A Sermon on Church Health

This sermon was prepared as the fourth in a series about the process of the Church Renewal Lab.

Introduction: Learning to Ride a Backwards Bicycle

 Destin Sandlin is an engineer who created an educational science website called “Smarter Every Day.” His buddy is a welder in a shop where they like to pull pranks on people, and he made a bike that he bet Destin couldn’t ride. The bike was modified so that when you turn the handlebars left, the wheel goes right, and vice-versa. Destin thought he could ride it. He was wrong. He tried riding it the next day, and every day, for eight months. He still couldn’t ride it. Then one day, something in his brain clicked, and suddenly he could ride the backwards bike. But his mind had 30 years of normal bike-riding pattern burned into it. It took eight months for him to learn a new way. Then he tried it with his six year old son, on a similarly altered little boy’s bike. It took his son two weeks. Why? Because the brain of a child is much more elastic, and can learn motor skills and language much more quickly than an adult brain. (I can’t help but think that there is a spiritual parallel to this: Jesus says you have to become like a little child to learn the ways of the kingdom).

And by the way, when Destin had mastered riding that backwards bike, he found he couldn’t ride a regular bike anymore—not at first. He crashed and crashed for 20 minutes, then the old pathway in the brain kicked in again, and he was rolling again. But the point is this: when you’ve been doing things one way for many years, it takes a lot of intentional effort, and time, to unlearn those habits, and replace them with new ones.

This morning we’re looking at the fourth essential for renewal: and that’s health.

I. The Pharisee Christians

 This was a real crisis that faced the young church. There were certain Pharisee Christians, v. 5, who said that to be a follower of Jesus, you first had to become a Jew. You had to keep the Jewish ceremonies and take on the outward signs of being a Jew. The Pharisee Christians complained when people from the outside end up changing the church. Pharisee Christians looked back fondly to when the church was totally Dutch…I mean, Jewish. Did I say Dutch?

Well, Pharisee Christians can still be found today. They’re the ones who demand that the church stick to the old ways, even if those old ways never worked well in the first place. (I find it fascinating when Peter says: why should we put a burden on the Gentiles that we couldn’t even live up to? v. 10). Pharisee Christians complain when someone tries something new, rather than either just letting it go, or contributing something positive to improve the experiment. A church cannot thrive, cannot be vital, and cannot grow if it is controlled by this mentality. A healthy church is missional; that is, it exists to bring the good news to non-church people. It does not exist to try to please every demographic of the already-churched.

Health, when it comes to churches, means that a congregation is a place of grace and permission. Grace means: treating people with the same grace and forgiveness as we have received from others. And permission, particularly in the context of renewal and revitalizing our congregation, means: “Creating an environment where risk taking and change are embraced with joy and enthusiasm.” Does that mean you will like every change? No. But it does mean you get behind the goal of change, which is to make us more effective in our mission to reach the lost. It means tolerating things you don’t prefer. And this is what happened in the early church.

In the Renewal Lab, we will be learning about the habits that make a church healthy. One of the tools for fostering church health lists habits that are un-healthy. Here are two examples: unhealthy ways to deal with complaints:

  • When someone complains, we stop everything to try to figure out a way to make that person happy; therefore, anybody in the congregation has the power to stop us with a complaint.
  • People are allowed to complain anonymously in our congregation so that we often know that people are upset, but we don’t know who they are.

 These are unhealthy norms. If we don’t consciously work to change these habits, they can lead to toxic results: like burnout, and division. But sometimes these habits are as ingrained in us as riding a bike. So when we try to learn them, and practice them, we will fall down a lot, and crash occasionally. And that’s where the grace comes in.

II. No Compromise

 So how did the Apostles deal with this crisis? Well, first of all they refused to compromise, and second, they made a lot of compromises. Paul and Barnabus refused to give one inch on the gospel, what the good news about Jesus really means. The Pharisee Christians wanted “Jesus And…” Jesus Plus. But for Paul this was a deal breaker.

The leaders of the church got together to solve this problem. This meeting is considered to be the first universal church council, by the way. And I find it fascinating that Luke (author of Acts) records the opinions of two people who had a different emphasis than the apostle Paul. If you remember, Peter had assumed that you had to be a Jew, and eat kosher food, in order to be a Christian. And James, I imagine, probably had a real problem at first with Paul’s emphasis on faith, because James puts the emphasis on the good works that faith produces. So it’s no accident Peter and James speak up in defense of Paul’s teaching.

You don’t have to become a Jew to follow Jesus! What purpose does it serve to make the gentiles avoid pork? We’ve been avoiding pork for thousands of years—how well has that worked out for us? Those external things—things that God intended for our good—they now get in the way. It hasn’t made us stand out from the crowd in the way God wants, because we also didn’t stand out in terms of loving the stranger, and having compassion on the broken. So why force this “yoke”—this burden, on these new believers in Jesus? Verse 11: No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as [the gentiles] are.

Just as the apostles refused to compromise on the gospel, so there are a few things that a healthy church should never compromise. The first is: We cannot compromise on seeking to be a missional church. Worship, for example, can never be just about making me feel good. It cannot be an activity that is meant to please one group or another. True worship seeks to please one person, and that is the Lord God.

Another area where a congregation has to draw the line is to say no to unhealthy behavior. Now, every one of us deals with brokenness, of course. There will be times when we will say the wrong thing, or say the right thing, wrongly. Where we cannot compromise, though, is on this: We can’t let bad behavior be the norm. So if I have an issue with you, but I don’t tell you, because I hate conflict, and instead I gossip about how wrong you are to some third party, that’s unhealthy. Or someone says: I want to complain about this thing in church, but I don’t want you to say my name, that’s out of bounds. We can’t allow that.

Again, that’s hard to learn, to create a culture where we instinctively know that a certain kind of communication or criticism is unhealthy. And to practice the healthy way, until we no longer automatically react in the unhealthy way. (I’ll tell you when I get it down perfectly myself. Don’t hold your breath.) Those bad habits reach deep down into our history, our souls, maybe even our DNA. We will fall off the bike a lot as we try to learn new habits. It will take time. But it won’t happen at all unless we make a consistent and intentional effort.

III. Several Compromises

 Finally, the apostles said: No compromise!… followed by several compromises. No compromise on the essentials; compromise like crazy on the rest. They made gracious concessions. James, the brother of Jesus, and (as I said) someone who probably thought Paul didn’t mention holy living as often as he would like, stood up and said:  “… we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols…” etc.

Now, Paul could have stood up and said: We need to get rid of every Jewish ritual! But he didn’t. Notice the things listed: avoiding meat sacrificed to idols—Paul in the letter to the Romans says this meat is not really polluted, but weak Christians think so. Avoiding sexual immorality—here, specifically, James probably has in mind things like ritual prostitution—things that the Jews particularly disliked about the gentiles. And avoiding meat that was strangled or had blood in it. This was particularly difficult for Jews to swallow…so to speak. It didn’t harm the non-Jews to avoid these things, so it was a good compromise, and it held the church together, and allowed them to continue pursuing the mission Christ gave them.

A healthy compromise. A healthy church can make compromises that don’t compromise the mission. The Jerusalem Council came about because of a conflict—but the apostles led the people through this conflict, with a good result. So not all conflict is unhealthy—not even in the church. Conflict is inevitable. There’s going to be conflict, different opinions, clashing personalities. But it’s easier to learn how to ride a backwards bicycle than to learn that conflict is not always bad and doesn’t always have to end in a meltdown. It’s especially hard to learn if you grew up seeing mostly unhealthy conflict. Many of us carry those wounds—and that colors how we deal with conflict (or don’t deal with it). So if you avoid conflict, and don’t always handle it well, join the club. I’ll show you my membership card after church. Personally, I think it’s one of the hardest things to practice, and it’s one of the areas where I fail the most.

But the first apostles learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, as the old cliché goes. And there are resources available. The Mennonites have a tool they call Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love, and it’s very good and helping individuals and churches work through conflict. The first principle is to “Acknowledge together that conflict is a normal part of our life in the church.” Another is to talk to people directly about issues, rather than going behind their back. If you’re like me, you tend to take criticism personally, and if you’re like me, you might have a strong urge to counterattack. It’s hard, very hard, to find a different way. And we don’t always find that way, and sometimes we have to seek forgiveness.

Conclusion: A Healthy, Healing Meal

 When I fail big time at this, my reaction is first to be defensive, and then to feel shame. To beat myself up. Many of you know that feeling. You’ve been there. The only thing worse at that point is to be alone with your thoughts—telling yourself you’re a failure, you’re unlovable, you’re worthless. But that’s not what Jesus wants from you, or from me. Jesus wants to lift us up out of the dirt, and say: Go, and sin no more.

But Jesus, you said that last time!

And Jesus will say: Yes I did. And the time before that. And I will say it again next time when you mess up.

Until then, Jesus says, eat this bread, and drink this cup. They’re for your healing. Eating and drinking with those people who are wounded, and forgiven, just like you—that’s healing. It makes you healthy. Because when you do, I am there with you. Don’t sit alone with your thoughts about being unworthy. Sit with other unworthy people, whom I love. Whom I forgive. Whom I restore. Whom I feed with my very flesh and blood.

Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, feed us now, and make us whole, and holy again. Heal our divisions and grievances. Make us healthy, so that you can fulfill in us that Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Amen.

From Embers to a Flame 5

Chapter 9: Revitalization Strategy 7: Staying on Mission with a Vision

mission-visionA church that needs revitalization needs a clearly defined mission and vision, argues Harry Reeder in this chapter. He makes a distinction between those two terms: “Your mission is what God has called your church to do for God’s glory, whereas vision is what he wants your church to be as the mission is fulfilled. To put it another way, mission is our purpose, and vision is our passion” (128). He illustrates with the words of Jesus in the Great Commission, which tell the disciples what to do (make disciples), and then before the ascension, he says what they will be (his witnesses).

This is a curious description of vision. And I’m not sure it’s adequate or accurate. Vision usually refers to the future; it’s an envisioning of where you want to go, who you want to be, and from there you figure out you want to get there, what strategies you will use. Fortunately, this is how Reeder actually uses the term, later.

A Mission from God

Reeder begins with Acts 13:36, where David’s mission is described. David “served God’s purpose in his own generation” before he rested with his fathers. Each church also has a purpose that is unique to their own situation, Reeder says. (This is true, but it is also true that all churches share the same basic purpose, which is to make disciples; I’m sure Reeder would agree). So, for First Cutlerville, the question is: what is our purpose here in this area, in Gaines and Byron Townships, in the neighborhoods near 68th Street between Byron Center Avenue and however far east one wants to go. What does it mean to be a church in this area?

Reeder reminds us that the questions that people ask change from generation to generation and from culture to culture. So we not only have to tell people the gospel, we also have to listen to them carefully, to get to know them, so that we can understand where they are coming from. When Reeder was in college in the 1970s, the debate was: Is Christianity true or not? Today the debate is: Is there any truth at all? And is your truth the same as my truth? Today we deal with radical subjectivism (I determine my own truth), relativism (your truth and my truth can be totally different) and skepticism (there may be no truth or no way of being sure about the truth).

State Your Mission

Here Reeder talks about creating and refining a mission statement. (This practice comes from the business world, and I wish Reeder would provide some biblical-theological justification for why we borrow this practice. He simply assumes that we should do so). In any case, Reeder says a mission statement should answer five questions:

  1. Who are we? Mission requires a clear sense of identity.
  2. What do we do? The mission statement makes your priorities clear, and helps you to evaluate new ministries that are proposed: Will this new ministry help us to fulfill these priorities? Reeder’s church prioritizes worshipping God and reaching people for Christ; any new ministry must help them accomplish those goals.
  3. Where do we do this? Our ministry starts locally, and extends globally.
  4. How do we do this? Reeder’s church specifies that they do this by equipping Christians.
  5. Why do we do this? In good Presbyterian and Reformed fashion, Reeder’s church says that their “why” is God’s glory. Or in other words, to please God.

Developing a Vision

“If mission is God’s purpose for your church in your own generation, then vision is the ability to picture that purpose implemented in your world” (134). Here Reeder offers a more conventional and, I think, more accurate understanding of what vision means. What will our church look like in the future if we fulfill our mission?

Reeder suggests the following issues to consider when developing a vision:

  1. The pastor’s strengths, weaknesses, and calling. Reeder does not think that a church’s vision is all about one person, of course, but because of the pastor’s office and training, the pastor “takes a primary role in setting the vision for the church.” Nevertheless, that vision must be shared, “given away, embraced, enhanced, and enlarged by the other leaders” in the church–here we think of our ministry staff, our office-bearers, other respected members, and our Church Renewal Lab Team. The vision has to be owned by the congregation if it is to become theirs, and if they are to invest in it. But because vision usually starts with the pastor, Reeder says (and I’m not sure if this is always true, largely because I want to be collaborative in my leadership), and because the pastor will be a key person in implementing the vision, the pastor’s passions and giftedness have to be carefully considered. The pastor should ask: Why has God called me to this congregation? What is my purpose here? In addition, the elders should play to the pastor’s strengths. Make the most of those strengths. Take the time to get to know the pastor and talk about what those strengths are.
  2. The ministries of other local churches. What are other churches doing, and how can our ministry be unique among them? Don’t duplicate what the church down the road does.
  3. The needs of the community. We have to be students of the culture around us, Reeder says (and Tim Keller often makes this same point). What are the problems and the blessings in your neighborhood? What is the ethnic mix? The difference between a “receptor church” and a “mission church” is one we can understand. In the old days, CRC churches grew when Dutch people moved into an area; that’s a receptor church. A mission church finds ways to connect with people from a different culture. Reeder does not, however, talk about how one does this.

Vision at Work

Reeder describes the desire to be an “epicenter church,” just an earthquake has a starting point and radiate waves from that center. “The kinds of tremors that we want to see are evangelism, discipleship, church-planting, church revitalization, and deeds of love, mercy, and justice” (140). Reeder emphasizes the importance of communicating that vision to the congregation, because “nothing motivates people for creative, sacrificial, joyful, and continual support of a ministry more than vision” (141). Vision is even better than guilt, which is what we often use as a motivator!

Churches in need of revitalization often believe that their vision must be small, because they don’t have enough resources to go big. But Reeder argues that “resources seldom precede vision and ministry.” Don’t wait for the resources to come in before you develop goals. Instead, develop your mission and vision, and then begin to implement it; then your people will start supplying the resources you need (143).

Farsighted Vision

Vision should extend beyond the near future, beyond short-term goals. We should be thinking about the next generation, and generations to follow. In Reeder’s church, they set ten year goals, which, for example, included averaging a hundred professions of faith every quarter of every year and graduating a hundred members a year in Evangelism Explosion. Another goal was to plant a strategic network of a hundred epicenter churches. (All ten goals can be found on pp. 145-146). These goals are lofty, even for a large church. But Reeder quotes a fellow pastor, Randy Pope, who says, “We want to attempt something so great for God that it is doomed to failure if God is not in it.” A revitalized church will have a God-sized vision, not a human-sized vision.

Chapter 10: Revitalization Strategy 8: Servant Leadership Multiplication

Where are the Good Leaders?

Reeder argues that in the past, “the church defined leadership for the rest of the country and produced many of the country’s leaders,” but this is no longer the case.

What is Good Leadership?

Good leadership can be defined by three maxims:

Good leaders learn from the past, but they don’t live in it. (See chapter 3)

Good leaders live in the present, but they don’t accommodate to it. They are thermostats rather than thermometers; that is, they don’t just reflect their environment, they seek to change it.

Good leaders look to the future, but they don’t wait for it.

One can also define a leader by what a leader does: A good leader influences others to effectively achieve a defined mission together.

The Influence of Godly Leaders

This is how an effective leader in the church influences others:

  1. Education. Paul taught Timothy so that he could in turn train others to be leaders (2 Tim. 2:2). Reeder emphasizes that “good leaders in the church will always be teaching others about the ways of God” (152).
  2. Embodiment. Good leaders also embody the truths they teach, and serve as models for others.
  3. Empowerment. Good leaders, through inspiration and motivation, empower others to lead and serve. Having confidence in them is one way of doing so. (I would add that micromanaging and controlling them would do the opposite).
  4. Evaluation. Good leaders stay connected to those whom they lead, so they can affirm what has been done well and identify areas where improvement is needed.

The Effectiveness of Godly Leaders

An effective leader is one who “learns to do the right things in the right way at the right time for the right reasons” (155). First, one has to do the right things. Busyness is not an indicator of effectiveness. A good leader needs to distinguish between the apparently urgent and the genuinely important, and prioritize accordingly. Doing things in the right way doesn’t mean comparing yourself to others, but doing the best that you can do with the gifts God has given you. Doing things at the right time (and for the right reasons). Reeder actually does not discuss the “at the right time” part, which is unfortunate. But I would say that one learns, over time, that there are appropriate times in which to mention things to someone.

The Legacy of Godly Leaders

Here Reeder emphasizes the importance of working together in ministry. An effective leader is not one who does all the ministry alone, but who “attracts, develops, and deploys others” to carry out ministry with the leader. The goal is to equip the saints for works of ministry, Eph. 4:11-12. In this way, effective leaders “must be reproducing themselves in the body if the body is to remain healthy.” A good leader delegates, but a good leader can also take charge and be decisive in an emergency. Delegation, however, is the more necessary skill.

Profile of a Multiplication Leader

A multiplication leader has the following qualities:

  1. A multiplication leader is a learner.  If you quit learning, you no longer have the credibility to teach, lead, or coach others.
  2. A multiplication leader seizes on learning moments. These come more often in difficult times than when things are going smoothly.
  3. A multiplication leader is always teaching and coaching others.
  4. A multiplication leader always helps others seize their personal learning moments.
  5. A multiplication leader uses teaching maxims. That is, a leader “learns to put ideas in clear, memorable terms that people can hold on to and practice.”

A Curriculum for Leadership Development

Reeder suggests a basic outline for planning leadership training in one’s church, one that corresponds to the three parts of Hebrews 13:7 (but in reverse order): Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Reeder suggests that leaders be trained in character, content, and competency.

  1. Character. A person can have good biblical and theological knowledge, but lack character. A leader of character does not care about being upstaged by others who perform well, and is not threatened by the excellence of others. Reeder observes: “circumstances do not dictate your character, they reveal it, and they become an opportunity to refine it”(167).
  2. Content. In addition to the scriptures and the important confessions of the church, Reeder points out other things that might be neglected. First, they should have a good understanding of history (see chapter 3). Second, they need to know the Bible well and be able to find their way around the Bible. Finally, Reeder says leadership trainees should know the doctrine of providence, the teaching that God is ultimately in control. This will help them to avoid despair when things are going well. (Here Reeder, by the way, gives numerous examples of virtuous civil war generals, all but one from the Confederacy. He does this throughout the book, apparently unaware that continually finding examples of integrity and character among leaders who treated African-Americans as subhuman property, and who fought and died to maintain the inhuman practice of slavery, might be considered not so convincing to anyone who is not white, or Southern. I found this a very poor choice).
  3. Competency. Here Reeder identifies three competencies that leaders must develop in others: a) Ministry skills; b) Mentoring skills; and c) Management skills.

Reeder then compiles a list of leadership principles and practices:

  • Effective leaders take risks, but they don’t deny reality.
  • Effective leaders are innovative, but not ridiculous or novel just to get attention.
  • Effective leaders take charge, but do not oppress people.
  • Effective leaders have high expectations that stretch others and raise the bar for all, but don’t set people up for failure by demanding the impossible.
  • Effective leaders maintain a positive attitude, but stay in touch with reality.
  • Effective leaders create opportunities for success in small things that encourage others to tackle the greater challenges.
  • Effective leaders lead from the front, but stay in touch with those who are following and supporting.
  • Effective leaders give their people public credit for success, but take responsibility themselves for any failure or setback.
  • Effective leaders plan their work and work their plan, and always remember that their plan and their work are people.
  • Effective leaders establish priorities in their leadership plans, and stick with them.
  • Effective leaders establish accountability for themselves and for those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders raise the bar of performance for themselves.
  • Effective leaders avoid bitterness and animosity toward those who are in opposition.
  • Effective leaders avoid rationalizations and the public blaming of those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders clearly communicate their objectives and methods, as well as their expectations of others.
  • Effective leaders ensure agreement and support by those who work with them on matters of vision, goals, philosophy, and tactics.
  • Effective leaders are aware of the preferences, strengths, and weaknesses of those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders develop thoughtful loyalty from leader to follower, as well as from follower to leader.
  • Effective leaders are courageous, yet avoid being foolhardy in the name of bravery.
  • Effective leaders develop clear objectives and overall strategy, but maintain the ability to be flexible.

From Embers to a Flame 4

Chapter 7: Revitalization Strategy 5: The Priority of Intercessory Prayer

child-prayingHarry Reeder reminds us that prayer is the oxygen that the flame of renewal needs to ignite the flame of renewal. He notes that the church at Jerusalem, described in Acts 2, was “conceived in a prayer meeting” and “birthed in a sermon.” Chapters 7 and 8 stress the importance of prayer and the preaching of the Word.

The Priority of Prayer. The early church was one that was devoted to prayer. Prayer was so important to the leaders of the church that the office of deacon was instituted so that the apostles could focus on “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6.1-4). Reeder suggests that a lack of prayer is why many churches decline and die:

They may have charismatic leaders or slick programs, but they have become ineffective because the church has stopped praying. On the other hand, any church that commits itself to prayer, no matter how bad things may have become, can be renewed and rebuilt by the power of the Spirit (98).

Trouble in the Early Church. Reeder identifies the prayer of the believers in Acts 4:23-31 as especially applicable to revitalizing the church. The believers had gone from enjoying the favor of the people (Acts 2:47) to being persecuted. And it was in prayer that they found the energy and encouragement to continue with God’s mission, despite opposition.

The Priority of Praise. The believers’ prayer in Acts 4 does not begin with a laundry list of requests. No, it begins, as proper prayers do, by praising the Sovereign Lord. Reeder observes: “By orienting our minds to the greatness of our God, we are then better able to pray according to his will and to have the confidence that this great God can indeed grant our requests” (100). Reeder also observes that this prayer is “permeated by  scripture,” phrases drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reeder suggests identifying specific scriptures that relate to church revitalization and employing them in prayers, both public and private.

Prayer and Predestination. Reeder, coming from the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition that we share, lingers over verses 27-28, which state that the authorities and the people who rejected and crucified Jesus were doing what God had predestined to take place. (Here the NRSV translation is clearer than the NIV). Often this precipitates the question: Why pray if God has already decided what is going to happen? But the early church found comfort in God’s sovereignty, in the fact that he is Lord, and not the authorities or even the Emperor himself. Reeder correctly observes that these first believers “knew that the same God predestines has also chosen to accomplish his sovereign will through prayer, not apart from it. Put another way, the purpose of prayer is not for us to change the plan of God, but for us to participate in that plan” (101).

Pleading and Petitions. Reeder encourages us to be specific and bold in our requests to God. He suggests that you make a list that “contains all the great things that God could do in and through your church as it is revitalized by the power of the Spirit. Begin praying diligently about every blessing that you can possibly imagine, and then watch as God does more than you can even imagine!”

Prayer Works? Reeder next makes an important point about who works in prayer. Prayer is not a technique, as in the theologically suspect Prayer of Jabez that was popular some years back. Prayer is not a way of manipulating God. Instead of saying “prayer works,” it’s better to say “God works through prayer.” The focus is not on our prayers, as if it’s all up to us, but on the power of God who answers our prayers. Reeder: “God is the change agent, and he has ordained to change things through praying people” (105).

Chapter 8: Revitalization Strategy 6: The Primacy of Preaching

The Ministry of the Word.

“The church in Jerusalem was conceived in a prayer ministry (Acts 1) and birthed in a sermon (Acts 2).” And as mentioned above, the Apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The word of God in scripture was the foundation of the early church, as the first believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Reeder points out that the latter three activities have their foundation in the ministry of the word: “The apostles’ teaching is the Word proclaimed…their fellowship was the ministry of the Word shared…the breaking of the bread was the ministry of the Word visualized, and…prayer was the ministry of the Word returned” (108). So the whole ministry was rooted in scripture.

Reeder suggests that the letter of 1 Timothy “can be considered and studied as a textbook on this topic [of church revitalization]” and thus it is important to note the Apostle’s emphasis on the ministry of the word in this letter. Reeder’s analysis of the letter is interesting, but definitely slanted toward a certain interpretation. He says that in 1:3-11 Paul instructs Timothy to oppose those who are teaching false doctrines, and that in 2:11-12 “Paul addresses the importance of women’s receiving instruction, rather than giving it to the men in the church” (108). But as I am demonstrating in another series of posts, Paul’s warning is better understood as specific instructions for the women in the Ephesian church who have fallen prey to the very false doctrine Paul mentions at the beginning of the letter and throughout his instructions to Timothy. Ensuring that only men, and not women, teach in the church is not a principle of renewal and revitalization; in fact, one could argue that interpreting I Tim. 2:11-12 as a timeless, universal principle could be a hindrance to renewal and revival. In any case, a reliance on the scriptures resounds through both of Paul’s letters to Timothy.

The Message Preached. Paul places the scripture at the center of the gospel ministry in his instructions to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14–17, NIV)

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God  may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Reeder analyzes this text and identifies seven aspects of the biblical message that is to be preached in order to revitalize the church:

  1. We must preach a gospel message. Timothy was taught the scriptures from childhood–but this was before there was such a thing as the New Testament, so the scriptures here are the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. This means that the good news is all though the Bible, and that even when we preach from the Old Testament, we preach the good news of God’s grace, which he demonstrates in the fullness of time by sending his Son, Jesus Christ.
  2. We must preach a Christ-Centered message. (See above).
  3. We must preach a God-Given message. The message we preach should not just be our opinions; rather, we must faithfully study and wrestle with scripture in order to convey what God is saying through his word. In the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we insist on expository preaching, that is, sticking very close to scripture, explaining it, and applying it.
  4. We must preach a profitable message. Reeder here argues that as long as one is faithfully expositing scripture, it will be profitable. He could say a lot more here. Also about the responsibilities of the listeners to profit from preaching.
  5. We must preach a life-transforming message. The scriptures are useful or profitable for “rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In other words, preaching must apply the teachings of scripture to everyday life. The gospel is not just preaching about something God has done, but also about the “So now what?” What does this mean for me? How should I seek change in my life? How is God challenging me?
  6. We must preach an equipping message. Here Reeder makes an interesting point that is also controversial: “Our services should be primarily focused on encouraging, strengthening, and training Christians, so that they can then take the gospel to those who need to hear it” (116). The church should “gather to worship and scatter to evangelize,” Reeder says. The risk of focusing on non-believers in worship is that believers become undernourished. They are not being sufficiently discipled, nourished by the meat of the word, when only the most basic message of the gospel (what the Apostle calls “milk,” 1 Cor. 3:2) is being preached. Reeder’s experience in several different congregations led him to the conclusion that “it is not necessary to be seeker-centered to experience numerical growth.” That is different from being seeker-sensitive, that is, being considerate of the presence non-believers in the service.
  7. We must preach a sufficient message. It is the scriptures that will make Timothy “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Not his rhetorical skill, or his knowledge of the social sciences, or anything else. The Bible is sufficient; God’s word in itself has power to change people’s hearts, when the Holy Spirit softens their hardened defenses.

The Person Preaching. Reeder then expounds on the qualities and habits of a faithful preacher.

  • The person of God lives and speaks in the presence of God. When one steps into the pulpit, one should be very aware of being in the presence of God. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I wear the Geneva gown in the pulpit, because it is a reminder to me that the office is a holy one, not to be taken lightly, and because it is a form of dress taken from the university, it reminds me of the Reformed emphasis on teaching the word to God’s people).
  • The person of God lives and speaks in light of the return of Christ. In other words, preachers have the task of calling people to remember that the judgment day is coming, and they will have to give account of themselves, and to whom they belong, to their Creator.
  • The person of God is diligent in preparation. In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul says: “Preach the word; be prepared [ἐφίστημι–stand ready] in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” The preacher must spend a great deal of time, throughout one’s career and not just in seminary, in the study of the Bible, learning more and more the context of the whole Bible, so as to better bring out and apply the meaning of individual passages.
  • The person of God is determined and patient. Well, I have one of those. Reeder says “many times we have to tell people what they do not want to hear. We must commit ourselves to speaking the words of God, regardless of how we think the people might respond” (122).
  • The person of God is serious about their work. Here Reeder, in my opinion, misses the boat completely, and goes off on a tangent about avoiding too much humor. But when Paul tells Timothy to be “sober minded” (2 Tim. 4:5, ESV), he means mentally disciplined and self-controlled. This is why I don’t use the English Standard Version (ESV), by the way. Where the NIV is often too loose, the ESV too often is wooden and overly literal. This is why pastors also need to learn Greek and Hebrew continue to use those languages in their diligent study of the word.
  • The person of God is focused and purposeful in ministry. Reeder says that pastors need to be more focused on fulfilling God’s purpose in ministry than in being personally fulfilled in ministry. However, Reeder fails to emphasize how those things actually go together and contribute to each other, or how when things go badly, both can be affected.

The Role of Church Officers in the Ministry of the Word. Reeder here emphasizes how office-bearers, and particularly pastors, need time to devote to prayer and the diligent study of the word. Reeder here emphasizes that “elders, deacons, and other leaders in the church must step up to the plate and fulfill their ministry so that the pastor can fulfill his.” He says that most pastors “spend about fifteen hours in preparation for a good sermon, and ten more if they preach a second time that week” (125). I would say at least that much. He concludes by saying: “If you are an elder or a deacon, prayerfully consider how you and your church can make more time available for your pastor to pray and study.”

For part five click here.

From Embers to a Flame 3

Chapter 5: Revitalization Strategy 3: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry

The First of the First Things. Harry Reeder’s pattern for revitalization is: remember, repent, and recover the first things. And the first thing to be recovered is the gospel itself. The Church at Ephesus is an example of a congregation that needed to practice this recovery. Jesus says to them: “…You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first….” (from Revelation 2:4-5).

Back to the Basics. What the church needs, Reeder argues, is not some complex or totally new strategy, but to get back to what the church is about, the basics of making disciples.

Putting “First Things” First. The first thing that we need to recover is the gospel of grace itself. When Reeder became pastor of a dying church that was close to being shut down, he preached on the importance of personal faith. He found that many of the remaining members needed to make a public commitment to Christ, and he tells the story of two members, a deacon and an organist, who actually made a commitment to Christ, even though they were already integral members of the church.

A Closer Look at the First of the First Things. The basic gospel message must be at the center of any church renewal process. I like Reeder’s emphasis on the fact that we need to be evangelized throughout our lives. Reeder says “we can go deeper into the gospel, but we can never go beyond it.” Believing and unbelieving sinners need to hear the same gospel.

Understanding the Gospel of Grace. Reeder explains: “The gospel is sin-conquering, sin-canceling, and life-transforming.” The gospel includes these elements:

  • Salvation from the Persuasion of Sin–Effectual Calling. This refers to when you not only understand the Christian message about Jesus in your mind, but you are convicted that it applies to you personally: that Jesus died for you, that you need forgiveness, etc.
  • Salvation from the Power of Sin–Regeneration. This is when God gives us rebirth, or birth from above (John 3:3). Christianity is not a crutch to get through life, Reeder says, it is an entire life support system!
  • Salvation from the Penalty of Sin–Justification. God declares us not guilty of our sins, even though we are in fact sinners and commit sins. But because Jesus Christ has stood in our place, and because we are united with him, God credits his perfect obedience to us.
  • Salvation from the Position of Sin–Adoption. Sin separates us from God, but the good news is that God, through faith in Jesus Christ and the work of his Holy Spirit, brings us into his family, making us the children of God rather than the children of wrath, and he adopts us as his own, making us heirs of his coming Kingdom.
  • Salvation from the Practice of Sin–Sanctification. Sanctification means: the process of being made holy. In one sense we are saved when we believe; but we are also being saved throughout our lives, by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Jesus accepts you as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way. This is the process of following Jesus Christ in your daily life, putting off our old self, and putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24).
  • Salvation from  the Presence of Sin–Glorification. In one sense, our salvation is still future, because we struggle with sin and brokenness in this life. In the New Heaven and New Earth, there will be no more trace of sin to mar God’s good creation and his creatures.

Applying the Gospel of Grace in your Church. Reeder notes that focusing on the gospel of grace does not mean that we can only talk about “milk,” and never proceed to the “solid food” of the gospel (see Hebrews 5:12-14). And he emphasizes that “we must avoid at all costs the kind of preaching and teaching that is mere moralism.” That is, we cannot preach as if the gospel is nothing more than a list of rules and restrictions, as if it is all about one’s behavior. That is the error of the Pharisees.

Avoid Errors that Distort the Gospel. Some of the misunderstandings that warp the true meaning of the gospel are two opposite errors: one Reeder calls “passivism,” the attitude that we just have to sit back and let God work in us, without making any effort. The other is “activism” or “moralism,” namely, the idea that says that my sanctification and spiritual growth is all up to me and my efforts, and minimizes the power of the Holy Spirit. Or another set of errors: a view of the Christian life that is legalistic and all about rules, or one that says there are no rules, and ignores obedience and holiness. Reeder observes that Scripture calls us “not to work for our salvation but to work out our salvation,” because it is God who is at work within us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Focus on Jesus Christ. “A gospel-driven church is a Christ-centered church because he is the embodiment of the good news.” In the process of church renewal, we must remind ourselves and each other that it is not my church or our church; it is not the denomination’s church; it is Christ’s church. It is Christ who builds the church and he promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18).

Chapter 6: Revitalization Strategy 4: Personal Gospel Formation

The Discipline of Grace. The gospel of Luke tells us that the young boy Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

  1. Wisdom–Intellectual Discipline
  2. Stature–Physical Discipline
  3. Favor with God–Spiritual Discipline
  4. Favor with Man–Social/Relational Discipline

Here again, Reeder emphasizes the importance of getting the gospel right:

“The Christian life is not lived in order to be saved; it is lived because we are saved. The Christian life is not the foundation of our salvation, but it is a necessary evidence of salvation. James does not say that you are saved by your works; he claims that saving faith works” (84-85).

Reeder talks about these four areas of discipline, but he provides barely four lines on the first, intellectual discipline. This is an unfortunate choice, especially in our Christian Reformed tradition, in which loving God with all our mind is very important (even though sometimes we have tended to make it excessively important). He spends more time on physical discipline, though the Bible speaks more about training in doctrine than training in the gym (though Paul often uses athletic imagery precisely to speak of spiritual discipline).

Reeder gets into more detail on spiritual discipline(s). He divides them into two categories:

  1. Disciplines of Denial and Abstention. He puts these disciplines in the context of putting off the old self, the sinful nature, and putting on the new self. He identifies six virtues or disciplines here:
  • Simplicity in Life. Live an uncluttered life. Very hard for hoarders.
  • Frugality in Life. “Frugality in life is living within our means while giving beyond our means.”
  • Silence in Life. Here Reeder points out that the Christian life is not only intentional but also contemplative.
  • Sacrifice in Life. Reeder could say more here.
  • Chastity in Life. And here. Especially as the church becomes more responsive to single persons and deals with radically changing views of sexuality.
  • Fasting in Life. Here Reeder argues that fasting is never about repentance but always about helping us focus. Personally, I doubt it. Fasting is very often associated with repentance in the Bible (for example, when the Ninevites hear Jonah’s call to repentance, 3:5). But despite the fact that fasting makes me think only about food, I suppose that helping one’s focus could also be a use of fasting (e.g. Jesus fasted in the desert and had no need for repentance; on the other hand, he represents Israel and so may also be embodying the True Israel who needs to repent, as he becomes sin in a sense (Romans 8:3f.) Fasting, more likely, enables us to feel in our body a hunger for God that may find a parallel in the soul.

2. Disciplines of Devotion and Development. Here Reeder lists the following:

  • The study of God’s Word.
  • Intercessory and Contemplative Prayer.
  • Meditation and Memorization.
  • Reflection.
  • Confession.
  • Consecration. (Dedicating ourselves to God’s mission).

Here I would have liked Reeder to offer some reflection on Christian virtue. In addition, he seems at times to paint these disciplines in a very individualistic and private shades. But true Christian discipline and growth almost always happens in community, in fellowship (koinonia / κοινωνία) with other believers. I would like to see more emphasis on this communal element of spiritual discipline, particularly in our self-absorbed North American context.

Disciplined Christians are Found in Discipling Churches. Reeder points to the early church (Acts 2:42) to illustrate that a vital, growing church is one that practices spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Reeder emphasizes The Necessity of Church Discipline, that is, formal church discipline. To be a disciplined and discipling church, “you will have to teach and practice church discipline.” He rightly points out that this is some of the most difficult work of the ministry, and yet it is clearly commanded by the Lord Jesus himself (Matt. 18:15-17) and the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 5:12-13).

For part four click here.

Not At All Clear

A Case for the Ordination of Women to the Ministry,
Part 1.

I have made it known in a previous post that I can no longer defend or support with any enthusiasm the practice of barring women from holding the ordained offices of elder and pastor in the church. I also feel that it is crucial for Christian Reformed churches to get past this issue, over twenty years after our Synod made its final decision on the matter (1995), in order for us to speak credibly to the current generation. In other words, I am convinced that continuing to bar women from leadership in the church will harm our witness and growth and our work of making disciples. It’s not that we should cave in to the world’s standards; it’s that people inside and outside of the church can see when our standards have gone awry. And they have gone awry in this case, as I intend to demonstrate. I am convinced that churches that want to grow through evangelism (and not merely attract Christians from other churches) need to move beyond this relic of a past era. Because in reserving ecclesiastical office for men only, we are not clinging to biblical teaching, but to a very human, very culturally conditioned understanding of gender roles.

muscular_christianity_grugerIn recent times, the debate over whether women should be ordained as elders and pastors has been framed, rather badly I think, by the terms egalitarian and complementarian. The term egalitarian means “supporting equality.” It asserts that men and women are equal. Yet most complementarians would agree that women and men are equal, but dispute the assertion that this equality means that women and men have the same roles in the church. However, some (certainly not all) complementarians also seriously undermine the equality of women in ways that are shockingly sexist and misogynist. One sees this particularly in the remarks of John Piper, who asserts that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel,” and that “the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” Piper asserts that God calls men to take the initiative spiritually, and women come alongside in a supporting role. Throughout this sermon, Piper paints a picture of women as weak, fragile, vulnerable, soft, and in need of protection by brawny, muscular, tough-skinned men, who can valiantly and gallantly teach hard truths like the doctrine of Hell and not burden the delicate ladies with the task of teaching these difficult topics. But this “masculine ministry” is not Biblical teaching; this is the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorian era. It is a view of women and men shaped by the romantic notions of a bygone age. And it is condescending to women. It is also harmful to men, who are made to feel like they have to be tough and strong, and also extroverted in terms of spiritual leadership. It is, to use Martin Luther’s terminology, a kind of theology of glory that leaves little room for suffering and weakness.

The opposite term, complementarian, also leaves a lot to be desired. It means that men and women are different yet complementary. Aristophanes, the Greek comedian, tells a story in Plato’s Symposium, about how human beings originally had two heads, and double all the normal body parts, but when these creatures got too prideful, Zeus blasted them in two, and now men and women only feel whole and complete  when they find their (literal) “other half.” I think it is clear that egalitarians can also affirm that women and men are complementary in a general sense. Egalitarians do not want to erase or ignore gender distinctions. But they also, rightly, shy away from making blanket statements about the qualities of women and men, because these are not universal, and experience teaches us this. We should not deal in stereotypes. In fact, one can argue that it is precisely the differences that men and women bring to leadership that makes it crucial to employ the experiences and voices of women in the leadership, pastoral care, and preaching of the church. I can testify that my own preaching voice has been strongly shaped by female pastors, particularly by the homiletical art of Barbara Brown Taylor, and the rhetorical and contextualizing skill of Fleming Rutledge.

Clear and Plain?

I recently heard again the common refrain that the Bible is clear that women should not hold positions of authority in the church; the Bible’s plain teaching is that pastors and elders should be men. This clarity has been highly exaggerated. In fact, the argument is built on a foundation of sand.

The main passage that is cited to bar women from preaching or exercising the office of pastor and elder (as defined in the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions) is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. This is the number one passage that people cite to make the claim that the Bible is so clear and obvious and plain when it prohibits women serving as preachers and elders. But in fact this is one of the most obscure and difficult passages in the entire Bible. It is not at all clear. The passage reads as follows:

1 Timothy 2:11–15 (NIV)

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

So, let’s ask a few obvious questions about this passage.

  1. What does Paul mean when he says “women will be saved through childbearing”? Whatever he means, the one thing he most certainly cannot mean is that…women will be saved through childbearing! Paul often and emphatically teaches that persons are saved by grace through faith. Women are not saved in a different method than men. There are not separate male and female salvation tracks. And what about single women, and women unable to have children: Can they be saved? And what about continuing “in faith, love and holiness with propriety”–is this what saves a person? One’s good works? One’s tranquil and serene lifestyle? Clearly not.
  2. And do we really want to say that women are by nature more susceptible to deception? And that God created women this way? That seems to be the implication of verse 14, or at least that seems to be the meaning if (as complementarians insist) this is a reference to an enduring and unchangeable “creation order.” But if it is, then the Bible really does teach that women are more susceptible to deception, and men less so. But this is false, sexist, and chauvinistic… clearly so. It implies that women are intellectually and morally inferior, and that is theologically unacceptable. Such an assertion impugns God’s character as Creator. Is Paul a sexist? Is God? But in fact, Paul is not referring to some supposed creation order that endures through eternity; he is using an illustration from scripture. Just like Eve was deceived and fell into sin, some women in the Ephesian church have been deceived by false teachers who have been taking advantage of them, and Paul prohibits these women from teaching the false doctrine they have imbibed. Paul does something similar in Galatians 4:24-27, where he takes the story Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar from Genesis and interprets it allegorically, that is, changing the meaning of the literal events to make a spiritual application.
  3. And how far does one take this prohibition of teaching by women? Can women teach Kately Beaty quote.jpgSunday school or catechism or a youth group lesson or lead a Bible study that includes men? Can they teach boys the faith? The preacher Timothy seems to have learned the faith from two important women in his life, his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:14-15). Can a woman study academic theology or biblical studies, and in turn, teach men in a seminary? Like leading Cambridge University theologian Sarah Coakley? Or like theologian Mary Vandenberg and biblical scholars Amanda Benckhuysen and Sarah Schreiber in the Christian Reformed Church’s own denominational seminary? Or my friend Suzanne McDonald at Western Theological Seminary? Or is the fact that these scholars are women teaching men theology an act of disobedience, and dishonoring to God? Can a man read a biblical commentary written by a woman without committing sin? (John Piper, again, is not so sure). Can a woman be the editor of North America’s leading evangelical magazine? Clearly this implies having a role in the spiritual instruction of men. Yet how many of us would object to Katelyn Beaty‘s role as managing editor of Christianity Today? (Especially if you know that she’s a Calvin College alumna!) If there is one thing that’s clear, it’s that we are exceptionally inconsistent in applying this supposed principle.

A Rare and Unclear Term

Another thing that is not entirely plain or clear is the meaning of the word that the NIV translates as “assume authority.” It is the Greek verb αῦθεντεῖν (authentein), and it is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that appears only once in the New Testament. This means that it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly what Paul means by this term, and many scholars have written articles about its possible meanings. The Authorized (King James) Version translates it: “usurp authority” over a man, that is, to seize authority that rightfully belongs to someone else, by illegitimate means. The most common Greek dictionary defines it as: “to have authority, or domineer over someone.” So just restricting ourselves to this range of meaning, the word can convey either that Paul does not permit a woman to have any authority over a man (presumably limited to the sphere of the church, since a mother has authority over her male sons according to God’s law in the fifth commandment), or that Paul is prohibiting women from undermining legitimate authority and presuming to hijack and replace that legitimate authority.

In addition, Paul prohibits women from teaching. But how far does this go? Is it restricted to teaching children? Remember Priscilla and Aquilla, who worked alongside Paul in his ministry? Paul generally names the wife Priscilla first, which is unusual and noteworthy; he calls them his “co-workers” in the ministry of evangelism and planting churches. This wife-husband pair discipled Apollos (the future evangelist) in the Christian faith, that is, they both taught Apollos the way of Christ. We read about this in Acts 18:26–another instance where Priscilla’s name is mentioned first, which I think implies that she took the lead. And to be realistic, we know of couples where the wife is more outgoing and evangelistic than the husband, and more of a student and teacher than her spouse. And we don’t generally object to this, because we know that God gifts persons differently. We know that some people are more introverted, others more extroverted, and this difference crosses gender lines.

So, to come back to the important question: Is Paul’s prohibition against women teaching in the church all that clear? Did he even follow it universally himself? And what grounds are there for restricting this teaching prohibition to the pulpit? If it is in fact a universal principle for all times and places, we may need to rethink women as chairs of committees, women as Sunday School and Catechism teachers, women as mentors and disciplers, and women as youth group leaders who disciple young men. The answer to the question of precisely how to restrict women’s roles will not be found in the Bible. I think that we have traditionally focused on the pulpit and to the offices of the church as a male-only domain because of our very western and male-centered cultural assumptions about the roles of women in society. This would be ironic, because the usual accusation one hears is that advocates for women in the ministry are taking their cues from modern culture and not the Scriptures, but I think the opposite can just as easily be the case. Opponents of women in ministry are just as shaped by cultural assumptions and biases as any other readers of Scripture. In fact, it is precisely because I hold to the Reformed principle of scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the sole authority for church practice and teaching, that I come to a different conclusion when I study the important texts, and especially when I study them in their Biblical and cultural context.

…the usual accusation is that advocates for women in ministry are taking their cues from modern culture and not the Scriptures, but I think the opposite can just as easily be the case. Opponents of women in ministry are just as shaped by cultural assumptions and biases as any other readers of Scripture.

In the next post, I will discuss that biblical and historical context, and hopefully shed some light on this very difficult and obscure text, and perhaps make it less difficult, not so obscure, if not downright clear.

 

 

 

 

From Embers to a Flame 2

Remember and Repent

The first two revitalization strategies are remember and repent.

Chapter 3: Revitalization Strategy 1: Connect to the Past

Harry Reeder encourages churches to learn from the past without living in the past. Congregations benefit from being connected to their local church’s history, as from an awareness of the great tradition of the Christian faith. Reeder writes: “A revitalization pastor will learn from the past in order to live in the present so that the church can change the future” (38).

Original fcv church
Original building of the Cutlerville Christian Reformed Church

The History of the Local Church. Reeder emphasizes the importance of working to understand a congregation’s history. He tells the story of a pastor who followed two very successful predecessors. Someone said to the new pastor: “You sure have some big shoes to fill.” And the new pastor replied: “I brought my own shoes, thank you.” Reeder emphasizes that we must avoid being trapped or dominated by the past. New pastors, he says, should neither demean the former ministry nor try to duplicate it.

 

The History of the Universal Church. Reeder laments that American Christians often know little about international Christianity and the history of Christianity. Our creeds and confessions, when used in worship, connect us with the great tradition of our faith, as do classic hymns. Reeder argues for beginning with “the great classical worship that at one time was contemporary and has now become tried and true, and then build on it, being ready to absorb that which is excellent in the present” (42). Good worship, he contends, avoids both “the arrogance of modernity, which disconnects from the past” and “the idolatry of traditionalism, which lives in the past.” Instead, it “is connected to the past without living in the past, contextualized in the present without accommodating the present, and setting a pattern to shape the future instead of becoming dated in the future” (42). Reeder also recommends incorporating illustrations from church history into sermons. –Who am I to argue with that?! Another suggestion is to teach people about the Old Testament.

In order not to be a maintenance ministry, but rather, a movement ministry, Reeder suggests three courses of action: Investigate, Contemplate, Celebrate.

  1. Investigate past blessings.
  2. Contemplate the lessons and principles that the Lord blessed in the past.
  3. Celebrate them and continue to implement them in ways that fit the gifts and resources that you currently have in your church and use the celebrations to set up new initiatives in the ministry vision that the Lord is laying out to take the church to the next level in serving Christ and expanding the kingdom.

Here at First Cutlerville, we just celebrated 20 years in our current building, on June 12, 2016. As I was preparing my sermon, I read the commemorative booklets from the 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries of the congregation. I learned much about our history, but perhaps also about our present character. I think it could be valuable to scan these documents and make them available online for our leaders and members. In the Church Renewal Lab, we heard that most churches work forward from their past, but we should really work backward from our future. That is: envision where God wants to lead us tomorrow, and then discern what that means for what we do today in order to get to that place.

Chapter 4: Revitalization Strategy 2: A Call to Repentance

Reeder’s second strategy, a communal, corporate repenting from past wrongs, is not a downer, he argues, but an opportunity for God to do a new thing.2 Chronicles 714 [mobile-1262x1262].png But before you can encourage a community of people to truly repent and confess sin, one must first cultivate an atmosphere of grace. We don’t repent to feel bad about ourselves; we repent joyfully because we are sure of God’s loving forgiveness earned at the high cost of Christ’s blood. Secondly, Reeder says we must also emphasize personal responsibility. We should not be making excuses for ourselves or for others. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the Serpent. Third, we then have to expect the fruits of repentance. Reeder summarizes these fruits in three words: restitution, restoration, and reconciliation. His summary is helpful: “Restitution is paying back what is owed, restoration is setting things right again, and reconciliation is the renewing of relationships that have been broken by sin” (50).

Repentance in the Leaders. Reeder tells the story of a church that had gone through a process of renewal. The council of this church came to a place where they felt led to confess to the congregation the sin of acting as a board of directors rather than as shepherds of the flock. They read a letter to the congregation asking for forgiveness. “As a show of unity they all brought stones marked with their names and Bible verses and piled them up together to mark the day of a new beginning rooted in the forgiveness and reconciling power of the gospel” (51).

Repentance in the Church. The Bible contains stories of how “sin in the camp” can have a negative impact on the whole community of God’s people. The story of Achan who stole booty from Jericho, is an example (Joshua 7). Reeder observes that sometimes there is “a need for corporate confession because the body as a whole has not faithfully followed God’s Word” (53). Reeder’s church ended up asking forgiveness, in a very general way, from four hundred (!) families that had left the church over 13 years. One of the results was that it put an end to a lot of negative talk in the community about the congregation. In addition, Reeder notes that very specific sins may also need to be confessed by the church.

For part three click here.

Getting Calvin Wrong

In an academic book written by leading scholars, one does not expect to find egregious errors. But one finds them nonetheless. I was privileged to attend the 2009 international Calvin conference in Geneva, commemorating the 500th birthday of the Genevan Reformer John Calvin. (Calvin himself was a no-show. Same thing happened when I visited John Knox’s house in Edinburgh in 1989. He wasn’t home).


Anyway, Irena Backus and Philip Benedict edited a collection of the keynote addresses that came out of that conference. Calvin and his Influence, 1509-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 336+xiii). You can get it for $115 on Amazon.com in hardcover. You might opt for the paperback after you read this. Or for looking at the decent essays in the library. And there are many. Even the introduction is fantastic, except where it is deplorable.


You can read my complete review here. As I was trying to describe Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in 1000 words for Christian History magazine (an impossible task, by the way), I was recently reminded of the following unbelievable comment, made by the editors in the introduction to this volume. It still astounds me:

“While [Calvin] stresses election to salvation but not to damnation in his controversy with Bolsec, he prefers in his Institutes of 1559 to emphasize God’s prescience: God elects to salvation those whom he foresees will be true believers, which implies that he also foresees the others as unbelievers and condemns them. … In the Institutes (3,19-25; 4,18-20), he asserts that God foresees who will believe and elects or condemns as a function of this” (p. 13).



If you have a theological education, you can pause here and catch your breath.


Calvin, first of all, does not teach “election to damnation,” because election by definition refers to God’s choice to save. “Election to damnation” is therefore nonsense, and indicates a lack of familiarity with basic Reformed theology. What the authors have in mind, of course, is reprobation, which is the opposite of election. But they clearly do not understand either election or reprobation, as will be seen below. Moreover, the editors of this volume, who are indeed leading Reformation scholars, project onto Calvin the view of Jacob Arminius and his followers, the Remonstrants, who based election on God’s foreknowledge of a person’s faith. This view does not exist until the early 17th century. Calvin, however, opposed the idea, common in one trajectory of late medieval thought, that God elects those in whom he foresees merit, albeit grace-assisted merit, congruent merits, to be precise. Third, these scholars assume that reprobation is the same thing as condemnation, which demonstrates again that they do not know the first thing about Reformed theology. Their goal is to present a more accurate picture of Calvin and to dispel caricatures, but in fact they are part of the problem.


There is a footnote to the authors’ statement that reads: “OS I: 88-90.” OS refers to the Opera Selecta, a five-volume collection of Calvin’s works considered most important by its editor, Peter Barth (Karl Barth’s younger brother). But this reference does not point to the 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion; it points to the 1536 first edition of the Institutes and its very brief and rudimentary treatment of predestination, in which Calvin makes no mention of foreknowledge. Calvin’s mature comments on predestination in the 1559 Institutes actually appear in OS IV: 368-432. Setting aside this serious error, it’s safe to say that Calvin never says what these leading Reformation scholars say he does, because he clearly, frequently, and consistently teaches the opposite. So, for example, in his 1559 Institutes, 3.21.5, Calvin writes:

“The predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no man who would be thought pious ventures simply to deny; but it is greatly caviled at, especially by those who make prescience its cause. We, indeed, ascribe both prescience and predestination to God; but we say, that it is absurd to make the latter subordinate to the former.” (Citations from the Beveridge trans.)



Or a bit later, in 3.22.1:

“If election precedes that divine grace by which we are made fit to obtain immortal life, what can God find in us to induce him to elect us?”

 

And further in 3.22.2:


“If you say that he foresaw they would be holy, and therefore elected them, you invert the order of Paul. … In the additional statement that they were elected that they might be holy, the apostle openly refutes the error of those who deduce election from prescience, since he declares that whatever virtue appears in men is the result of election. Then, if a higher cause is asked, Paul answers that God so predestined, and predestined according to the good pleasure of his will. By these words, he overturns all the grounds of election which men imagine to exist in themselves.”

 

And further yet in 3.22.3:


“We have already shown that the additional words, ‘that we might be holy,’ remove every doubt. If you say that he foresaw they would be holy, and therefore elected them, you invert the order of Paul. You may, therefore, safely infer, If he elected us that we might be holy, he did not elect us because he foresaw that we would be holy. …

And how can it be consistently said, that things derived from election are the cause of election? … Assuredly divine grace would not deserve all the praise of election, were not election gratuitous; and it would not be gratuitous did God in electing any individual pay regard to his future works.”

 

And yet again in 3.22.4:

 

“The question considered is the origin and cause of election. The advocates of foreknowledge insist that it is to be found in the virtues and vices of men. For they take the short and easy method of asserting, that God showed in the person of Jacob, that he elects those who are worthy of his grace; and in the person of Esau, that he rejects those whom he foresees to be unworthy.”
Beza young 01
Théodore de Bèze

To add clichéd insult to this injury, the introduction goes on to claim that Theodore Beza’s Tabula Praedestinationis (or, more properly, his Summa Totius Christianismi, 1555) “presented election and reprobation in diagram form as exactly symmetrical in God’s mind, both constituting a part of his eternal decree.”


Nope.

 

Yes, election and reprobation are both part of the eternal decree, but they are not “exactly symmetrical.” The opponents of Calvin and Beza would make that charge, but without grounds. Does this look exactly symmetrical to you?

 

2016-07-01 (2)

 

I didn’t think so.

 

The important non-symmetry between election and reprobation is this: Election is God’s decision to bestow a completely undeserved and unmerited salvation to certain individuals. Reprobation, however, is the divine decision to give sinners exactly what they deserve and merit. Moreover, even if you can’t read Latin, you can see that the lines are not exactly symmetrical. In the matter of calling, for example, God’s call to repent and believe is effective in the elect, but in the reprobate there are two possibilities: some never hear the summons to believe the good news, while others hear but experience a voluntary hardening (induratio spontanea) of their hearts. People are saved because of election and the salvation that ensues because of election, but sinners are not condemned because of they are reprobate. They are condemned because they freely sin and rebel against God. The later Canons of Dordt make this even more clear and explicit than Beza, but the distinction was definitely there in less refined form. (The Canons reject the false charge that the Reformed churches teach “that in the same manner in which election is the source and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and ungodliness.” Conclusion: Rejection of False Accusations).

 

Which just goes to show that academics don’t know everything. Even the best of them. And sometimes they don’t even know the basics of theology. And anyone who presumes to study a theologian (like Calvin) should know the basics of theology.