Our congregation is at the beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead. That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world. With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.
The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion. For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc. But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong. So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]
Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been. Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church. Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.
That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture. The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers. Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.
Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church. At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur. But what about relationships outside the congregation? What is the role of the Church there? What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?
In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God. I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”. That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.
I’m teaching through 1 Thessalonians right now and I’m using multiple commentaries as part of my preparation. One is the popular Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay. (Look, I know there are some problems with his theology, but that doesn’t mean there is no good fruit there. F. F. Bruce considered him a Christian brother so who am I to deny that assessment?)
Anyway, Barclay has this sentence in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of men it produces. The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men.”
That raised the question for me–have I been one of the best of all men this week? Could people see Christ in me when they looked at my ways. Frankly, the answer is kind of mixed for me. Some see the caring pastor, but others see the guy who can be angry and dismissive. Some see a model of the faith, others see a man who is less than perfect in his family relationships. Some see a busy man who works hard, and others see someone who has a tendency to put things off until the last minute or find excuses for not doing what needs doing (apologies to Garrison Keillor).
Sometimes I think we are often too ready to use the idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner as an excuse for failure to grow in sanctification. In chapter 4 Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us that, “this is the will of God, your sanctification …”
So I ask you, friends, when someone looks at your life, do they see that faith in Christ produces the best of all men (and women)?
Well, it’s been quite some time since I last posted and I have every intention of being better about this work, but who knows how well I’ll do. Anyway ….
My wife and I went to see the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. It’s an interesting place to visit and you can easily spend an entire day there. Some of it is first rate, some is less so for a person who already knows a lot about the topic, and some is, well, vaguely irritating. I was especially turned off by a section quoting the deist Thomas Jefferson and the Unitarian John Adams about the importance of the Bible. But, all in all, it’s a trip worth doing.
I was most taken by a display of the first editions of Tyndale’s New Testament, the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop’s Bible and the King James Version. As an English speaking Christian there is a kind of thrill in thinking about the people who actually held those books in their hands and read God’s Word in their own language.
One of the troubling things about the visit was the amount of security they feel is necessary. There are guards stationed inside and outside the building. Metal detectors, of course, and some of the most interesting bag check machines I’ve ever seen were also present. I’ve been told that there were threats made against the museum while it was being built. Satan’s minions are ever active in this world and evidently this privately built 6 story museum just off Capitol Hill is deemed by our enemy to be dangerous to his plans.
My wife commented to me that any other book that had as much impact on the world as the Bible would be required reading in every school. And she’s absolutely correct. The Word of God comes off the pages with power and with effect. Nothing is so threatening to our debased and evil national culture as God’s Word found in Scripture. Nothing speaks Truth with such authority as Scripture. Nothing is more precious to those who have God’s Word than it is. And nothing has changed the world as much as the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us.
It is impossible to imagine Western Civilization without the Bible. Many of the common phrases used in conversation are the result of translation decisions made by men like Wycliffe and Tyndale. Slavery was abolished because of Christianity. Women received equal rights because of Christianity. Music and visual arts have been profoundly affected by Christianity. The first hospitals were inspired by the proclamation of the Gospel. Public education was started so men and women could read the Bible.
I could go on, but you get the idea. So if you have the opportunity to get to Washington, take the time to visit this museum. It could inspire you to open the book it celebrates a little more often.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life and I’ve preached a lot of sermons too. Any preacher who is serious about his calling spends a lot of time each week preparing for those 20 or so minutes on Sunday morning. Sometimes we get feedback on how we did, sometimes we don’t. So we don’t always know if the words of our mouths or the meditations of our hearts have been pleasing either to God or to the congregation. We can only pray that something good will result from our efforts.
The question that always stands out, though, is what makes a good preacher. Some people have honed the art of public speaking to such a sharpness that they are bound to surpass your average run of the mill speaker. I’ve read that Patrick Henry was such a talented public speaker that people would often lose track of time during his orations, thinking only a few minutes had passed when it was actually over an hour. Must a good preacher have such a skill? Or maybe a good preacher is a man whose knowledge of Scripture astounds even other pastors and who fills his message with a list of supporting passages almost too long to follow. Or maybe a good preacher is a man who can, in the pulpit, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Well, in my opinion, there is only one way to measure whether or not a preacher was good on any given Sunday—did he proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you? I don’t care how clever the argument, how well delivered the sermon, how sonorous the tone of his voice–if a preacher doesn’t tell you that you, yes you, are a sinner deserving of eternity in hell but that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, bore your punishment on the cross at Calvary, rose from the dead on the third day and promises salvation to all who confess with their mouth that He is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead–if you don’t hear that the preacher wasted 20 minutes of your life.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he came among them determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is what matters in the pulpit. It is a message so profound, so filled with meaning that every preacher ought to be able to find 60 different ways to express it every year of his ministry. I pray God shows each of us who dare to speak to His assembled people in any congregation how to do this small but immeasurably great service.
I am working now to refocus my ministry. I’m doing a number of things to help me in that–rereading my ordination vows, reading books on pastoral theology, focusing my prayer life on this effort and reading what Scripture has to say about the work of those called to pastoral ministry. Paul’s second letter to Timothy is of particular importance in understanding what a pastor’s role is to be. It was most likely Paul’s last writing and in it he encourages his protege Timothy and all the others who have followed him in ministry.
There’s a lot in the short letter but I want to write today about an encouragement that isn’t meant just for pastors, but for everyone who serves in ministry in the Church–in other words to every Christian. It’s the 15th verse of the second chapter. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.”
Paul wrote elsewhere that he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). And his encouragement to Timothy and to us also carries this message. Don’t be ashamed of being a Christian in a pagan world. The Gospel is the only true good news in this present darkness and we are called to witness to it everywhere we go. Sometimes this will be uncomfortable, for us and could lead to difficult situations in our lives. Indeed Paul writes a bit later in 2nd Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But that doesn’t change the charge Christ has given to all His elect people.
Another aspect of this charge not to be ashamed relates to what we will experience on the Day of Judgment. On the day of the Lord’s return everyone will be judged–even those who are destined for salvation. We will see and know all that we have thought, said or done that is contrary to God’s will. We will know in a extraordinarily powerful way just how great our Lord’s atoning sacrifice was for us, how much we deserved eternal separation from the Holy God. I am sure that shame will fill our consciousness as we look back on our sins. But Paul tells us that one thing that should not cause us shame is the work we do in handling the Word of Truth.
I read recently that only 17% of self identified Christians in this country actually live out a Biblical worldview. The influence of our secular culture seeps into our lives and teaches us to deny the plain teachings of Scripture about so many things. Everything from divorce–a violation of the 6th Commandment–to the common desire of Americans for more and more material things–violating the 9th and 10th Commandments–to even qualified approval of abortion–violating the 5th Commandment–to whatever else you want to list–all such opinions represent a failure to rightly handle the Word of Truth and will cause us shame on the last day.
If the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God it is our responsibility as His witnesses in the world to proclaim what it teaches, even though it’s teaching is an offense to the world. Just because the world around us doesn’t live a Christian life–that is no reason why Christians ought not live as true followers of the eternal Word–Jesus Christ our Lord.
I suppose you could say that this is kind of a rant. I frequently receive catalogs from a major seller of Christian books and Bibles. Over the years I’ve bought quite a few things from them and I appreciate their work. But the latest catalog sort of set my teeth on edge–and it wasn’t about the number of Amish romance books on display–although I may rant about those sometime soon. No this rant is about the Bibles they’re selling.
The Bible is the Bible and while there are competing translations–ESV, NKJ, NASB, NRSV, etc.–there shouldn’t be much else separating them. The Word is the Word, after all. But you can never underestimate the ability of marketers to differentiate their product from their competitors product. With the Bible we not only find study Bibles with notes by people of differing theological positions, we also find Bibles prepared especially for children, teens, women, men, people in recovery, people who like horses (really I can’t make this stuff up), and just about every other subgroup of Americans you can find.
I’ve begun to find all of this really irritating. The focus of Bible readers should be on the Word of God proclaimed therein–not on anything else. If you like horses and want to read about them–read Black Beauty. The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God’s nature and His salvific work through Christ’s substitutionary atonement for our sins at Calvary. It is to bring people to faith in Christ. Every time we add something alien to that task to the pages of Scripture we diminish that purpose and obscure the Word.
Unfortunately the Church today is far too willing to accept the marketing of trinkets and trash in the name of living a Christian life, when what is really needed is not a mimicking of the culture around us but a turning toward the unadorned Word. Had God wanted additions to His Word, I dare say He would have had the writers of Scripture add them in the original autographs.