Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Ecclesiology

WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.

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TRUE WORSHIP

 

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David the psalmist giving thanks

 

What does it mean to worship God?  Different churches have different ideas on the subject.  Some have very elaborate formal liturgical “services.”   Some are more informal and emotionally expressive, with raised hands, shouting and hand clapping.  And in some churches nowadays the “worship service” is virtually a rock concert.  But what does God think about all of this?

The apostle Paul gives us a clue in Ephesians 5:18-21 (and in a parallel passage in Col. 3:14-17).  He tells the believers in Ephesus not to be drunk with wine, “but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Eph. 5:18-20; NKJV).

To understand this passage it is necessary to know the context.  We today think we know what worship it, based on our own experience.  But the church experience of First Century Christians was very different from ours.  In fact, if we could go back in time to the First Century and sit in one of their meetings we would hardly recognize it.

For one thing, there were no church buildings per se.  There was no professional clergy, no choirs and organs, and no Sunday schools.  How did they manage to function, then?  “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46).  This suggests that First Century church life functioned on two levels.  First, there were large public gatherings where unbelievers might be present – this may be what is described in I Corinthians 14; and secondly there were smaller gatherings in private homes.  It is in these small home groups that the Lord’s Table was observed, perhaps on the model of the Jewish Passover meal (cf. I Cor. 11).  Thus church life tended to be less formal and more intimate that what we are accustomed to today.

What, then, does Paul say about worship?  First of all, it is fundamentally an act of praise directed towards God Himself.  The object is to be “giving thank always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . (Eph. 5:20).  A hymn should be a kind of prayer addressed to God, and when we gather for worship we should be consciously entering into the presence of God to praise Him and thank Him for all that He is and all that He has done.  Worship is not supposed to be a form of entertainment, in which the congregation sits passively in the pews and listens to someone else sing to them.  Rather, they are to be actively engaged in praising God.

But what should the congregation sing?  According to Paul it is “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19; cf. Col. 3:16).  Exactly how Paul meant to distinguish the three is not exactly clear.  However “psalms” certainly includes the psalms of the Old Testament.  But it is entirely possible that the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” include songs with a specifically Christian content, and suggestions have been made that there are fragments of such hymns scattered throughout the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:14; Col. 1:15-20; I Tim 3:16 and II Tim. 2:11-13).  And it is even possible that some of the songs used in early Christian worship were ecstatic utterances immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. I Cor. 14:26).

The important thing, however, is that worshippers  should be singing from the heart, “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19).  Too often we dishonor God through our listless, half-hearted “worship.”

“. . . these people draw near with their mouths

And honor Me with their lips,

But have removed their hearts far from Me,

And their fear toward Me is taught by the

commandment of men . . .”

(Isa. 29:13).

Rather, God expects us to “make a joyful shout to the Lord . . .” (Ps. 100:1).  When we worship, we should act like we are genuinely grateful for what God has done for us.  Sometimes we insult God through faint praise.

But most importantly, our worship should be driven by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Eph. 5:18-21 forms a single sentence, and the main thought in the sentence is “be filled with the Spirit” – the main verb being “be filled” (v. 18); all the rest of the sentence elaborates on what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.”  In what way?  By “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  Worship is supposed to a spiritual activity driven and motivated by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, giving us a sense of God’s awesome majesty, His unapproachable holiness, and His condescending love.

But what about musical style?  How should the music be performed?  We must be careful here – historically the church has employed everything from Gregorian chant to shaped-note hymns to rock bands.  Perhaps the biggest failure in both traditional and contemporary styles of worship is the lack of artistic expression.  Too often every song sounds alike.  The musicians sometimes act as if they were not thinking about what they are singing.  Christian music should reflect the whole range of Christian experience, and that should be reflected in the way the music is performed.  The music should express the content of the words.

And what about Christian rock music?  I want to be cautious here, but Christian music, if it is genuinely Christian, should reflect Christian values.  In other words, it should be marked by the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  If our music comes across to outsiders as “in-your-face” and “head-banging” it is conveying the wrong message.

To worship God, then, is to

“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,

And into His courts with praise.

Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.

For the Lord is good;

His mercy is everlasting,]

And His truth endures to all generations.”

(Ps. 100:4,5).

TRUE WORSHIP

 

solomons_temple1

Model of Solomon’s Temple

What is worship?  And why do we do it at all?  In some traditional churches it is little more than a mere formality, or even second rate entertainment if a choir or soloist is involved.  In other churches it is a thinly disguised rock concert.  But what is worship really supposed to be like?

Psalm 100 gives us a brief but comprehensive view of true worship.  It is divided into two stanzas, and each stanza gives us both a “how” and a “why.”

The psalm begins by exhorting us to:

“Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!

Serve the Lord with gladness;

Come before His presence with singing.”

(vv. 1,2; NKJV)

The first thing to be noted is that true worship is directed toward God.  “Make a joyful shout to the Lord.”  Worship is not supposed to be a form of entertainment.  It is not a choir or soloist singing to the congregation; it is the congregation singing to God.  It is a means of expressing our love and devotion to Him.

Secondly, there ought to be a real sense of being in the very presence of God Himself when we worship.  We are to “come before His presence.”  It is not enough merely to be present in a church building.  It is our relationship with God Himself that counts.

Worship, moreover, is not to be a dull, mechanical exercise, a mere formality to be endured for the sake of tradition.  We are to “make a joyful shout,” “Serve (or worship) the Lord with gladness,” and “Come before His presence with singing,” or “a joyful cry,” as the word might be translated.  The idea here is that our worship ought to arise out of a sense of genuine joy (“gladness”) in our hearts.  God is not honored by grudging praise.  What He wants to see are people who are genuinely excited by having Him as their God.

But why should we bother?  What is the point?  The psalm goes on to tell us to

“Know that the Lord, He is God:

It was He who made us, and not we ourselves;

We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.”

(v. 3).

First of all, we are to understand that the Lord is God.  He is the Supreme Being, the Ruler of the universe.  Secondly, He is our Creator: “It was He who made us.”  We would not exist at all if He had not made us.  We owe our very existence to Him.

Furthermore, “We are His people.”  The ancient Israelites could say this because they were God’s chosen people with whom He had made a covenant.  Christians can say the same thing because they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  He bought us, therefore we are His.

But significantly we are “the sheep of His pasture.”  The word translated “pasture” more properly refers to the act of pasturing or shepherding.  God actively watches over us, protects us and provides for our needs, and for this we should be genuinely grateful.

The second stanza begins by exhorting us to

“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,

And into His courts with praise.

Be thankful to Him, and bless his name.”

(v. 4)

What is pictured here, of course, is the ancient temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by courtyards and accessible through gates.  Three times a year, during the great Jewish feasts, worshippers would throng the temple courts to worship God.  And so we too are to engage in public worship, and “be thankful to Him, and bless His name.”

But why?

“For the Lord is good,

His mercy is everlasting,

And His truth endures to all generations.”

(v. 5)

What does it mean when it says that “the Lord is good”?  The verse goes on to explain.  God’s goodness consists of two basic character traits that are found in Him.  The first of these is “mercy,” or as it might better be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).  It is God’s kindness in bestowing favors and benefits on His creatures.  The second quality is “truth,” or as it might better be translated “faithfulness” (NASV, ESV).  This refers to God’s firm reliability, consistency and trustworthiness.  It is what enables us to trust in Him implicitly.

Moreover these attributes are “everlasting” and endure “to all generations.”  Everything we experience here on earth is subject to change, and is therefore unreliable: “here today, gone tomorrow.”  But above it all is God, eternal and unchanging.  We can count on Him to be the same forever.

What all of this means is that we do not live in a universe governed by chance and blind, purposeless natural processes.  Rather it is ruled by God, an infinite but personal Supreme Being.  Nor is He some malevolent despot in the sky, but a God whose designs are benevolent and whose word can be trusted.  For us this makes all the difference between glorious hope and the utter despair of those without God.

That hope should be reflected in our worship.  We should consciously enter into God’s presence and lift up our voices to praise Him.  And our praise ought to flow from hearts that are genuinely filled with love for God and joy over all that He has done for us.  To Him be the glory!

 

WHY SMALL GROUP BIBLE STUDIES

dscn0949

East Troupsburg Baptist Church, Troupsburg, NY

 

Today we think we know what a church is – an organization that owns a building and hires a pastor who comes in from the outside to run things.  The church puts on a variety of programs and activities, and on Sunday mornings gathers together in the building to go through a formal routine which involves a brief prayer, some congregational singing and “special music,” and a message from the pastor.  In the more traditional churches there might be a choir wearing special robes, responsive Scripture readings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or Apostles’ Creed.  And then everyone goes home, enjoys their Sunday dinner, and gets on with the rest of life.

It may come a shock, therefore, that that is not how the church in the New Testament operated at all.  First of all, there were no church buildings.  How, then, you ask, did they gather for worship?  “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart . . .” (Acts 2:46; NKJV).  The primitive church apparently operated on two levels: on the one level was the entire Christian community of a given metropolitan area – the church at Corinth or Ephesus, for example – and then there were smaller groups that met in individual homes – the church that met in Priscilla’s and Aquila’s house, for example (Rom. 16:3-5; I Cor. 16:19).

Moreover, a church in the New Testament was not under the control of a single pastor, or “senior pastor.”   The church was not his personal domain to govern as he wished.  Rather churches in the New Testament were under the oversight of boards of elders, spiritually mature men who were chosen from within the congregation.

But must we imitate the New Testament church today?  That was then, and now is now.  We live in the Twenty-First Century, not the First.

The answer is yes and no.  Just because something was done then does not necessarily mean it must be done now.  But it must always be remembered that Christ is the Head of the church; our aim must always be to please Him.  The real question, then, is how did Christ intend for the church to operate?

In answering that question we must distinguish between passages of Scripture that are prescriptive and those that are merely descriptive.  Just because we are told in the Book of Acts that a church did something 2,000 years ago does not mean that we have to do that today.  But the prescriptive passages, passages that command us to do something, are binding on us today.  They tell us how the church is supposed to operate.

The first thing to consider, then, is the general nature of the church itself.  It is not primarily a legally incorporated organization that owns property, nor is it a mere social club.  Rather, it is “the communion of the saints,” a group of born-again believers bound together by the common bond of the Holy Spirit in a kind of mystical union with Christ himself.  The church, in fact, is referred to in the New Testament as “the body of Christ” (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:11-16) or as a kind of building or temple (Eph. 2:19-22: I Pet. 2:5).  This is a mystical bond that transcends ethic and cultural boundaries (Gal. 3:26-29).  And the Scripture makes it clear that each member of the body has a spiritual gift and a corresponding role to play within the body (I Cor. 12:14-30: Eph. 4:7-16; I Pet. 4:10,11).  That means that if a church is functioning properly all of its members should be actively involved in the work of ministry.

The next thing to be considered is the responsibility that the members of the church have towards each other.  The most basic responsibility, of course, is to love one another, and this is mentioned in numerous passages throughout the New Testament.  But what does that mean in actual practice?  First of all, it means that all the members must be zealous to preserve the unity of the church (Eph. 4:1-4; Col. 3:14,15).  That in turn means that decisions are to be made by consensus (Rom. 12:16; 15:5,6; I Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27; 2:1-4; I Pet. 3:8,9).  We are to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21), and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We should seek to build up one another (Rom. 14:19; I Thess. 5:11).

But how is this to be accomplished?  First of all, we are to admonish one another (Rom. 15:14); and pray for one another (Eph. 6:18) and with each other (Matt. 18:19,20).  We are to speak to one another “in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” ((Eph. 5:18,19; Col. 3:16).  We are to provide financial aid to those in need ((Rom. 12:13; I Tim. 6:17-19; I Jn. 3:14-18), and we are to restore those overtaken in sin (Gal. 6:1).

What all of this requires is that we meet together on a regular basis.  “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24,25).  And Christ himself has promised that “where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).*

What all of this virtually requires is some sort of small group interaction, in which believers have the opportunity to know each other on a personal level and interact with each other.  It is also significant that most of these exhortations are addressed to entire churches, but the elders are practically never mentioned by name.  The spiritual life of the church is the responsibility of all of its members and each one must do his part.  In my experience the spiritually healthier churches supplement the Sunday morning service with some sort of small group interaction in which committed disciples study the Bible together and pray together.  This is as Christ intended it to be.

 

*It is significant that He says “in My name.”  It is not to be primarily in a denomination’s name ((I Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).

WOMEN’S HEADCOVERINGS?

 

4.2.7

Lorenzo di Credi,  The Annunciation

Review:

The Truth of Headship and Its Symbolic Practice:

A Study of God’s Grace & Government

Stephen Hulshizer

Spread the Word

50 pp.; pb

 

Stephen Hulshizer raises a question about a practice not often observed today, viz., the practice of women wearing headcoverings in public worship.  Years ago it was a common practice for women to wear hats in church, yet nowadays it is rarely seen except in a few small groups such as conservative Mennonites with their distinctive coverings.  Yet there is a passage of Scripture that seems to enjoin it – I Corinthians 11:2-16.  Is this, then, a practice we should be observing today?

Mr. Hulshizer is associated with a fellowship of believers known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren.”  In his booklet “The Truth of Headship” he argues the case for women wearing headcoverings in public worship.  It is a thought provoking study to say the least.

Mr. Hulshizer begins by laying out the general principles of God’s government of the universe.  From the very beginning the universe was structured in such a way that everything was subject to some sort of authority, with everything ultimately subject to God’s authority.  Mr. Hulshizer traces the great biblical themes of creation, fall and redemption to show that the governing principle is “loving authority and willing submission.”  When man fell he rebelled against God’s authority and created a dysfunctional state of affairs as a result.  The purpose of redemption, by the same token, is to restore creation back to its original state of harmony, and with it the basic principle of authority and submission.  This observation is especially striking, coming as it does from a teacher from among “the brethren in the assemblies,” since the sharp dispensational contrast between “law” and “grace” can be traced back to one of their early leaders, John Nelson Darby.

Mr. Hulshizer points out that the Father is the Head of Christ, Christ is the Head of man, and man is the head of woman.  This sounds like a radical proposition today, but it goes right to the heart  of what ails contemporary society – our casting aside of authority altogether.  We talk endlessly about “freedom” and “equality,” but cannot make a marriage work with all of its duties and responsibilities.

With all of this in mind Mr. Hulshizer turns to the passage in question, I Corinthians 11: 2-16.  On the surface the passage seems clear enough: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head [i.e., her husband . . .] (v. 5; NKJV).  But there is a problem here.  The passage seems to imply that a woman may pray or prophesy as long as she has her head covered.  But I Cor.14:34 specifically states, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak . . .” The commentators have long puzzled over this.  John Calvin took the position that “when the apostle disapproves of the one thing here he is not giving his approval to the other” (Commentary on passage).  Mr. Hulshizer takes a similar position.  In his view I Cor. 14:34,35 absolutely forbids women to speak in public worship.  Thererfore, in Mr. Hulshizer’s view, I Cor. 11:4,5 condemns two different things simultaneously: women leading in prayer and having their heads uncovered in public worship.  But his exegesis here is forced.  Passage is clearly describing a woman praying or prophesying.  It tells us how she should comport herself when she does so.  It does not say that she should not pray or prophesy.

The answer, as we have suggested before, is that I Cor. 11 apparently small private gatherings where the Lord’s Table was observed, while I Cor. 14 discusses what should happen when “the whole church comes together in one place” where unbelievers might be present (vv. 22-24).  In fact, it could be argued that the whole purpose of the headcovering is to permit women to pray or prophesy while still recognizing their husbands’ authority.  Prophesy was clearly a spiritual gift that some women had (Acts 21:9), and was a gift that should be encouraged (I Cor. 14:1, 5; I Thess. 5:19,20).

But does the passage in I Cor. 11 require women to wear some sort of hat or scarf on their heads?  Mr. Hulshizer points out that “there is a definite action implied in the text with regard to being covered or uncovered” (p. 38 – you “covered” your head or “uncovered” your head, implying that you are putting on or taking off something).  He also notes that simply having long hair was all that Paul had in mind verse 6 would be a nonsense statement (“For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn,” i.e. if she is not covered, let her be uncovered).  The Greek terminology that Paul employs in the passage suggests that what he had in mind was some sort of shawl or mantle that a woman can pull up over her hair, effectively covering it.

But isn’t the practice of a woman covering her head merely a cultural adaptation?  Something that applied to ancient Middle Eastern society, but not to us today?  But Paul goes back to the order of creation, appeals to the sensibilities of angels, and concludes by saying “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (v. 16), all of which transcend local culture and custom.

What shall we say, then?  Mr. Hulshizer raises an important question but gives a faulty answer.  Women praying and prophesying in small private gatherings are clearly in view in I Cor. 11, but they are required to wear something on their heads when doing so.

The passage should clearly be given more serious consideration than it is today, and we are grateful to Mr. Hulshizer for raising the subject.

THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH

 

173

Paul in Athens

Review:

Characteristics of a New Testament Church

Robert Gessner

Spread the Word, 2000

24 pp., p.b.

 

Robert Gessner is affiliated with a fellowship of believers generally known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren,” although they themselves eschew any denominational titles.  In Characteristics of a New Testament Church he has given us a brief but thought provoking study on what a New Testament church should look like.  It is certainly a subject worthy of consideration by any genuine Bible believing Christian.

Much of what Mr. Gessner has to say is obviously true and many of the issues he raises need to be taken seriously by Christians today.  He points out, for example, that in the New Testament there was no distinction between “clergy” and “laity,” that denominationalism is unscriptural, that teaching in the church should be based solidly on Scripture, that prayer is central to the life of the church, and that there should be room for the exercise of spiritual gifts.  He is also quite correct in criticizing modern churches for the ways they try to increase membership and raise funds.  To all of this we can only say a hearty “amen”!

In some other areas, however, he wades into treacherous waters.  He tries to argue, for example, that the Lord’s Supper “ought to be given absolute priority over every other meeting of the church” (p. 2).  Yet when we read the general description of a New Testament church in the Book of Acts, the Lord’s Supper, while it is obviously important, is listed as just one of several different activities (Acts 2:42,46).

Mr. Gessner also raises the difficult but important question about the role of women in the church.  Here he runs into the apparent contradiction between I Cor. 14, in which women are instructed to remain silent, and I Cor. 11, in which women are described as praying or prophesying, albeit with an appropriate head covering.  The apparent solution to the problem is that the early church appears to have functioned on two different levels.  According to Acts 2:46, the early Christians in Jerusalem were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house . . .” (NKJV).  What this suggests is that there were large public meetings in the temple and small gatherings in private homes.  Elsewhere in the New Testament we are told of city churches in places like Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalanika, and of house churches (e.g., Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15).  Very likely, then, I Cor. 11 describes small gatherings in private homes where the Lord’s Supper was observed, while I Cor. 15 describes larger public gatherings where unbelievers might be present.  Women, then, were allowed to pray and prophesy in the house assemblies, albeit with their heads covered, but were not permitted to speak in the larger public meetings.

Mr. Gessner says that “the word of God is very clear and explicit” that women should remain silent and wear head coverings (p. 16).  Yet the assumption on the part of many expositors is that the head covering was a cultural adaptation, and Mr. Gessner does not furnish us with an exegesis of I Cor. 11:3-16.  (A strong case can be argued, however, that the passage is in fact enjoining the practice of women wearing head coverings).

Mr. Gessner, of course, is not the first person to consider what the Bible has to say about the church, and theologians from a couple of the denominations that he criticizes (Presbyterians, Baptists) have written extensively on the subject.  Yet the fact remains that over time the older denominations drifted away from their biblical moorings and settled into an institutionalized pattern of church life that bore little resemblance to that of the early church.  Instead of being close-knit fellowships of Spirit-filled believers, they have become purely human organizations managed by professional clergy.  They adopted practices and procedures that had no warrant in Scripture and contributed nothing to the spiritual life of the people.  The churches spiritually became lifeless corpses.

Mr. Gessner’s little booklet, then, raises some valid questions, and the Evangelical community at large would do well to take those questions seriously.

HOW THE CHURCH IS SUPPOSED TO WORK

 

We have already seen in our studies in Ephesians that all genuine believers are a part of the universal church, which is described as “the body of Christ.”  We have also seen that we are to be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3; NKJV).  But how is this possible?  Given the highly fragmented church scene today, how could we ever achieve church unity?

Part of our problem is that the church today does not function the way it was intended to.  Today when we see the word “church” in our Bibles we think that we know what it means.  We automatically think of an organization that meets in a building and has a paid pastor brought in from the outside to run the various programs and activities of the church.  Most of the church members simply show up on a Sunday morning and sit passively in their pews while the church runs through the program outlined in the bulletin.  There is music, there is an offering to defray expenses, and there is a comforting message delivered by the pastor.

That, however, is not how a church is supposed to function.  What we have inherited from the past is an institutional model of church life that slowly evolved over the centuries.  But it is very far from what is described in the New Testament.

In Eph. 4:7-16 the apostle Paul gives us an overall picture of how the church is supposed to operate.  The first thing that is to be noted is that the ministry involves the exercise of spiritual gifts.  “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (4:7).  “Grace,” in this context, is the special ability to perform a spiritual ministry, and it is something that is given by Christ Himself through the Holy Spirit.  It is not a diploma received from an academic institution.  There are people who have never darkened the doors of a college or seminary who have the spiritual gift of teaching.  Sadly, there are many who have seminary degrees who do not.  Our text says that individuals have these gifts “according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” i.e., it is up to Christ to decide which Christian has which gift.  Our job is to discern who has which gift, not to create a gift which has not been given.

Secondly, it should be noted that every member of the church has a spiritual gift of some sort.  “But to each one of us grace was given.”  Thus ministry is not the exclusive prerogative of the paid professional.  Rather, all the members of the church should be actively involved in ministering to each other.

Some of the gifts, of course, do involve a formal teaching ministry, and Paul lists these in verse 11: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . .”  In this context the term “apostles” evidently refers to the twelve original apostles who functioned as the personal representatives of Christ and were the human founders of the church.  There is much debate today, of course, about whether or not the gift of prophecy still exists, but there is no clear indication in the New Testament that it was meant to cease, and there have been incidents of prophecy down through history that appear authentic.  “Evangelists” would probably be what we would call today missionaries – traveling preachers who would parent churches.  There would have no distinction in Paul’s day between foreign and domestic missions.  Anyone who was sent to preach the gospel to the lost was an evangelist.  And then, of course, there were pastors and teachers, who would typically occupy the office of elder in a local assembly.

But what is the aim of the teaching ministry?  Paul tells us that it is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12).  In other words, the aim here is not to concentrate ministry in the hands of a single person or a small professional staff, but rather to make it possible for everyone in the church to use their individual spiritual gifts to minister to each other.

But what does this accomplish?  The passage makes it clear that the ultimate aim of the ministry is spiritual unity: “that we all come to the unity of the faith” (v. 13).  And how is this accomplished?  By coming to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  And this, in turn, means that “we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the treachery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (v .14).  In other words, doctrine, truly sound doctrine, should unite rather than divide.  And it does this by drawing us each closer to Christ, and as we each draw closer to Christ we draw closer to each other, like an ever constricting circle.  Thus, “speaking the truth in love” we are to “grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ” (v. 15).  The unity of the universal church depends on a common relationship with Christ Himself.  Or, to put it another way, the Holy Spirit does not lead different parts of the body in different directions at the same time.  If we are all truly following Christ then we should all be headed in the same direction.

The end result should be that “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).  Here it will be noted that “the whole body,” not just a privileged few, has an important role to play in building itself up in love.  (To “edify” literally means “to build up”).

Today most churches are filled with nominal Christians who are content simply to show up on Sunday mornings and sit there passively in the pews and be spoon-fed by the pastor.  This is not what church is supposed to look like, however.  It is supposed to be an active, living fellowship of brothers and sisters in the Lord who care for each other and minister to each other’s needs.  It is in this practical, concrete way that the love of Christ is made manifest to the world.

THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD

 

The apostle Paul found himself in a unique position in the history of redemption. Originally a devout Jew, trained as a rabbi, he converted to Christianity and became “the apostle to the Gentiles.” He spent his ministry travelling through the Graeco-Roman world preaching the message of salvation far and wide. And people from every conceivable background responded. Churches were established throughout Asia Minor and Greece.

This was revolutionary. Up until this point Christianity had been largely a Jewish phenomenon. Christianity was an offshoot from Judaism. But now Gentiles were flocking into the church, and this created a theological problem. What was the relationship of these Gentile converts to Judaism? Should they become Jewish proselytes, get circumcised, and keep the Jewish Law? Or did they occupy a different place in the overall scheme of things. And Paul, the Jewish rabbi turned Christian missionary, found himself right in the very center of the controversy.

But for Paul it was more than just an abstract, theoretical problem. It was an intensely practical one as well. He had established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. These churches contained believers who came from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. But how were they to get along together? They had practically nothing in common. The Jews were used to living a very moral life, bound by strict rules and regulations. The Gentiles were used to wine, women and song. How, then, would believers from these two very different backgrounds to get along with each other in church?

Thus it was in this context that Paul wrote his epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. And while these two letters are very similar to each other, they are also noticeably different. Ephesians is apparently aimed at a predominately Gentile audience, while Colossians appears to have been addressed to believers from a Jewish background.

And thus Paul, in Eph. 2:11-3:13, comes to reflect on the Gentiles in God’s overall plan. And in the process he describes for us the nature of the universal church, which he calls “the household of God.”

Paul notes that the Gentiles, in their former life, were “without Christ, being aliens from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV). “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Paul goes on to explain that Christ, through His death on the cross, brought salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

But now what? “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (v. 19). Here Paul uses two metaphors to describe the position of believers in Christ: he says that we are “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God.” “Fellow citizens” suggests that Christians are all members of a common political entity, with all the rights and privileges thereof, as we would say. “Members of the household of God” means that we are all part of a common household headed by God Himself.

But Paul goes on to elaborate. This “household,” to change the imagery a bit, has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (v. 20). The church, the universal church, was founded by Christ Himself; at first through His own earthly ministry, and then through the apostles and prophets of the First Century church. And what happens since then is that in Him “the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). The church is “fitted together,” it is a coherent whole. Moreover, it is “a holy temple in the Lord.” The imagery would have been unmistakable for a First Century Christian, especially for one from a Jewish background. A temple was a sacred building, a building in which the divine presence resided. And thus God is pictured as being personally present among His people. The church is not just a human social organization; rather, it is characterized by the very presence of God Himself.

Thus it becomes apparent that what Paul is describing here is the universal church, the sum total of all Christian believers throughout history, from the time of Christ until now.

Thus Paul brings it all home to the specific church in Ephesus: “in Whom you also are being build together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v. 22). The church at Ephesus was a local expression of the universal church. Each local church is “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” It is not a mere social club; it is the communion of the saints built around the presence of God Himself. And specifically, this communion is realized “in the Spirit.” It is specifically the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is a t work in the church creating the spiritual life. At the practical level it is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and makes its ministries effective.

Because the church is based on union with Christ two logical corollaries follow: 1) True believers who are united to Christ are united to each other by virtue of their common bond with the Savior, and 2) anyone who is not united with Christ is not a part of the universal church, and therefore there can be no thought of “fellowship” between believers and unbelievers. In other words, evangelical Christians should be united with each other and separate from the world, including apostate liberal denominations.

Unfortunately two dangerous and opposing tendencies have made themselves felt in the modern evangelical community. The first is a spirit of accommodation which manifests itself in the misguided notion that the way to win others to Christ is to make ourselves look like the world. This was seen in the Neo-evangelical movement of the 1940’s and then in the “Young Evangelicals” and more recently in the “Emerging Church.”

But then there is the opposite tendency as well, manifested in self-described fundamentalist churches that practice “Second Degree” separation. That is, they separate not just from unbelievers but from fellow believers whom they deem to be in error over one doctrine or practice or another. Thus they refuse to have fellowship with other Bible-believing Christians because they use the wrong translation of the Bible or the wrong kind of music in worship. The result is endless divisions within the professing church, and this hardly glorifies Christ at all.

What we need to do is to focus on our relationship with Christ, and as we do so we will draw closer together with each other and farther apart from the world. And then the church will start to look like it should be.

GROWING UP FUNDY

Review:

Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith

Robb Ryerse

Civitas Press, 2012

206 pp., pb.

What is it like growing up in a Fundamentalist home? Are there any alternatives to Fundamentalism? Is it possible to leave Fundamentalism and still be a Christian? Pastor Robb Ryerse explores these questions and gives us some intriguing answers in his book Fundamorphoses: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith.

As it turns out Pastor Ryerse and myself have quite a bit in common. We were both raised in churches that were affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). We both lived, at least for a while, in Upstate New York – he near Utica and I near Syracuse. We both studied, at least for a time, at Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania, where we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the school’s beloved history professor, Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter, or “Doc Carter” as he was affectionately known. We both went on to study at seminaries connected with the Reformed tradition – he at Biblical and I at Westminster. But then our paths diverged.

Pastor Ryerse went on to pastor some Fundamentalist Baptist churches, but became increasingly frustrated with what he found in them and with the whole Fundamentalist movement in general. He eventually left the GARBC to become involved with the “emerging church” movement. I, on the other hand, never went into the formal ministry, but was involved in a lay capacity in a wide variety of churches – Reformed Episcopal, Primitive Baptist, Mennonite, Plymouth brethren, and Reformed Presbyterian. Theologically I moved in the opposite direction from Pastor Ryerse – I looked to the past for answers – to the Puritans and Reformers – and basically became a Reformed Baptist. I am currently part of an informal house church group. Musically I could do without the guitars and drums – give me the old time shaped-note hymns from The Sacred Harp in four part a cappella harmony. And so, having both left the GARBC, Pastor Ryerse and myself have very different perspectives on life.

Pastor Ryerse’s book is part spiritual autobiography and part treatise on Systematic Theology. He tries to be charitable in describing Fundamentalists, but it is clear that he has major problems with the movement. He describes how Fundamentalism didn’t meet his needs, and explains why he is on a path that he thinks will be more rewarding.

Scripture

So what exactly does Pastor Ryerse think is wrong with Fundamentalism? He has a host of familiar complaints – its narrow-mindedness, its judgmentalism, at times its outright hypocrisy. What is striking, however, is his diagnosis of these ills. He basically criticizes Fundamentalists for taking the Bible too seriously, or at least too literally. He tells us that “Emanating directly from their strict interpretations and applications of the Bible, Christian fundamentalists in America have built a rigid superstructure of legalistic tradition that defines their church and home cultures” (p. 21). He then goes on to assert that “Certitude produces legalism,” and “legalism produces judgmentalism” (Ibid.).

His solution is to argue that the Bible is just one of several sources from which we draw our theology. In particular throughout his book Pastor Ryerse measures doctrine by his own experience. “Theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts, and lives of people who are asking the big questions and seeking answers that resonate,” he says (p. 106).

However, the idea that Scripture should be our only rule of faith and practice did not originate with American Fundamentalists in the 20th Century. What Pastor Ryerse is arguing against is nothing less than the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura,” and long before the GARBC came into existence orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians insisted on the same principle. On this point Fundamentalists are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture.

While I would personally hesitate to say that the “autographs” are “inerrant,” we must nevertheless come to terms with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21; NKJV). If this claim can be taken at face value, then the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, God’s own revelation to us, and is fully authoritative in all that it teaches. Our role, then, is to submit to its authority, not bend it to fit our own desires.

The problem is that by subjecting Scripture to the test of experience we wind up making our theology conform to our lives instead of making our lives conform to what God has revealed. At the bottom of it we are either pursuing God’s will or we are following our own. And the latter is nothing less than self-delusion.

If Fundamentalist doctrine and practice is shallow and superficial, might not the problem be a failure to take Scripture seriously enough?

The fact of the matter is that virtually the only way we can know about God and salvation is through divine revelation. God must tell us what is true about these things – about the origin, purpose and meaning of life, about what happens after death – we have no other path to knowledge about these things. If God has not spoken then we are in ignorance. Thus any theology not based on sound exegesis is a delusion.

Salvation

Likewise Pastor Ryerse’s view of salvation is problematical. He describes the Fundamentalist view of salvation this way: “For someone to ‘get saved,’ they had to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus. If a person confessed to having these beliefs, we were willing to give her assurance of her standing before God and eternity in heaven” (p. 69). In other words, in this view “faith” is merely mental assent.

Pastor Ryerse’s own view of salvation is that “The real power of faith is not in leading us to a climactic moment of conversion but in shaping the entirety of our lives. The point of our belief is not punching our ticket to heaven but in growing us and growing with us throughout our lives” (p. 70).

The problem here is that he doesn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act by which we are declared righteous in the sight of God; it takes place instantaneously. Sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and gradually changes us over time. It lasts throughout our pilgrimage here on earth.

It is easy to see how a person raised in a Christian home could be confused on this point. Young children are often encouraged to make professions of faith before they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of sin and redemption. Some churches are reluctant to talk about sin and repentance, which means that their congregations rarely if ever hear convicting sermons. And in the GARBC the situation is further by the fact that sanctification is often described as “personal separation,” as if the Christian life boiled down to little more than “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew; and I don’t go with girls that do.” Thus it is relatively easy for a young person growing up in a Christian home to think that because he is doing all the right things outwardly he must be genuinely a Christian.

The situation is even further complicated by the fact that the pastors themselves often show little understanding of what the new birth is. Thus they will often accept a candidate for baptism and church membership on a bare profession of faith with little or no evidence of regeneration. Then everyone in the church, including the candidate himself, assumes that he is a genuine believer.

What is missing in this scenario is any conviction of sin. What we forget is that God looks on the heart. No matter how righteous and upright a person may seem outwardly, he still is a human being with a sin nature. What we human observers see is a well-behaved youngster who is active in his church and Christian school. What God sees is a heart filled with pride, anger, selfishness, lust and greed. God knows what we are really like inside, and if the motive is present, even when the outward action is not, we are still guilty in the sight of God. What God wants to see is a pure heart, not a proud hypocrite. And here we all fail, no matter how righteous we may appear to be outwardly.

True conversion, then, begins with the conviction of sin. This is not to say that a person must weep over his sins for at least a half an hour before he can pray and ask for forgiveness. Personalities and circumstances differ. But in order for true conversion to take place there must be a clear understanding of the real issue: our sin and guilt before a holy God whose law we have broken and whose justice we have offended.

By the same token true saving faith is not just assent to a set of propositions; it is an act of the will in which we place our trust in Christ as our Savior. We do not just believe things about Christ; we believe in Christ; we place our trust in Him. We rely on Him for salvation. Faith acts on the promises of God’s Word. Faith obeys. Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of faith.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

What is strikingly absent in Pastor Ryerse’s account of the Christian life is the role of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, many fundamentalist Baptist churches have so reacted against Pentacostalism that they hesitate even to mention the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like “holy rollers.” And in those churches more inclined toward an Arminian theology there is a tendency to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. And yet the New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth, and it is the Holy Spirit who creates the spiritual life of the church and makes its ministries effective. Paul could say, “And my speech and my preaching were not with permissive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4). Without the Holy Spirit the church is just plain dead.

The new birth itself is a deep, inward change produced by the Holy Spirit. In the case of a person raised in a Christian home there might not be a dramatic outward change. Such a person will continue to be the same outwardly moral and upright person that he always has been. The real change takes place inwardly. The newly regenerated Christian has a new understanding, and new interests and desires. He is conscious of a new relationship with God. He has a prayer life, and he delights to feed upon God’s Word.

It is here that many nominal Christians raised in Christian homes have difficulty. They go through life simply reacting to the opinions of others. It is all a matter of external pressure. But to really know God in a personal, intimate way is liberating. God’s opinion is the only one that matters. Everyone else’s opinion is only secondary. As someone once put it, “the fear of God is the fear that drives away all other fear.” It was this fear of God that prompted Martin Luther to stand before the Emperor and all the assembled nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and declare, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we are feeding on God’s Word, if we are spending time with Him in prayer, if we are growing ever closer to Him, the opinions of men simply do not matter. The only question is, what does God think? If I am truly born again, if I have genuine spiritual life within me, it is no longer a matter of trying to please others and live up to their expectations. My aim is to please God and I don’t need any external prompting.

The difference can be illustrated by the life of Paul. In a sense we could say that Paul had a “Fundamentalist” upbringing, if we could use that term in a Jewish context. He was a devout Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6). He even had the added advantage of theological training under one of the leading rabbis of his day. But in the end it was of no avail. In a fascinating piece of psychological introspection he describes his inner conflict in Romans chapter 7. Intellectually he had a high regard for Scripture. He could see that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he also saw something else at work inside of himself – something dark and sinister. For all of his outward righteousness he was still a human being, born with a sin nature that led him in the complete opposite direction. This created a strange paradox in his psychology. “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; cf. v. 19). “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). And this led to his anguished cry in verse 24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”   Is it not fair to say that this describes the experience of many today who were raised in Christian homes?

Parmigianino, ca. 1530

The Conversion of Paul

The answer to the question is found in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). What makes the difference in the life a person who has genuinely been born again is the Holy Spirit, and Paul describes the work of the Spirit at length in chapter 8. The Spirit gives life (vv. 4-11), the assurance of salvation (vv. 14-17), hope (vv. 23-25), and intercession (vv. 26,27). And thus Paul concludes the chapter on a triumphant note: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). What makes the difference between chapter 7 and chapter 8? The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer! Is that not what we are missing in our churches today? And Paul is very blunt about the matter: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9b). Where does that leave us?

The Church

Which brings us to the subject of the church. In the last chapter of his book Pastor Ryerse describes the type of “emerging church” his is planting in Arkansas. He criticizes traditional churches for putting “belief and behavior ahead of belonging” (p. 202). Candidates for membership have to believe a certain way and behave a certain way in order to belong. At his new church, however, Pastor Ryerse says that “For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail he or she may be’ (p. 203).

It is a little hard to see how anyone who has sat in Doc Carter’s classes could say such a thing. For Doc Carter, beyond anyone else, was quick to point out that a Baptist church, indeed a New Testament church, should be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. And this is important, not just because it is a Baptist distinctive, but because it is the only way that a church can manifest life in Christ to the surrounding community. It is the only way that a church can even begin to function the way a church is supposed to. The operative principle is that each individual member of the church is supposed to be vitally connected to Christ through the indwelling Spirit. The church is supposed to be a spiritual fellowship, the communion of the saints, drawn together by a common love for Christ and for each other. This is why Baptist churches traditionally have had church covenants – you were making a formal commitment to your fellow believers to live the Christian life and to function together as a spiritual body.

Is not our problem today that our churches are not very spiritual? For the most part they have become social clubs, with the paid, professional pastor acting as CEO and master of ceremonies. You can get 90% of the congregation out for a “fellowship” dinner, but scarcely 10% out for prayer meeting. Since when did casseroles become more important than prayer? Is Christ present in our gatherings?

Conclusion

What is largely missing in Pastor Ryerse’s book is any sense of the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of man, of the need for repentance, and of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Pastor Ryerse seems instead to take a sociological approach to religion. Fundamentalism is a subculture that makes certain demands on its members. But for Pastor Ryerse it was all external pressure – he didn’t feel anything within. At one point he says that “many of us have wondered why some biblical writers speak of God’s presence being so close and near to them while our own experiences have been of a God who is far away” (p. 102). At another point he admitted, “I’m not very good at praying . . . I’ve just never been able to develop prayer as a consistent discipline in my life” (p. 189). In short, what we seem to have here is the psychology of an unconverted person, caught up in a religious milieu but lacking any direct experience with God personally. And thus it was only a matter of time before he would try to redefine his faith to correspond with how he actually felt within.

But in the end as human beings we all have to deal with God as He actually is. In one sense Pastor Ryerse is certainly correct when he says that “theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts and lives of people who are asking the big questions.” That is, in fact, exactly what most of the great preachers and writers down through the centuries did, from John Bunyan to Martyn Lloyd-Jones – most of them had no academic training in theology at all, but they concentrated on asking the big questions, and tried to understand how the answers applied to life. This is what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” or experiential theology as we might say today, if we could even conceive of such a thing. Pastor Ryerse’s problem is that he is “seeking answers that resonate” with him personally. Rather the great preachers and writers of the past went to Scripture for the answers. (And Moses, Jesus and Paul were no ivory tower armchair theologians!). And that is what we must do. We must go to the Bible and try to interpret it honestly and humbly, allowing ourselves to be taught by God’s Word. We must learn to apply it to our lives. Simply to base our theology on our own feelings and experiences is to lead ourselves astray. We cannot afford to go through life making up things about God because they make us feel good. For this reason I am afraid that Pastor Ryerse’s solution to the problem of Fundamenealism is probably a dead end.

THE ROLE OF HUMAN TEACHERS IN THE CHURCH

 

There is no question that modern American Evangelicalism is in theological disarray. As the surrounding culture becomes increasingly secularized and materialistic, leaders within the professing church have been driven to increasingly desperate measures to attract numbers. In recent decades we have the rise of the Prosperity Gospel, Young Evangelicals, the Church Growth Movement, and the Emerging Church, not to mention Contemporary Christian Music. Standard formulations of doctrine are being increasingly questioned. These developments have left some in the pews wondering if there are any biblically sound churches left at all. Has the whole church gone apostate? Have all of our pastors and theologians become false teachers?

There is a sense in which the answer is “yes,” or nearly yes. What has happened in American Evangelicalism is that we have come to rely too heavily on human institutions. In particular, the advent of seminaries and Bible colleges have dramatically altered the quality of the spiritual life within the churches. Young men decide on their own to pursue ministry as a career. They enroll in an academic institution where they receive classroom instruction from professional theologians (not the way Christ trained His disciples!). They pass the exams and receive their diplomas. The churches then assume that the candidates are qualified for the ministry. Once hired the pastor functions like the CEO of a company, or the master of ceremonies at the social club. His performance is then measured by such metrics as church attendance and the size of the budget.

What is missing from this whole scenario is God Himself. Throughout the whole process no one asks the fundamental question, has this person been called by God? Does he have the necessary spiritual maturity and gifts? And what typically happens, in the best of cases, is that the pastor may have a fairly good theoretical knowledge of the truth, but lacks a grasp of the practical reality of it – what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” the understanding of how God works in the lives of individuals. As a result the pastor’s sermons are typically marked by poor exegesis, a flat delivery, and little or no practical application. Is it any wonder that so many church members choose to stay home on Sunday evenings?

Furthermore, given the longstanding differences of opinion over theological issues one is tempted to wonder if the theologians themselves know what they are talking about. Obviously at least some of them have to be wrong. If they are all following what the Bible says, why don’t they agree with each other?

Moreover as we read through church history it become apparent that the great leaders of the past were often flawed characters. They were limited in their understanding and influenced by their times and circumstances. The divisions and failures of the present are often the result of bad decisions made in the past.

This, then, raises a pertinent question: why follow human teachers at all? If the Bible is our only authority, why not simply read our Bibles and ignore the opinions of men? Who needs human teachers if they are fallible?

The Bible itself, however, makes it clear that the church is a God-ordained institution, and that Christ, who is the Head of the church, has given it “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11; NKJV). And why has he given these gifts to the church? They are “. . . for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12).   For better or for worse, God has chosen to use fallible human beings, namely us, to accomplish His work here on earth.

Does that mean that we should blindly follow every self-appointed teacher who comes down the pike? By no means! But how do we tell the imposters apart from the real thing?

First of all, a man truly called of God will meet the biblical qualifications for the eldership as outlined in passages such as I Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5-9. “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop must be . . .” (I Tim. 3:1,2).

Second of all, what he teaches must be in accord with Scripture. The preacher is not at liberty to share his own thoughts about current events, much less to make up his own theology and peddle it as the Word of God. He is to preach God’s Word, not man’s. Paul could tell Timothy, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (II Tim. 1:13). And the only way that we can know what “the pattern of sound words” which came from the apostles is, is through their writings which we have in the New Testament. That means that the preacher’s primary task is to expound Scripture, and most sermons should be expository.     Moreover a sermon should be edifying. Teachers are not to “give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (I Tim. 1:4). Paul then goes on to explain: “Now the purpose of this commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith . . .” (v.5). The aim is to challenge the lost to be saved, and children of God to grow in their walk with the Lord.

When the preacher enters the pulpit he should have two primary aims: 1) explain to the congregation what the text means, and 2) show how it applies to them. And if the sermon was successful the congregation should leave the building different from what is was when it entered. They should feel that they had been in the very presence of God Himself. (J.I. Packer once said in an interview that when Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached he brought God into the pulpit with him! Dr. Lloyd-Jones, it should be noted, never attended seminary. His degree was in medicine.)

We must follow no man blindly. Ultimately we are all accountable to God for what He has revealed to us in His Word. And yet we must recognize and honor those whom God has sent to teach us. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). Our only aim, then, is to come to a better understanding of God’s Word. The great theologians of the past are worth reading provided that they genuinely know God themselves, were competent in their respective fields of study, and made it their conscious aim to unfold the meaning of Scripture. John Calvin put it like this: “Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture” (Institutes, I.vi.2 – McNeill ed., p. 72). The question is not, is the preacher / teacher perfect in every way? No one is, and to require that would be to disqualify the entire ministry. The question is, does he lead a godly life? Is he a man of prayer? Is he free from the love of money and worldly ambition? Is he consciously trying to follow what the Bible says? As A.W. Tozer put it, “Listen to the man who listens to God.”

It might be added that the modern church is so degenerate that, as a general rule, the better writers are the older ones – the Reformers, the Puritans, the Old Princeton theologians. Read the Puritans to get your heart warmed!

For the J.I. Packer interview click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpDYqVZhzI8