Archive for the ‘Practical Theology’ Category

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 20 – More than Cognitive

August 12, 2011

The cultivation of ordinate affection depends on several areas we have already covered in this series. A pastor determined to conserve biblical Christianity will be conserving several areas, each of which affect the others. Bear with me as we tie several elements already discussed to the shaping of the affections.

Since regeneration is essential to ordinate affection, a conservative Christian church preserves and propagates the biblical gospel. Apart from the heart being given an entirely new disposition, it will always love creature more than Creator, and therefore become more warped in its affections.

Since a right understanding of God, ourselves and the world is essential to right loves, a conservative Christian church conserves and teaches a comprehensive biblical and systematic theology. Without a systematic exposition of God’s Word, with practical submission to it, no one will love what God loves and hate what God hates.

Since example and exposure are necessary for the shaping of appropriate loves, the conservative Christian church conserves biblical worship, and understands one of its roles as a ‘catechism of the affections’. Corporate worship, with its forms, order and structure provides a lesson in proportion, decorum and appropriate responses. Corporate worship is the opportunity for adjusting the sensibilities of the worshipers, so that a common sentiment towards God, the world and ourselves is developed. It is not meant to be a venue for competing sensibilities to all find expression in the name of personal taste and Romans 14.

Since sanctification is essentially re-ordering our loves to bring them in line with God’s, the conservative Christian church gives much attention to teaching personal piety, and encouraging discipleship relationships. When Christians observe ordinate love for God, mankind and the created order, it is often caught. Therefore, piety is to be encouraged in the life of the individual and the family. Practical obedience is to be stressed as essential to knowing and loving God.

Since understanding a biblical view of man is crucial to loving God ordinately, the conservative Christian church gives time to teach on the importance of the affections, the nature of the affections, and their application: what ought to be loved and how. A pastor who gives himself to all these things is well on his way to shaping ordinate affection in his hearers.

However, all of the above is not sufficient. The conservative pastor must become aware that the affections are not only shaped by regeneration, sound doctrine, sound worship, true piety and teaching on the affections. My point in the previous post was to illustrate how God shaped the affections of His people, and it was not only through information and obedience. He filled their lives with a large variety of symbols, ceremonies and rituals. These did more than regulate health and civil life in Israel. They dressed up the mere material existence of God’s people with the drapery of symbol, metaphor and analogy. Notice, God did this in addition to the moral imperatives of the Law. God knows that while our hearts can be partly shaped by what our minds know, and by what we choose, the heart’s responses are primarily affective responses, taught by analogy. Affective responses are essentially about proportion: an object deserves a particular kind of love. There is a response to an object or person that is proportionate to what it is in reality. This kind of proportionate response or just sentiment, is not taught cognitively. It is taught through analogy, wherein the analogy provides the sense of proportion. The symbol, if correctly chosen, contains the kind of affections required for the observer to correctly respond to the realities behind the symbol. Seeing an animal die at the altar evoked certain affections commensurate with repentance for sin. Comparing God to a captain of an army called for certain affections proportionate to His nature. Conversely, the high places with their analogies of sexual potency and fertility evoked inordinate affection.

All of this is to say that the pastor who wishes to shape ordinate affection in his people must become aware of how our knowledge of God and ultimate reality is analogical knowledge, and therefore our affections are shaped by the right analogies. Since God cannot be seen, how can we know how to love Him justly and appropriately? When our affective responses are responses to biblical or well-chosen images, analogies, metaphors, symbols, and signs, they will be correctly proportioned. In other words, the conservative Christian pastor must give attention to the imagination, and to form. This we will examine next.

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Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 10 – Leading Corporate Worship

June 3, 2011

Restoring biblical worship in churches within a culture given over to various forms of narcissism, sentimentalism, consumerism and amusement is an uphill struggle. If a man is more concerned about retaining or attracting a minimum level of tithers, he is at the mercy of parishioners’ tastes, preferences and stylized worship choices. However, if he is more concerned about offering worship that is pleasing to God or, as a pastor, offering back true worshipers to the Father, then he will be guided by principle, and not raw pragmatism. For such men, I suggest a further three practical suggestions for restoring biblical worship.

First, there ought to be pastoral oversight of the corporate worship of the church. There is a strange practice among evangelical pastors of delegating responsibility for corporate worship to the musicians of the church. This, to me, is like delegating the planning of the Lord’s Supper to the kitchen staff, simply because they are involved. As important as musicians or kitchen staff are, it is the pastors of a church who have been called to provide spiritual wisdom, maturity, and leadership in all areas, worship being the chief. Kitchen staff may be very involved in the preparation and clean-up for the Lord’s Table. Musicians may be very involved in providing music in the public services of the church. But why ought they select what hymns and songs are sung (and how many times), make comments before or after hymns, settle on the order of service, or choose the offertory? Surely this is the role of the appointed spiritual leader(s) of the church. If hours are spent by the pastor on the sermon (which is the bulk of corporate worship), who better to determine what hymns, Scripture readings, prayers and so forth ought to be offered?

This is not to say that there is never a musician who is also a qualified spiritual leader. Several ordained men serve as pastors with a special focus on music,which can be very beneficial to the church. Nor is it to suggest that pastors ought to micro-manage and personally lead every element of corporate worship. What needs to be redressed is a tendency for pastors (particularly those with little musical knowledge) to feel an obligation to ‘stick with what they know’ and hand over the general direction and composition of worship services to others. Pastors without competent musical knowledge can still become competent to judge a good hymn from an inferior one, an appropriate tune from an inappropriate, an ordinate atmosphere of worship and its opposite. Indeed, spiritual maturity ought to be the ability to perform this kind of discernment (Heb 5:14). Increasingly rare is the musician who possesses a sound theology of worship, who understands the Regulative Principle and other issues surrounding corporate worship. While enlisting the gifts and abilities of others, the pastors of the church ought to plan, structure, oversee and review the public services of the church.

The corollary to this suggestion is that pastors ought to train faithful men in the skill of planning, executing and evaluating corporate worship. Too often a church which has traveled a better-than-average path regarding worship loses all the ground it has gained with the change of one pastor. As pastors, we want to leave legacies of ordinate worship after we have gone. It is understandable that a church changes character when its leaders change, but one can ensure more continuity rather than less through the training of men in the area of corporate worship. This could take the form of a few Sunday-school type lessons in which each element of corporate worship is considered, hymns are considered and evaluated, and basic practical lessons are given in leading corporate worship. If pastors conduct post-service evaluations, the men being trained ought to sit in on these and listen to each element of the services being evaluated for its appropriateness, execution and usefulness. These are tremendously helpful training times. Finally, there is no better way for people to learn how to lead and plan worship than to be placed into the situation of having to do just that.

Third, pastors ought to settle on a philosophy of worship, and preferably put it in writing. A philosophy of worship can become a mini ‘systematic theology of worship’. It needn’t be more than a few pages long, but it can summarize a church’s approach to worship. It serves as an up-front statement to those inquiring about the church. It guides present and future leaders, particularly when navigating areas of controversy. A good example can be found here.
Once this philosophy is worked out, the leaders will constantly be working out the application of this philosophy. Scott has already written helpfully on the difference between philosophy and application here , so I needn’t rehash that. However, it is important for leaders to explain the reasoning behind certain applications. My church has tried to explain some of our worship methodologies in a booklet called Why Do We Do It That Way?, which is also reproduced on our website. In this way, we as leaders try to explain how our philosophy has been worked out in practice. This becomes an important form of discipleship for believers.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 9 – Heeding God’s Prescriptions for Worship

May 27, 2011

Biblical worship is the worship revealed in the Bible as pleasing to God. Since the Bible reveals God’s nature, will, and works, we should expect that God prescribes how He wants to be worshipped in Scripture. Both Old Testament principle and New Testament precept (1 Tim 3:15) combine to show us that God’s worship is not regulated by preference, popularity, or pragmatic concerns. God’s worship is regulated by His revealed Word.

Believers in the Regulative Principle of Worship, or the Rule of Prescription, believe that a worship practice can be admitted to the worship of the church if such a practice is unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture.1  However, while all believers in the validity of the Regulative Principle accept that Scripture must command a worship practice before it can be instituted, not all believers agree on which worship practices have been commanded, or how Scripture makes such imperatives explicit.

Among proponents of the Regulative Principle, broad and narrow interpretations and applications exist. All believers in the validity of the Regulative Principle accept that Scripture must command a worship practice before it can be instituted; not all believers agree on which worship practices have been commanded, or how Scripture makes such imperatives explicit.

Conservatives see fewer elements. For example, D.G. Hart sees Reformed worship as consisting in the reading and preaching of the Word, prayer, song, the collection, and the sacraments. 2  Ligon Duncan recites the Puritan formula for New Testament worship: to read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible and see the Bible (the sacraments). 3

Proponents of a looser application of the Regulative Principle see other elements as having biblical sanction. John Frame sees the elements as greetings and benedictions, reading of Scripture, preaching and teaching, charismatic prophecy (when it operated), prayer, song, vows, confession of faith, sacraments, church discipline, collections and offerings, and expressions of fellowship which Frame sees in things like the love feast and the holy kiss. 4  Bryan Chapell lists seventeen: calls, prayers, Scripture readings, music, offerings and collections, creeds and affirmations, benedictions and charges, rubrics, sermon, sacraments, expressions of fellowship, testimonies and ministry reports, oaths and vows, ordinations and commissionings, church discipline, fasting, and other unnamed possibilities.

As a pastor, I find myself uncomfortable with Frame’s interpretation of the Regulative Principle, but also aware that conservatives like Hart may not have fully dealt with other possible elements, such as mutual edification in corporate worship (1 Co 14:26). Like any pastor who holds to the Regulative Principle, I try to wrestle with the New Testament evidence to see what has been commanded or exemplified. This is what a conservative Christian church will have to do: determine which elements of worship are biblically prescribed.

Once determined, the church will need to include only those elements and ruthlessly exclude everything else. This may be difficult when certain traditions have set in. If your church determines that drama has not been prescribed, then what about the Sunday School skit? Or the Christmas play? If your church determines that the handshaking time falls outside of God’s prescriptions, will it be able to drop it altogether? For that matter, if your church has failed to include one of the biblical elements of worship, will it be able to begin practicing it?

Here some teaching on each element of New Testament worship will be useful. If a pastor devotes a sermon to each element, he is able to show the biblical rationale and reasonable application for what is included in his church’s worship services. Very often, such compelling sermons are all that is needed to show why other elements are not included.

A few more thoughts about pastoral involvement in the planning of corporate worship are in order, which will the subject of the next post.

1. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God ed. Philip Ryken, Derek W.H. Thomas and J. Ligon Duncan III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2003), 64.

2. D.G. Hart and John R. Muether,With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2002), 150.

3. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, 68.

4. John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 56.

5. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 146.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 7 – Doctrinal Literacy (contd.)

May 13, 2011

Churches that wish to be doctrinally thorough and promote theological literacy ought to have a pulpit that systematically teaches through Scripture, and support it with other means of increasing theological knowledge and depth. This post considers a third and fourth way of achieving this.

A conservative Christian church should engage in the systematic discipleship of believers. Of course, the previous two suggestions form part of this discipleship. However, teaching Christian disciples all things that He commanded us (Mt 28:20) entails more than sermons and classes. It calls for the mentoring relationships of teacher and pupil, master and apprentice, father and son. Paul’s description of himself as both a father and a mother to the Thessalonians seems to suggest this (1 Thes 2:7-11). Discipleship involves one Christian seeking the spiritual growth of another. This involves intercession (2 Thes 1:11-12), personal involvement, setting an example (1 Tim 4:12), and verbally instructing. Beyond this, a kind of loving supervision needs to occur, consisting of correction (Gal 6:1), encouragement (Heb 3:13) and counseling. Creating this habit of ‘apprenticing’ other believers in very individualistic cultures can be difficult. Pastors need to teach on these kinds of discipling relationships. Instructional materials can be written or purchased that may assist one believer teach another. Providing opportunities for believers to be together outside of corporate worship can be helpful for increasing these bonds, and allowing younger believers to observe older believers in other settings. Creating a culture of older believers caring for younger believers takes a long time, and needs to be continually urged against the spiritual entropy that causes us to think only of our own spiritual progress.

Systematic discipleship allows churches to ground believers in the ‘grammar’ of Christianity, slowly building from the fundamentals all the way up to a detailed systematic theology. Catechism is not a bad word. All Christians should ultimately be involved in catechizing other believers, as part of the Great Commission.

A conservative Christian church should encourage fellowship with other Christians where it exists. Conservative Christianity is not (or ought not to be) some schtich or gimmick to dress up one or another modern movement as the real deal . Conservative Christianity is truly catholic, for it seeks to conserve what is essentially Christian. Conservative Christianity is not the province of a particular group, denomination or movement. A Wesleyan can be a conservative Christian. A Reformed Baptist can be a conservative Christian. Conservative Christianity embraces Arminians like Tozer and Wesley, and Calvinists like Machen and Edwards. It sees value in Augustine and Novatian, in Fenelon and Guyon, in von Zinzendorf and Warfield. Individual conservatives may disagree with them on points, but it is because of their consistency that we know exactly where those points were. We know how much fellowship we can have with their systems of faith.

Of course, some doctrinal deviations have greater implications for the gospel than others. Some differences cause a greater breach in possible collaboration. Fellowship must be taken where it exists. Pastors can encourage this kind of genuine catholicity by pointing to the great strengths of Christian teachers and ministries past and present that differ from one’s own perspective. It can involve varying degrees of targeted collaboration with other Christians, ranging from the lowest levels of informal fellowship, through things like shared pulpits, all the way up to collaborated ministry efforts like joint church planting. Pointing out where fellowship exists, and where it doesn’t, not only helps believers appreciate the whole body of Christ, it increases their theological literacy. They come to learn how to weigh doctrinal differences. They come to appreciate the spectrum of theology, and how varying doctrinal differences affect Christian life and ministry.

Conservative Christianity wishes to conserve the whole counsel of God. Churches that wish to conserve Christianity must resist the tides of doctrinal minimalism, and seek to consistently teach the whole Christian faith.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 6 – Doctrinal Literacy

May 6, 2011

How do churches teach Christian doctrine thoroughly and cohesively? I suggest four ways, the first two of which I’ll deal with in this post.

First, a conservative Christian church needs a pulpit ministry that systematically teaches through Scripture. I am very thankful for those who have written extensively on expository preaching, or modeled it with their ministries. It is also gratifying to see a renewed emphasis on biblical theology, and the need to teach it from the pulpit. These are gratifying trends, and it is unlikely that church reform will begin anywhere but in churches committed to this kind of teaching. A systematic, ongoing teaching of texts in context is a certain way to teach the whole counsel of God. Good expository preaching will include a mixture of biblical, systematic and practical theology mixed into one meal. Topical sermons are valid forms of instruction, insofar as they are expository preaching with a multiplicity of texts.

A good pulpit ministry will include both positive and negative. It will explain what is good and right, and where necessary, expose theological and methodological error. No substitute exists for the consistent preaching of God’s Word.

Second, a conservative Christian church should encourage theological education among its members, beginning with its leaders. Theological education goes beyond the scope of a pulpit ministry, and seeks to catechize Christians in a broad understanding of Christian doctrine. This is never more needed than now, in our day of doctrinal minimalism.

One sees the effects of poor theological education in a kind of volatility among church leaders. I have seen more than one young pastor abandon theological positions he has barely understood, and have been guilty of similar impulsiveness myself, at times. For example, it has become popular to abandon dispensationalism. One wonders, of those that do, how many had read someone like McClain before doing so? I am not an Arminian, but should I not have read someone like Roger Olson before repudiating Arminian views? Not thirty years ago, Calvinism was hardly popular, but today it has a healthy following. This is partly through the excellent pulpit ministries of some modern Calvinists, but it may also be partly because we Christians are influenced by what is popular.

My point is not to defend or attack any of these positions, nor to impugn the motives of any whose theological position changes. All of us change somewhere. I respect the man who changes theological traditions if he fully understands what he is leaving and what he is embracing. Nor is it to disparage genuine resurgences of neglected doctrines. My point is merely to show how fickle our theological convictions seem to have become of late. It seems to require relatively little to change a man from cessationism to continuationism, a well-written book or two to convince a man of theonomic postmillennialism, a few visits to First Thriving Church to convince a man of bus ministry or orchestras or whatever the case may be. Where true, this phenomenon resembles Paul’s description of immaturity in Ephesians 4:14.

This kind of theological volatility is partly remedied with sound theological education. The kind of theological education worth its name must ground a man in exegetical skills, views of biblical theology, exposure to various systematic theologies, an understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and even a grounding in dialectical and philosophical concerns. The pastor who is privileged to have had such an education must do his best to grow something similar in his church. Though the pulpit ministry will teach much of what is needed, it is almost certain that it cannot achieve the level of theological literacy needed by itself.

To create a thorough and comprehensive understanding of Christian doctrine, the pulpit ministry will need to be supplemented with some kind of evening classes, adult Sunday School courses, or other formats where more specialised skills like hermeneutics, exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology and historical theology can be taught. Whatever the format, its presence can do wonders for theological literacy in a church. A pastor would do well to harvest the burgeoning resources in print or online, and build something of a theological reference multi-media library, with recommended texts, lectures and sermons. Seminaries exist partly because, at some point, churches stopped doing this. This is not to say that a local church, particularly a newer, smaller one, will always have within itself the resources to do this. But in an era of doctrinal fast-food, every church should strive to be a place where a wholesome, comprehensive view of the Christian faith is taught.

This is important for another reason. The theologically literate are better able to judge the relative importance of doctrines to one another. Armed with such knowledge, they are able to judge how serious the differences are between themselves and other Christians, and how much collaboration is possible. The current tribalism in Western Christianity is a symptom of doctrinally illiterate Christians frantically trying to identify us and them in terms of movements, associations, alliances, denominations, colleges, conferences, and coalitions, instead of careful comparisons of doctrine and the implications thereof. Christian catholicity is greatly aided by theological literacy.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 5 – Doctrinal Thoroughness

April 29, 2011

Google ‘Gospel-centred’ and you will find thousands of churches and Christians who have adopted this nick as descriptive of themselves. No one wants to be law-centred, I assume, or gospel-peripheral, and so we find that gospel-centred has become something of a new Shibboleth in evangelical circles.

In previous posts, I’ve already expressed solidarity with the truth of the gospel’s relevance for Christian living. While a renewed emphasis on the importance of the gospel is something to applaud, we must beware lest this virtue becomes a vice. There is sometimes an unhealthy under-current in what some mean by gospel-centred. For some, it is an abbreviation for doctrinal minimalism. That is, such people believe that the Christian faith is equivalent to the gospel, making all teaching not essential to the gospel extraneous. They want Christians to be less concerned with such doctrinal matters as angelology, eschatology, polity, or cessationism, if such do not touch directly on the gospel. For many, the gospel alone should become the measuring instrument for doctrinal importance.

To a certain degree, I agree that the gospel is a very reliable guide for determining doctrinal weight. However, I disagree that the gospel is the center of Christian doctrine from which all else radiates.

Rather, the gospel is the boundary which allows one into the Christian faith. The center of the Christian faith is where Jesus said it was: to love God ultimately and supremely (Mk 12:28-29). Therefore, we must beware lest our love for the gospel become a too-vicious pruning tool on Christian doctrine. There is much more to Christianity than the gospel.

Christianity is concerned with more than the question of how to become a Christian. It is concerned with the question of what it is to be a Christian. Since all Scripture is given to that end (2 Tim 3:17), Christianity worth conserving will conserve and pass on all that Scripture teaches. This is the second mark of a conservative Christian church: it will understand, defend and teach biblical, systematic, historical and practical Christian theology as comprehensively and cohesively as possible.

By contrast, much in modern Christianity tends to be eclectic and faddish in its approach to Christian teaching. Rare is the shepherd who is not pulled by the tide of clerical opinion in his time, who is not swept up by trends, fashions, and double-barreled buzz words. Scarce are the pastors not influenced by the personality and celebrity cults in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Uncommon is the kind of independence needed in a faddish age. This causes many a church leader to fall short of the goal of a comprehensive and consistent articulation of Christian doctrine. Too often he’s pulled by man-pleasing forces more than the desire to properly harmonize his system of faith. A bit chosen from the hot new book, a bit from Coalesced for the Gospel 2016, a copy-’n-paste from GoodBlog, a deferring reference to Pastor Bigname, and a resulting quilt-work of theology that is consistent only in the mind of the pastor (if there).

Now, this is not to say that we must accept our theology in non-negotiable package-deals, or that we are not responsible to test and examine the theological tradition we are in. This we must do. However, our goal is to understand and teach Christian doctrine as cohesively and comprehensively as we can. A conservative Christian Methodist must teach his Methodism uniformly and thoroughly. A conservative Christian Presbyterian must set out a Presbyterian understanding of biblical, systematic, historical and practical theology. A covenant theologian must apply and teach his system of faith as consistently as he is able. Such is the integrity of Christian character; such should be our respect for the Word of God.

In fact, it is this kind of attention to doctrinal detail that will actually promote Christian unity. When differences are properly articulated, conservative Christians will quickly be able to see where fellowship is possible and where it is not. It is when differences are blurred through garbled articulations of doctrine that real tensions may later arise. Feigned unity built upon doctrinal agnosticism will inevitably crumble, or else be held together with the Scotch tape of good intentions.

Conservative Christians want the whole Christian faith, not just the door. Conservative Christianity wants all inspired Scripture taught and explained for life and godliness. In the next post, I would like to suggest several practical ways to grow this comprehensive approach to Christian doctrine within the local church.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 4 – Defending the Gospel

April 22, 2011

Churches that wish to conserve and propagate the gospel must be willing to defend it. The gospel is attacked in several ways, and therefore its defenders must be aware of where the conflict will be.

A battle exists over the meaning and intention of the gospel. The enemies of the gospel are forever seeking to re-define what is essential to the gospel, or what it aims to do. Again, this is a call to thorough and continuous teaching on the meaning of the gospel, the doctrines fundamental to the gospel, and the meaning of conversion. Teachings that deny, undermine or distort the gospel must be challenged, and challenged publicly.

The gospel is also attacked when non-Christians are recognized as Christians. This happens in two ways. First, when Christian fellowship within the local church is extended to people who profess an orthodox gospel but live lives which consistently and fundamentally deny the meaning of the gospel. This comes back to the matter of church discipline, discussed in the last article. A second way the gospel is attacked is when people who deny one of the fundamental teachings of the gospel are recognized as professing Christians.

To give the right hand of fellowship to someone who denies an essential teaching in the gospel is a kind of unauthorized diplomacy on the part of a Christian. It is like an ambassador extending full and open relations with a hostile nation, simply because the enemy ambassador said ‘we ought to get along’. A professor is not authorized to change the passing grade on an exam simply to ingratiate himself with a student. A police officer is not authorized to change the traffic laws to appear ‘loving’ to an offender. And a Christian is not authorised to change the terms of eternal life to appear tolerant, ecumenical and open-minded.

When this is done, the gospel is demeaned. Its prominence as boundary line between believers and non-believers is eroded, and one must look elsewhere to define Christian.

This idea of being devoted to the fundamentals by refusing Christian recognition of those who deny them is the genius of 20th-century fundamentalism, but it is not unique to that movement. Several separatist movements have existed through history, demonstrating, in part, that a defence of the gospel through separatism has been a part of robust, historic Christianity. Separatism is not the be-all and end-all of preserving the gospel. Nevertheless, separatism is an inevitable and indispensable part of conservative Christianity.

Practically, this limits whom a church would recognize as Christian, and which groups they would be willing to partner with. Since fellowship is not an all-or-nothing deal, the purposes for, and consequences of cooperation should decide whether fellowship or partnership takes place, and at what level of collaboration.

We must remember that it is possible to undermine the gospel indirectly. It is possible to weaken the defence of the gospel by whom we cooperate with. For this reason, we must give careful thought  to whom we will extend Christian fellowship.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches -3 – Committed to the Gospel

April 15, 2011

As important as understanding the gospel is, it is not sufficient. Churches must be committed to the gospel. That is, churches must be devoted to the application of the gospel throughout church life.

We have already spoken of how the meaning of the gospel must be taught, and reiterated. Beyond this, the believer’s position in Christ, and Christ’s position in the believer must become a constant refrain in our churches. The human heart is not only naturally idolatrous, it is also naturally legalistic. Even to those who teach the gospel of grace, the message of the gospel for Christian sanctification must be kept central. The secret of abiding – ongoing communion with God – is that Christ is in us and we are in Him (John 15:4). As a church disciples its own, it must teach the principle that the gospel’s effects continue throughout a Christian’s life (Col 2:6).

A church also displays commitment to the gospel when it pursues clearly defined membership. Far from being a mere administrative detail, membership provides a physical boundary of professing Christians within a local church. It is an incarnation of the idea of a regenerate church membership: those who profess Christ and have publicly followed Him in believer’s baptism are included within a local assembly as those the church can give an account for.

Apart from teaching on the nature of the church, fairly detailed membership classes can help people understand that the church is comprised of professing, baptized believers only. Our church reads the prospective member a summary of the church covenant, and observes as he or she makes a covenant with the church publicly. In an era of trucebreakers, this helps us appreciate the enormous significance of being included in a church – the fellowship of the regenerate.

The flip side of this is a wise use of church discipline. Church discipline is Christ’s method for loosing from the church (Mt 18:18) those whose profession of faith has been denied by their lives (Tis 1:6). The initial aims of the actions preceding church discipline are all restorative; the final action is one of changing the nature of the relationship between church and member. At some point, a church is authorized to say that an individual’s life clearly compromises the meaning of the gospel, and can no longer be recognized as a gospel-professor. In changing the nature of the relationship between gospel-professors and one whose life denies the gospel, the gospel’s meaning and effects are both taught and protected.

A church is committed to the gospel when it is committed to ‘gospelising’, that is, evangelism. If the message is as exclusive as it says it is, if the command to evangelise is as clear as any other command, and if our Savior is as excellent as we say He is, we must spread the gospel. We must spread it by preaching, and we must spread it without a word. We must spread it at home, and spread it abroad. We must reason with people, and we must appeal to their consciences. We must show the rational basis for Christianity, and we must show the guilt of sin. We must give people books, and meet them for coffee, and host Bible studies, and pray, and live winsome lives. Different contexts call for different approaches, but for Christians, the command is, as you are going, make disciples. Evangelism is one citizenry encountering another, and the ambassadors of Christ rightly declaring God’s promises and living like citizens of another culture.

My goal is not to provide techniques for evangelism; Scripture is strangely silent on that. Again, if church members are saturated with the meaning of the gospel, and filled with compassion for their neighbours, some kind of evangelism is inevitable.

One more practical aspect remains regarding a church’s relationship to the gospel: its defense of it.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches -2 – Understanding the Gospel

April 8, 2011

Since the gospel is the basis and boundary of Christianity, anyone interested in conserving Christianity ought to be interested in conserving the gospel. A cursory glance at church history shows that the gospel has at times gone into near-eclipse, and this while official Christendom remained prominent. Such historical phenomena show that self-identifying with Christianity does not always mean we will consequently do the work of conserving the gospel. Conservative Christian churches must be deliberate in their efforts to understand, defend and propagate the gospel.

The first and primary way to achieve this in a local church is to continually clarify the meaning of the gospel. I have for some time felt that personal evangelism programs and techniques would probably be redundant if church members were thoroughly drilled in the meaning of the gospel. After all, if you are immersed in an understanding of the gospel, you will find natural ways to work it into conversations. People who know what they’re talking about typically like to talk about what they know.

Pastors can produce that kind of atmosphere with sermons which, in natural and appropriate ways, often summarise or re-state the essentials of the gospel. It needn’t only be in the final words of application. Our sermons can have an evangelistic heart, amidst material meant for Christian discipleship. At the same time, sermon series on the gospel are important. Enough nominal Christian debris exists in the minds of most churchgoers that a fairly regular consideration of the meaning of the gospel can be useful. Here one can take the time to unpack the key texts, consider which doctrines are essential to the gospel, and spend time exclusively tackling the topic of the gospel.

I am also in favor of devoting an entire service to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. With the attention riveted on the Lord’s atonement, there can hardly be a better opportunity to clarify and explain the meaning of the gospel. Well-chosen hymns and songs can preach and explain the gospel in arresting ways. Often one line in a hymn grips the imagination and teaches the essence of the gospel better than many discursive paragraphs could.

Though some may balk at the use of creeds in church, creeds like the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed helpfully state the doctrines essential to the gospel. Whether you read them in a corporate service, or make a study of them in a Bible study, these help the church to understand what constitutes the gospel. (And not merely a parochial 21st-century take on the gospel, but the historic, universal gospel.)  The church’s own statement of faith can also become a useful teaching tool.

Along with teaching on the gospel, some teaching on the nature and effects of conversion is equally important. Here a book like 1 John becomes so vital, with its insistence that eternal life has a very present-tense dimension. Teaching through this book will certainly challenge people’s understanding of what the gospel is, and what it does.

A final practical way of encouraging a clear understanding of the gospel within the local church is to require that prospective members or baptismal candidates be able to explain the gospel. When we require a testimony of salvation, we must beware lest we allow the subjective account of personal conversion to drown out the person’s objective profession of the gospel itself. Both are necessary; I fear we who speak often of “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” have perhaps erred on the subjective side.

Understanding the gospel is crucial, but conserving it requires more than that. Churches must also be committed to it in deed, and prepared to defend it. It’s to that we turn next.