaptist to withhold what they believe to be a sign of the covenant for their children. Our authority is the Bible and we must submit to it lest our actions not proceed from faith (Romans 14:23).

Fences Make Good Neighbors

Anyone living in a neighborhood understands the blessing of a fence. We can have the best neighbors the world has to offer, but without a fence, we can sometimes run into difficulties. Where does one person's property end and the others begin? Who's responsible for the patch of grass between the two, and what happens when one neighbor wants to plant a new tree but we don't know where the property line is? Boundary markers are useful and important, but the distinction between what's mine and what's yours doesn't mean we can't love each other, don't care about what's going on in each other's homes, or won't lend a hand to our neighbor just because their yard isn't ours! It is because we have boundaries that we can be better, more loving neighbors without reason for discrepancy or upset.

Reaching Over Fences

The desire for ecumenical fellowship sometimes exists, but working through it practically may be difficult. How do we foster healthy, ecumenical relationships between churches? In most instances, the most probable avenue is through healthy ecumenical pastoral fellowship. Some of my best pastor friends do not share the same confession of faith with me, but our hearts beat together on most matters. As a result, we've been able to engage in various endeavors together: Preaching at each other's conferences or special events, pulpit swaps, or even joint vacation Bible schools or youth camps. We've even had others join us in some evangelistic efforts in the city. I've benefitted greatly from being able to talk to other pastors face-to-face about members who have left our church to go to theirs or visa-versa. It has been a blessing to be able to share resources and ideas with men who aren't entrenched in my context. Every Lord's Day, I am sure to pray publicly for a church in our network (Reformed Baptist Network) from other states and nations, but I'm also sure to pray for other faithful local churches and their pastors. When God's people can follow a pastor's leadership and shed territorial spirits, there is greater opportunity for unity and less church swapping and accountability avoiding in the entire community.

We should work toward fellowship when we share the common goal of God's glory, even though doctrinal disagreements exist. We know where the line is, so instead of spending our time determining who needs to rake the leaves, we can focus on the things that unite us. With all sincerity and love, we should be able to say to other brothers and sisters in different, yet very similar churches and denominations, "We thank God in all our remembrance of you, always in every prayer for you all making our prayer with joy, because of our fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:3-5). No doubt, there are churches that are only churches in name, but there are others who are deeply committed to the things that matter. We don't need to change what we believe to join together in meaningful ways to bring the gospel to our communities.

Can you and do you give thanks to God for your brothers and sisters in Christ, not just in your local church, but around the world? Throughout your community? Fellowship is not easier outside the local church than it is inside, but it's worth the effort for the sake of God's name, for the health of His church, and for the growth of His people.

Before You Go...


I have served the same small congregation for over seven years now. I am not one of those who would consider myself to have had phenomenal success in the ministry--by most metrics. We did not grow exponentially and send out a dozen missionaries and pastors. We have grown. We have shrunk. We have grown again.

I have had discontent individuals complain over the fact that our church did not have enough elderly members, not enough programs, an unpaved parking lot, that I did not dress nicely enough, that my wife looks too young, there are too many kids, that there are not enough kids, that we sing too many old hymns, that we do not sing enough old hymns, and so on. There seems to be no shortage of illegitimate reasons why people leave a local church in which they are truly loved, pastored, and held up in prayer.

When members leave for unbiblical reasons, the faithful pastor has to fight the unsanctified tendency to envy the churches around me that appear to be more successful on account of their attendance. The faithful pastor is tempted to sometimes too quickly label other pastors as "wolves," "sellouts," or "ear-itchers." The faithful pastor has to listen to all kinds of suggestions from people in the church about what they think would make the church grow with discernment and the consensus of the eldership without attempting everything or rejecting everything. The faithful pastor has to preach the gospel to himself regularly and remember that it is ultimately God who grows the church. As a dear friend and pastor once told me after a church split, "Chris, God did not call you to be successful; He called you to be faithful."

No matter the size of the church you attend, your pastor is always aware that there are bigger churches. He is assaulted and accused by the evil one, and he struggles with the balance between viewing himself as both the sinner and the child of God. He often wonders whether the church would be better off with another pastor, but loves the congregation too much to leave.

Your pastor probably will never tell you many of the things that he struggles with internally because he doesn't want to discourage you. You need to know he has thought about quitting everything and taking up a secular job. You need to know that he feels the sting of betrayal when someone leaves the church. You need to know that he weeps when the sheep bite and run away.

You need to know these things in order to know how to encourage your pastor. You cannot force people to stay, but you can keep yourself from contributing to the pastor's sorrow. These things will also make you a better servant of the Kingdom of God.

If you are a member of a church, take a good look around at the churches in your area. Talk to pastors, visit services, and focus on the major elements. Is the theology sound? Is the preaching consistent? Are they organized by scriptural principles regarding leadership, church membership, and discipline? Be critical in your search, but be expedient, and set your roots. Here are six things to keep in mind before you decide to leave a local congregation:

1. Be in the church. First, this means to actually attend services. When the doors are open, and it is possible for you to be there, be there. Secondly, it means being in the church, dedicated and emotionally attached. Are there difficult people in the church? That's a wonderful opportunity for you to treat them with the love of Christ! Are there old hymns you do not know? Wonderful! You can examine the theology of those hymns and learn while you try to sing. Are there little children that get bored and distracted during the sermon? Great! You now have tiny souls that you are reminded to pray for and you have opportunity to encourage parents as they raise their children in the faith. Examine yourself with a flood lamp and your pastor with a candle.

2. Do not be concerned with other local churches. This goes two ways. Do not be consumed with how awful some churches in your area appear, and do not be consumed with how great other churches seem to be. While not absolutely the same, there is roughly a parallel between the relationship of the church and that of marriage. Looking around and comparing your spouse to other people you know is fatal. One of the best lessons we can learn from Song of Solomon is the way in which the spouses are instant with songs of praise for the other. God put you in a particular church at this time and it will only be destructive to be "browsing." When other gospel-preaching churches are growing in your area, praise God for working in them, and return to serving the local congregation to which you have committed. Resist the urge to nurture the thought, "Would I be happier if I were there?" The grass only looks greener over there. You almost certainly cannot see the thorns.

3. Bloom where you are planted. God put you there to serve him, to grow, glorify His name, and be an ambassador for His kingdom. Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.

4. Do not idolize the "internet pastor." By all means, listen to the sermons of great men. Read books by gifted theologians and pastors. Find ministries that are doctrinally sound and glean from them. But remember, those men do not know you, they do not pray for you, they will not visit you when you are sick or on the brink of a divorce. Your pastor may not be as brilliant or eloquent, but a big part of it is that he is spending his time tending the flock while the theologian is reading and writing. Your pastor is aware that he is not Charles Spurgeon.

5. Do not leave lightly. After someone leaves a congregation on account of discontentment, there is a stall in the growth of the saints--especially for the pastor. Your pastor has been praying for you, preparing spiritual meals for you, and striving to serve you. Even if you leave and another person comes, he will feel the pain of your departure. Keep in mind that when a congregant leaves because of unbiblical discontentment, your pastor will be tempted to start believing that he is unfit for ministry. There is not a scriptural precedence for leaving a true church, and I am convinced that it is sin to leave for reasons other than moving, church-planting, or significant and clear biblical reasons.

6. If you do move on from a particular congregation, leave in peace. It is always a temptation for a departing person or family to try to take the best with them. This is divisiveness and sinful. Unless the church you left is a full-blown cult teaching heresy, do not poach sheep. You sin against Christ's bride by luring others away. If you are leaving for legitimate reasons, be honest with your elders about those reasons, but be tactful and brief if you must explain to others so that you do not sow seeds of discord.

I understand the appeal of reliving that church honeymoon period where everyone is nice to you and whatever work you do is thoroughly applauded. I believe Satan's most effective tactic is often to keep Christians impotent by moving them from church to church. When he does, there is perpetual delay to the work to which they once belonged. Your pastor does his best work when he is encouraged by the spiritual growth and commitment of the saints.

I pray that God presses these things upon your heart in such a way that you can best serve Him in His church. To God be the glory.

Chris Marley is the pastor of Miller Valley Baptist Church in Prescott, AZ. Chris has a M.Div. from Westminster Seminary California (from the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies).

The Church Jesus Attends


A friend of mine was recently speaking to a pastor of a large congregation about how things were going in ministry. This particular pastor proceeded to tell my friend that a prominent public figure was coming to speak at the church he pastored. He then went on to boast about the large turnout that they expected at this event. To this, my friend said, "Oh yeah. Jesus comes to our church every Sunday." Though some might consider this to be a flippant, cynical or juvenile response, it is, in fact, one of the most under-acknowledged and under-appreciated truths to cherish. In every church where the word of God is faithfully proclaimed, the sacraments are rightly observed and discipline is administered, God has promised to attend His people with His presence. 

The true and living God has promised to manifest His presence when His people gather together to worship Him according to His appointed means of grace on the Lord's Day. If we really believed that God manifests His presence in a special way in the gathered assembly, we would prepare ourselves accordingly to come into His presence. We would prayerfully desire to come every Lord's Day in brokenness, humility, thankfulness and joy. We would, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, "draw near with boldness" (Heb. 4:16) as we come to worship Him in "reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28).

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul explained that Christ "came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near" (Eph. 2:17). The question is, "When did Jesus go to the church in Ephesus and preach to those who would come to believe the Gospel?" There is only one possible answer. Christ was present in the preaching of the Gospel through the ministers He appointed. When the word is faithfully preached, Christ is preaching. The Apostle Peter explained this when he referred to Gospel ministers as "those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven" (1 Peter 1:12). The Holy Spirit is none other than "the Spirit of Christ" who spoke in the Old Testament prophets about the sufferings of Christ and the glories that follow (1 Peter 1:10-11). It was "by the Spirit" (1 Peter 3:18) that Jesus went and preached to those who were on the earth "in the days of Noah" (1 Peter 3:20). Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) through whom Christ was preaching by the Holy Spirit. So it is with those men whom Christ has commissioned to preach today. Whenever Gospel ministers are preaching the word of God to the people of God through the Spirit of God, Christ is preaching through them. In a very real sense, in every true church where the word is faithfully proclaimed, the risen and reigning Christ is the minister who is preaching salvation and judgment.

The people of God should love Lord's Day worship more than anything because of the confident anticipation that they are going to hear from God. The late Professor John Murray gave the following observation about God's word:

"The Scripture is God speaking--as if we heard the word of God directly from heaven...I suppose that if we were told that at a certain location, on a certain day, at a certain hour a voice was to be heard from heaven--I suppose that if that were plainly certified...I am sure that all that community would be filled with people from hundreds of miles away. They would come from countries. I don't suppose that the fields would hold them. They would be there out of curiosity, if for no other reason. And yet, in the Scripture we have the voice of God just as surely as if God the Father spoke directly from heaven in an audible voice. And it is more sure (2 Peter 1:19) because it is more permanent...with the Scripture there is a permanent deposit and it is the voice of God with continuousness. And, it is the voice of God just as if we heard God speaking to us directly from heaven."1

We should also acknowledge that Jesus is present at the table when believers are gathered together in worship to feed on him by faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the corporate nature of the Lord's Supper in chapter 29.3:

"The Lord Jesus has, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation."

The corporate nature of the Supper is taught in 1 Corinthians when the Apostle came to address matters of the Supper. Paul repeatedly uses the phrase "when you come together," after explicitly tying the observation of the Super to the weekly assembly on the Lord's Day. In 1 Corinthians 11:18, he writes, "When you come together as a church..." After that, he repeats the phrase, "when you come together" three times (1 Cor. 11:20, 33 and 34). If there is any question about the meaning of this phrase, Paul again uses it when addressing how we are to conduct ourselves in the worship service (1 Cor. 14:26).

Then in WCF 29.7, we find the doctrine of the real, spiritual presence of Christ at the table when the divines assert the following:

"Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses."

There is the promise of the covenant blessing of God attached to the worthy partaking of the sacrament. Paul writes, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16). There is also the promise of covenant curses attached to the unworthy partaking of the sacrament in the warnings of 1 Cor. 11:27-32.

Finally, there is the promise of Jesus being present when the church gathers to carry out discipline, according to his word. Murray again explained:

"Many have more respect for the presence of people than the presence of the Savior. And, if numbers are the criteria for our esteem for the presence of God then we miss entirely the comfort of our Lord where he says, 'Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of them.'"2

Jesus is highlighting the collective nature of the judicial pronouncement of the elders of his church when he promises to make his presence known in this context. It is with a view of the church collectively conceived (Matt. 18:17)--making a judgment about the spiritual condition of a professing believer who refuses to repent. Jesus is promising his presence to the gathered assembly who are seeking to obediently carry out his ordained process of discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:3-5).

Jesus Christ is the King and the only head of the church. He mediates the presence of God to his people when he stands in the midst of the people of God who are gathered together to worship the living God. Jesus acts as the worship leader of the people of God (Heb. 2:12). He stands as the great High Priest of the Church, making the worship, prayers and praises of his people acceptable before the throne of God (Rev. 1:12-20). Whenever the people of God are gathered together to worship God in Spirit and in truth, according to the means that He has appointed for His church, God is present. Why wouldn't we long to be gathered together with the people of God every Lord's Day to listen to our great God and Savior speak, to receive his sacrificial service and to acknowledge his rule over us?


1. An excerpt from John Murray's sermon, "Holy Scripture."

2. An excerpt from Murray's sermon, "Christ Among His People."

A Word from an Alliance Board Member


Thomas Martin, member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals board of directors, reflects on the legacy of R.C. Sproul and his relationship with the Alliance:

When James Boice died of liver cancer in June of 2000, his close friend R. C. Sproul was asked to speak at the memorial service. As Sproul rose to the pulpit, he reminded the crowd (as he often did) of a historic parallel. Philip Melanchthon, at Martin Luther's funeral in 1546, compared the death of Luther to the heavenly ascension of Elijah (the prophet whose very name meant "Yahweh is God!"). Melanchthon quoted  Elisha's lament at the loss of his dear friend and mentor: 

"And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

"And Elisha saw it, and he cried, 'My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.' And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

"He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;

"And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, 'Where is the Lord God of Elijah?' and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over" (2 Kings 2:11-14). 

It took a few hours for the death of R.C. Sproul to sink into my soul. R.C. was a giant, and a true Christian. Imperfect, to be sure, yet a man with a genuine heart and love for Jesus. He exemplified the work of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. In a real sense, I had the feeling that the Alliance came about because Jim Boice wanted others to know R.C. Sproul as he did: a man catholic in spirit, but unbending in the truth of the holy Scriptures.

Now both are gone. Others must carry on, and we shrink from the reality that we no longer have R.C. to share in the work of the Kingdom of God. We want to cry out "My father! My father!" Yet we see him no more. 

We must recall that even in his sorrow, Elisha "took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him." The power of God is not diminished by the loss of God's saints. As John Wesley wrote: "God buries His workers and carries on His work." May the God of Elijah, the God of Jim Boice, and the God of R.C. Sproul carry on His work until Jesus comes again.

-Thomas Martin 

The Alliance is offering free R.C. Sproul MP3 downloads from Alliance conferences spanning over 30 years. Head to for your free download. 



Our prayers today are with the family of R.C. Sproul, who has been called home to glory. Read his eulogy below, written by Rick Phillips...

We grieve today at the news of R. C. Sproul's departure from this life, while so blessed at the knowledge that he basks in the glory of the Savior he served and loved.  

In mourning our loss of this great preacher and church leader, my mind searches back to the early 1990's, when what is now called the Reformed Resurgence was only an envisioned hope.  I was converted to faith in Christ in 1990 under the preaching of R.C.'s close friend, James Montgomery Boice.  This meant that I soon was exposed to the live phenomenon of R. C. Sproul in the pulpit in the prime of his vigor.  I had never and never will see again such a combination of passion, intellect, and theological courage.  Those of us who were swept up into the Reformed faith during those years were blessed with a band of true pulpit heroes: Boice, Eric Alexander, J. I. Packer, John Gerstner, and others.  But even in that band of astounding men of vision and gospel power, R. C. Sproul stood out.  He was a lion in our midst, and when he roared we lifted up our hearts to God in faith.  For so many of us in the generation that followed these prophets, experiencing R. C. first hand at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and then the Ligonier Conference, inserting the much-anticipated tape-of-the-month cassette into our car stereos, and hearing the life-changing audio recording of R.C.'s The Holiness of God impacted us so deeply that we raced forward to lay our own swords at the feet of Christ.  God dramatically changed our lives through the voice of R. C. Sproul and we have loved him for it.

I have been one of many who are privileged to have known R. C. personally, though I would not claim to be an intimate.  A few remembrances might illuminate the personal charm that accompanied the pulpit brilliance.  In late 1997, council members of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals gathered at a hotel in Orlando to draft a response to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement (ECT II).  I was present as aide-de-camp to Dr. Boice, being still in seminary and new to the organization.  Our first night, Boice thought it appropriate to introduce me and so he started in on a lengthy bio of Rick Phillips.  About 10 seconds into it, R. C. interrupted and said, "Jim, is this your guy?"  Boice testily replied, "If you don't mind, R. C., I'd like to continue."  Twenty seconds later, R. C. interjected, "Jim, we don't really care about any of this.  Is Rick your guy?"  Boice again brushed aside R. C.'s interruption and continued.  Finally, R. C. exclaimed, "Jim, we really don't want to listen to this.  All we want to know is if this is your guy."  Boice replied, "Yes, R. C., he is my guy."  At this, R. C. gave me that impish grin of his and said, "Hi, Ricky.  If you're Jim Boice's guy then we're pals!"  And so we were, much to my blessing.

For that meeting, Boice and Sproul each brought proposed replies to ECT II and all we did was put them together into a unified document ("An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals").  Then we held a conference call with the evangelical leaders who had participated in and were promoting the joint accord with Rome.  To describe this conversation as alarming and distressing is an understatement, and we went to bed dejected that evangelical scholars could, in our view, so terribly compromise the gospel.  The next morning we slumped together in the hotel breakfast area.  But R. C. perked up and said, "Boys, we have found a hill to die on!  We sing Luther's hymn, 'let goods and kindred go,' and now's the time to do it!"  For a young minister in training, it was an electrifying experience.  R. C.'s stalwart leadership in defense of justification through faith alone was one of his great accomplishments, and his clarity of insight and courage of spirit were essential in rallying the gospel cause.  Only a few short years after that experience, I had the task of giving R. C. daily reports on the rapid decline of Jim Boice's health, and we wept together on the phone after I had told him of his best friend's passage into glory.

These experiences come to mind as I thank the Lord for the life and witness of R. C. Sproul.  I might add numerous personal acts of kindness that he and Vesta performed for my wife and me, together with his warmth of heart and humor that made his great ministry so wonderfully human.  Because he took hard stands for gospel truth, there have been those who disliked R. C., just as Spurgeon had enemies and critics.  But he was a lion in our midst and the call of his voice will resound in our hearts until we are rejoined to this captain and leader in the glories about which we have so joyfully sung here below.  

But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
Allelujah!  Allelujah!

-- Richard Phillips.

The Cost of Leadership


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?

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.