Posts Tagged ‘Ecclesiology’

Build Up, Don’t Trip Up

Balaam is famous for his talking ass but there is more to his story. He is the ancient forerunner of an idea that has begun to blossom on social media. Balaam establishes the biblical precedence for the idea of loving God but hating his people. It surprised me to find this fairly contemporary idea in the Bible, but there it is.

Balaam was a prophet (2 Pet. 2:15-16). Okay, but there are false prophets in the Bible, was he one of those? It doesn’t appear so. Peter explains that God rebuked Balaam “for his own transgression.” It was Yahweh who did that, not Baal: “But God’s anger was kindled because he [Balaam] went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary” (Num. 22:22). In verse 18 Balaam says “I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God…” Balaam confessed God as his own, using his covenant name; he was not manipulating a foreigner god, but was obeying his own. God spoke to Balaam. He rebuked and corrected him. He used Balaam to bless Israel when Balak hired him to curse them. It appears that Balaam had a relationship with the true and living God.

And yet. Though he wouldn’t curse Israel because God told him not to, Balaam didn’t really love Israel either. While he couldn’t curse them, he did figure out a way to bring about their downfall. Balaam had Balak, the king of Moab, trip up Israel through a temptation they wouldn’t resist. In Numbers 25 the people go after the women and gods of Moab and 24,000 Israelites died because of God’s anger at their idolatry and sinfulness. According to Numbers 31:16 this was Balaam’s idea.

So could Balaam really love God if his plan was to drive a wedge between God and that which he loved? What does it mean to “love” someone and seek to destroy their work? It must cast doubt on the reality of your love for that person.

To love God and hate the church didn’t turn out well for Balaam. In Numbers 31:8, Israel kills him with the sword. God’s restraint of the prophet’s madness (2 Pet. 2:16) only went so far then the restraint turned into something more permanent.

What does this mean, then, for people who love Jesus and are frustrated with his church? If we take Balaam as an example we must recognize that God wants us to help make the church more faithful, not trigger them to behave less faithfully. God does not care for the prophet who confesses his name and hates his people.

Israel was not perfect. God hated the generation he led out of Egypt (Psa. 95:10) and threatened to wipe them out a number of times. God can be angry and frustrated with his people but it is up to God to deal with his people, not us. If you truly love God and have problems with his church, the answer is not to stir up controversy and then point out the foibles of those who answer you poorly. Rather:

Strive to excel in building up the church. (1Cor. 14:12)

We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1Th. 2:12)

And let us consider how 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)

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.” (Isa. 35:3-4)

Ordinary Preaching is Fine

Great churches1“Church” = A group of disciples worshiping and growing in Christ together. don’t need great preachers to be great, but cults2“Cult” = Personality cult, false religion, a group centered around a human being, living or dead, rather than Jesus Christ risen from the dead. do.

Wait. What?

If by “great church” we mean a church that is leading unbelievers to become disciples of Jesus, baptizing them, teaching them what Jesus taught, leading them to serve each other and the needy, etc., then average attendance is not that important. A “great church” doesn’t have to be numerically large; it could be, but size isn’t the measure of its greatness.

Conversely, if by “great preacherPreacher Boy” we mean someone with great stage presence and who is able to stir the emotions with his or her speaking style and speech-writing skills, well, we don’t need them to make a church “great” as defined above. If the pastor is faithfully teaching the scriptures, his oratory skill is not as important. God can use men who are very good preachers and men who are merely adequate preachers. It is God who builds a church numerically (see Acts 2:47 for example.)

However, for a personality cult to grow, a “great preacher” is an absolute necessity. There were and are many great communicators who’ve created huge movements. But without their personally, their movement fade unless they are replaced by another great public speaker.

There are plenty of churches that are very good, possibly great, that are lead by godly men who are merely passable preachers. There are and have been large churches that are thoroughly unhealthy but since their pastors are excellent public speakers, they grow and financially thrive.

I am not belittling preaching; preaching is vitally important and the Bible has some significant things to say about it. Preaching is the hallmark of the Protestant Reformation. What I’m trying to do is to not add to what the Bible says about the primacy of preaching and include “great public speaking ability.”

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:3–5)

Faithful preaching? Hail and amen! But “great preaching”? It isn’t as necessary as some people seem to think it is.

Find a faithful preacher who loves Jesus and knows the Bible, who is committed to making disciples, who loves the church the way Jesus does, who walks in holiness. If he is a great preacher, you are blessed. If he is adequate, try to stay awake during his sermons and be blessed by what you are able to find thre.

Not every church has have to have a Spurgeon, a Piper, a MacArthur, a Martin Lloyd-Jones, a John Calvin, or a Jonathan Edwards. These men are rare gifts to the Church. Learn from them, emulate them as they emulate Christ. Don’t just listen to their speaking, heed their message. By all means, don’t measure your pastor or other pastors by them. Ordinary preachers greatly outnumber them and God has been faithfully building his church through ordinary and extraordinary preachers.

1 “Church” = A group of disciples worshiping and growing in Christ together.
2 “Cult” = Personality cult, false religion, a group centered around a human being, living or dead, rather than Jesus Christ risen from the dead.

Review: The Vine and the Trellis

A few weeks ago I received and immediately read The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. There has been some excitement in the Reformed blogosphere (is it still okay to use that word? ‘Blogosphere’? ’cause I still am) that I thought I should give it a shot. The snapshot answer is that I’m glad I read it and though it was good but I do have some concerns with it.

The authors have a rather quirky definition of what the church should be like. It was something like “prayfully speaking scripture to each other” if I remember correctly. That’s not bad as far as it goes but it is an odd way to put it. If they were aiming at a brief, memorable definition I think they got it. But you have to stretch “speaking scripture” quite far to get some of the things the church is supposed to be doing like baptism and discipline and communion. I mean, yea, we should be speaking scripture while we do those things but the acts themselves go beyond merely speaking I would say.

I’m not trying to say that the book was wrong or not helpful totally, just a little odd in places. There were parts where I wondered who they were writing to. They’d exegete a chapter of Philippians (for example) in a manner that any pastor could probably do in his sleep so I though they were aiming at lay people. Then they’d quote a Greek word without really explaining it and press on. So they must be talking to seminary trained folks, right? I still don’t know for sure.

I think they made some excellent points and I was greatly helped by their illustration of the vine and the trellis. One author explained that he has two trellises in his back yard. One is quite lovely and painted and in good repair. But nothing is growing on it. The other is along a fence and has a healthy jasmine bush growing on it. So much so that you can’t see the trellis.

He then compared these to church work. Plans, programs and processes are the trellis. Sometimes churches can get so hung up on the trellis that that is all they focus on. The vine is the people and that is what should be flourishing. So, they maintain, don’t neglect or ignore the trellis (plans and programs) but spend your time and energy tending the vine and causing it to grow.

What that looks like in practical terms for the authors is that we shouldn’t spend time finding people to take over programs as much as we should get people doing what they’re gifted and called to do. Even if that means cherished programs die.

They launch from there into their discipleship program which they maintain is the way to tend the vine. They advocate personal discipleship with people you believe could be future leaders. Then a two to three year internship, paid, half-paid or unpaid. Then if the folks have proven character, maybe they should go on to seminary. But don’t start there.

That is, I think, the nub of it. If you read Neil Cole’s Organic Church I kind of felt like The Vine and the Trellis was a helpful (though not complete) next couple of steps in that process.

Bottom Line: I don’t think it is a bad book or unhelpful. But I wouldn’t give it the raving review others have. There is something in it for many different kinds of churches. There are some helpful things that can be incorporated into a healthy church but I wouldn’t recommend trying to implement everything.

Is the American Church Really in Decline?

The numbers for the American church don’t look good:

  • Every year more than 4,000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1,000 new church starts.
  • Half of all churches in the US did not add any new members to their ranks in the last two years.
  • At the turn of the last century (1900), there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of this century (2000) where we have 11 churches per 10,000 people in America.
  • From 1990 to 2000, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the USA declined by almost 5 million members (9.5 percent), while the US population increased by 24 million (11 percent).
  • The United States now ranks third following China and India in the number of people who are not professing Christians.

But I wonder if these things are really bad. I know, I know, call me a “Pollyanna” but numbers are just numbers and Christianity is about God and his people. People often get hung up on numbers and miss other indicators of worth or health or progress. Bigger is better baby. My current church is growing. My previous church is plateaued. Other churches I know of are shrinking. Overall the American church is getting smaller. At the same time, I think there are some very encouraging signs within evangelicalism. But first, let me explain why (or try to) I think the numbers of American in church is going down and why that’s a good thing. Take a look at the ad to the left, you can click on it to get the whole thing. It is from the 1950s and here is the text:

Where are the churches of Russia . . . the worshippers of East Germany and Poland . . . Estonia . . . Latvia . . the Christian congregations and missionaries of China? Gone . . . gone beneath the juggernaut of materialistic atheism that today enslaves six out of every twenty people living. To communism, Christian countries present a lush target. Pious complacency, religious indifference, empty pews and churches mark an easy prey to fanatic, soulless communism. It is time for deep searching of our hearts. We can meet communism physically with guns – aircraft – airforce crews – but spiritually? we need to re-affirm the faith that first made our nation great . . . to man anew our spiritual frontiers.

Why should you go to church? According to this ad, to defeat communism! They’re atheists and so we’re Christians. Get it? It is your patriotic duty to attend church this weekend! I heard a similar thing a few months ago when Scott Simon played some tapes of his father’s radio program from the 1950s. It was pretty much your patriotic duty to go to church. That kind of thing would really motive World War II vets and their families.

For a while, Christianity became customary, comfortable. It wasn’t dangerous or controversial, it was necessary to defeat Communism. In the 1960s the nation’s Christian moral values (ignored only in private) got questioned by long-haired, fist waving youth. Soon American Christianity slid into power politics as a way to maintain that moral edge and now it is misunderstood and loathed.

Accepted as necessary (but not embraced) ->
Questioned and dismissed (because it wasn’t really believed) ->
Struggling for power
(because it rode the coat tails of what came before) ->
Hated and misunderstood
(because the false part has largely fallen away).

Of course this is an incomplete picture of the history of Christianity in America as it really only covers the last half of the last century but I think it kind of explains where we are now. By way of illustration, I heard an interview with Hughes brothers, the directors of The Book of Eli. The one brother read the script and loved it. He pitched it to the other brother who said something about not being a true believer and being uncomfortable with the Bible having such a prominent place in the movie. Fair enough, but the line that caught my attention was when he said that it would be controversial to treat the Bible that way. That is, to treat it as important and of potential value to humanity. The first thing that came to my mind was “Excellent! We’re dangerous again!”

When Christianity was domesticated and used by society for reasons other than religious, it wasn’t dangerous. It formed a foundation for family values and the American way. People could take or leave the other aspects of the religion. I think this is why liberal Christianity flourished during that time. You could have religion without Christ.

This leads me to my point. It is a good thing that the church is shrinking in America. We’re not a house cat you can scratch between the ears and walk away from. The voices within Christianity who spoke only of religion as a positive societal force are now calling it dangerous and out of step and therefore are moving away. The field clears and you can better see who is who.

I don’t want to speak to absolutes here. Of course I don’t mean to say that all of the church in the 50s was weak and corrupt. Nor do I want to say that all of the church today is strong and effective. I’m only speaking of the general movement of the thing. And frankly I may be Pollyanna here. H. E. Barber of the Guardian in the UK visited America and didn’t have much good to say about evangelicalism:

If the trend identified in the Aris study continues, we will see a country divided between conservative evangelical Christians and secular liberals – the latter hostile to religious belief, identified with evangelical Christianity. This is bad news because popular evangelical Christianity is religiously vacuous…Saddleback [Church] is religion for people who don’t like religion: transcendence is not on the menu.

Although almost half of Americans say they have had a religious experience, mysticism is likely a recondite taste. For the minority who have that taste – who seek God as an object of contemplation – Saddleback has nothing.

Ouch. I mean, you have to take serious criticism from those outside the system. But at the same time, evangelicalism isn’t Saddleback Church. Most American churches are congregations of less than 200 and Saddleback is close to 120,000. It is far from representative of the norm. No, I’m comfortable with the American church getting smaller. It presents a richer harvest field where wheat and tares are easier to identify.

The Minimialist Church

A Welcome Message from Our Pastor


Pastor Norbert Smith

Opportunities to Serve
Here at the Minimalist Church we want to make very sure that people don’t confuse busyness for discipleship so we don’t do anything. If you are doing something, it could be discipleship or it might not be. Better to just stop in order to be safe.

Church Worship Services
Worship is to be offered in a very precise manner so that God won’t be offended. Therefore we feel it is best left to professionals. Our worship services are twice yearly: Christmas and Easter. Come if you feel you must.

Sunday School
If you’re interested in teaching a Sunday school class at the church, please contact the pastor so he can talk you out of it. No one would come anyway.

We’re hyper-Calvinists so we don’t have to do evangelism.

The Ordinances
We’re hyper-Dispensationalists so we don’t have to do baptisms.
We’re hyper-preterists so we don’t have to observe the Lord’s Table (Paul said that we would only have to do it till Christ’s return.)

Statement of Faith

  • We believe that Jesus did all the work in salvation so we don’t have to do anything.
  • Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation so why bother?
  • The Bible is God’s inspired word to us today, we like to call it “Life’s Owner’s Manual” but who reads owner’s manuals any more? Not us, that’s for sure.
  • Our only creed is Christ because none of us could be bothered to read any of the other creeds to decide if they’re any good.
  • Prayer is our speaking to God. However, He already knows what’s best for us and He’s most likely very busy working all things together for our good so we feel its best not to bother Him.
  • End times studies are very time consuming and confusing so we just go with whatever view is currently promoted in the latest best-selling Christian book or movie.

My Problem with Paedocommunion

Part 3 in a series.

Paedocommunion (the act of giving baptized children and infants communion) is an outcropping of the Federal Vision . Since baptism places the individual in the covenant, unites them to Christ and makes them full members of the church, what reasons are there to not give them communion infant or not? Or so they reason (roughly).

In order to explain why I am saddened by paedocommunion, I need to explain my view of communion. The central text on the rite of the Lord’s Table is 1Co 11:23-31. Here Paul gives us the most detailed discussion of the ceremony and even then it isn’t as much as we might have hoped for. The phrase I feel is most important here is not “who eats and drinks without discerning the body” (v. 29) though it is important and will come in later. The phrase that I think says the most about the meal is “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26).

There are then two time elements in the Lord’s Supper. There is the backward look in faith to Jesus’ death and a forward look to his return which also speaks of his resurrection. Communion is a gospel pronunciation.

One of the things the Reformed have said about Communion is that it is a “means of grace”. This means that God gives us grace when we take part in the sacrament. The 1689 London Baptist Confession speaks of it like this “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls…by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened” (BCF 14.1, similar to WFC 14.1). The grace that is communicated in the sacrament is not a “new grace” it simply feeds the grace we received that enabled us to believe to begin with.

There are, I suppose, a number of ways of formulating how this strengthening takes place. The way I understand it is that since the Lord’s Supper is a gospel proclamation in physical form, it communicates grace through the gospel. It isn’t subjective where the pastor has to do a really good devotional in order to get you emotional enough to receive the grace, the act of eating broken bread and poured out wine communicates beyond the devotion. It reaches your soul whether you’re paying attention or not.

The reason this won’t work with infants is that the saving faith that is to be fed is not necessarily present in them. Furthermore, for the meal to be the gospel communicated, the recipient must be aware of what the gospel is. I agree with Jonathan Edwards, this sacrament is not a converting sacrament. Conversion ordinarily takes place through the preached word.

At this point, the dire warning of verse 27 comes into play. Hebrews 10:29 pronounces a more severe punishment on those who trample under foot Christ’s blood and that is what would be happening. A person who does not believe the gospel eats judgement upon himself. Non-believers must not participate in the Lord’s Table but should use the time to reflect on what keeps them from closing with Christ, asking God to remove that impediment and to look forward to participating the next time.

So that is briefly my take on Communion. Notice that gospel is central to the rite and faith to apprehend this gospel pronouncement is essential.

There are a number of ways paedocommunionists respond. Passover was the precursor to the Lord’s Table and Passover was intended to include the children (Ex 12:26). They point to 1Co 10 and notice that all ate the same spiritual food which would necessarily include the children. Why then would be deny our covenant children this means of grace? Their response to 1Co 11:28, where self-examination prior to the meal is required, is likely to be that strictures such as these are not intended for children. For example, in 2Th 3:10 Paul commands “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Clearly this did not apply to the infants.

These objections seem reasonable, as far as they go. But they are lacking. While Passover was a precursor to the Lord’s Table, it is significantly modulated in Christ. Jesus didn’t simply change Passover, he fulfilled it (1Co 5:7, 1Pt 1:19). Passover was the shadow and while we can look back at it for the significance of the Lord’s Table we shouldn’t look to it as regulative for the Table. How do we determine which elements come forward? Instead we are best to stick with what we are taught about the Lord’s Supper in its fullness rather than in its shadow.

First Corinthians 10:1-6 is an important text for understanding redemptive history and I think it helpful in the discussion of the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New. There baptism is not linked with circumcision but with a passage through water. The “spiritual food” in that passage is not Passover but the manna. Jesus is not eaten or drunk, he is a Rock that follows them and provides. It seems to me that what the water may signify is the Holy Spirit (see John 7:38-39) that Jesus gives to his church.

Finally, while it is clear that 2Th 3:10 cannot apply to children, it is not equally as clear that 1Co 11:28 does not. One must presuppose that children are supposed to be given Communion in order to read the 1Co 11 passage the same way as the 2Th 3 command. Otherwise, there are no commandments that apply to children! Furthermore, there are explicit commands for a man to provide for his family (1Ti 5:8) and so children are provided for in the commandment via their father.

So why is paedocommunion sad to me? First of all, because it seems to lessen the impact of what communion is. In other Christian traditions that place a high value on communion (Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic) there is a process of confirmation and First Communion. In other words, they have a similarly high view of the sacraments and yet recognize that there is something about communion that bears waiting. When children who haven’t a clue what communion is about partake simply because they are “covenant children” any distinction between those who have examined themselves and who discern the body and those who have not is lost. Even among the adult members of the covenant community there is supposed to be this difference, an adult who is “unworthy” or who does not “discern the body” (however we define those terms) is not to partake. Yet the children are ushered to the table without this distinction. Some of the exegetical gymnastics paedocommunionists do to get around 1Co 11:28 make me dizzy.

Next, and more crucial in my mind, is that the fulfillment of “covenant seed” is diminished and confused. Consider this quote from Tim Gallant’s book Feed My Sheep:

[Discussing Matthew 19.13-14] Covenant children are the epitome of the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God must be understood in new covenant terms. Children of believers are received by Christ as His, notwithstanding all the language elsewhere about the necessity of faith. Covenant children, to the very youngest, are partakers in what the new covenant is all about. If it is correct to say that conversion is necessary for salvation, it is also correct to say that conversion is precisely becoming like a covenant child (Mt. 18:3). (pp. 25-26)

There is a lot I could comment on in that paragraph that I am going to let it slide and instead make my point about covenant seed. I have a lot to say about it but in summary let me point to this:

1. All of the promise of the Davidic Covenant, especially his seed, was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Acts 13:23).
2. It is generally agreed that the Seed of Eve promised in Genesis 3:15 was a promise of the coming Christ.
3. Paul is explicit on this in Galatians 3:16, in at least one aspect, the seed of the Abrahamic is fulfilled in Christ.

The above observations show that the concept of covenant see can be fulfilled. It is my contention that the concept of “covenant seed” or “covenant children” was pointing toward and was therefore fulfilled in Christ. Yes, in God’s covenants there was a promise of and to covenant children but those covenants were all looking forward to a promised One who would come from amongst the covenant people of God. Now that Jesus has come, what other seed are we looking forward to?

Calling our children members of the covenant just because they are our children is to read the New Covenant as if it contained the unfulfilled promises of older covenants in their same unfulfilled form. Baptizing them makes the issue hazy but most Reformed paedobaptists don’t consider baptized children to be full participating members of all that the New Covenant (and therefore the Covenant of Grace) offers. They still look forward to a time when their children will offer signs of a genuine faith of their own. Admitting them to the Lord’s Table blurs the lines even worse.

Okay, this post is quite long enough.