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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Church of Christ (I)

Reorienting Regarding the Church

I will probably return sometime in the future to my comments about the deleterious effects of so-called Christian Feminism in the Christian Church. Recently, as well as in the past, I have heard stories of women who refuse to follow their husband’s leading because the congregation wasn’t glitzy enough or the pastor’s sermons weren’t joyful or to their liking. By and large, these are instances of wives going on “strike” and refusing to attend a solidly biblical church because it didn’t suit their feminist ideals. In those cases it is fruitless to talk about biblical submission.

Of course, evangelical churches have effectively discouraged biblical submission even though they may pay lip service to it—may. There are two other reasons why I’ve decided to change topics: one negative and the other positive. Negatively, I simply became thoroughly dismayed with what was supposed to past for exegesis from John Smed’s article. If this is what is passing for exegesis in the PCA today, we’re in deep trouble. Fortunately, I know that Rev. Smed’s excursion into eisegesis and tendentious writing is not the norm in the PCA.

Positively, it is high time that we went back and reflected positively on what we believe regarding the Christian Church. It has been said—probably correctly—that with the advent of the so-called New Perspective on Paul—which, by the way, isn’t really new—and the Federal Vision there has a been a doctrinal paradigm shift away from soteriology to ecclesiology. There is, therefore, a new trajectory. Those who are really “hip” these days prefer to use the moniker “ecclesial.” It just sounds so erudite, giving credence that you are not stuck in the rut of tradition. So, we are, today, concerned with matters ecclesial and—as an extension of that—“missional.” Missions are truly an extension of our understanding of the Church of Christ, so if our ecclesiology is off or distorted, our missiology will be off course as well.

My approach in these writings is to allow us to be guided by an article on the nature and character of the Church written by Herman Bavinck that appeared in his popular dogmatics, Magnalia Dei.[1] The sub-title of this work is—translated—“Instruction in the Christian Religion According to the Reformed Confession.”[2] There is an English translation that bears the name Our Reasonable Faith that contains his thoughts on the doctrine of the Church. There are two advantages here: First, since volume four of the Reformed Dogmatics has not yet appeared in English this affords us access to the man’s works. Second, since this is the translation of his popular dogmatics it is condensed and “easified.” Moreover, Bavinck worked long and hard to accomplish a union between his church (the Separatists [Dutch: Afgescheidenen]) and Abraham Kuyper’s Doleantie. The union occurred in 1892. Doctrinally and practically he was immersed in workings of the Church; he was a churchman.

I write these articles because I’m convinced that factors such as the mega-church, church-growth, Emergent Conversation, the Federal Vision, and the New Perspective on Paul have all contributed—albeit negatively—to a rather gross misunderstanding of the nature and character of the Church. The modern Church is abysmally ignorant of this doctrine and if we are to make any progress at all in reaching the lost (home missions), equipping the saints, and preaching Christ in foreign missions we had better get our act together first.

A Good Starting Place

I’m going to take my time here because we need to build a solid foundation before we move on to discuss other matters. In addition, I’m going to begin outside of the Westminster Standards, which is currently my theological tradition,[3] and look at what is perhaps a lesser known, but very important Reformed confession: the Belgic Confession.[4] In particular, we will focus in the first few issues on the Articles 27-29 of the B.C. At the same time, I want to point out that even though de Brès was dependent—indeed, at times almost quoting Calvin verbatim—of Calvin in the formulation of much of what he wrote, he did so without slavishly repeating all that Calvin taught on the subject.

Lest I come of the oft-repeated charge of elevating a confessional document to the status of Scripture, allow me to present what the B.C. teaches in Article 7—which is no different than other Reformed confessions. That article is entitled, “The Sufficiency of Holy Scripture.” Here is what it says,

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us s written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise that we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that he doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statues, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule which the apostles have taught us, saying, Prove the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house.[5]

In a very short expanse of space the B.C. captures what has been the essence of Reformed and Presbyterian confession regarding the Scriptures throughout the centuries. It is rather amazing—and disappointing—that those who ought to know better resort to flinging epithets at the heads of those who want to hold on to our Reformed tradition as if we—in any way—desire to elevate the confessions to the level of infallibility. That is such a cheap shot and yet it is often repeated, especially in our current context. So for all the skeptics and nay-sayers, read and re-read Article 8 because quite frankly I am more than just a little tired of the screed.

One statement in Article 8 applies directly to the topic of ecclesiology that seems to be lost on the modern Church and that is the statement regarding “the whole manner of worship which God requires of us.” A segment of the modern Church seems to employ the “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” mentality if not the “what-do-the-people-demand?” one. At the other end of the spectrum are those who choose to ignore what their particular church accepts as right and good. Two examples will suffice: First, in Westminster Larger Catechism 156 we are asked: Is the Word of God to be read by all? The answer is: Although all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families…” That’s crystal clear, isn’t it? And yet, there are some PCA churches who totally disregard this and have female members of the “whatever team”—fill in the blank—read the scriptures in the worship service and have no twinges of conscience about what they have vowed to uphold. There’s something dreadfully wrong with a pastor or church planter that has such an attitude about what he’s vowed publicly.

Second, in the PCA Book of Church Order we are told that we are to ordain Deacons (cf. BCO 24-6-10). There are some in the PCA, however, who don’t and won’t. In my own Presbytery we spun, danced, contorted, twisted, and whatever else it took to allow a transfer to take this exception. We’re really nice guys and don’t want anyone mad at us. After all, we’re pastors and pastors are supposed to be nice to everyone all the time. Besides, it’s a public vote for all to see.

I’m convinced that part of the reason some won’t ordain Deacons is that they want to appease the Christian feminists, who just wouldn’t understand why we do what we do and they’re not prepared to take the requisite time to teach them what Scripture says, so they bend to the cultural pressure—smiling and being nice in the process, of course—, failing to realize that you can only bend so far before you break. If you don’t like what the BCO says then take the requisite steps to get it changed. In the meantime, however, adhere to what is there.

The evangelical Church, which is by and large spiritually bankrupt, has long since practically abandoned believing much of anything at all about a proper manner of the worship of God taken from Scripture, but that’s an entirely different subject. What is essential to note, however, is that worship is an integral part of ecclesiology and missiology. R. Kent Hughes has written, “You can never have a Christian mind without reading the Scriptures regularly because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.”[6] Isn’t that patently and obviously true? And yet the Christian Church in general is abysmally ignorant of the Scriptures in our time. The Emergent Conversation is, if possible, worse than its mega-church nemesis. What concerns me more, however, is that I am aware of certain PCA church plants that have not bothered to teach their congregations what it means to be Presbyterian.

Look, if you’re planting a church and people begin to attend that are either estranged from the gospel or have never heard it, then that’s fine. That’s where you are; that’s where they are. It is what it is. You have to begin somewhere. If at the end of three or more years, however, they still don’t have a clue what it is to be Presbyterian and the church planter still refuses to “spill the beans” and tell them the truth for fear that they will walk away, then, once again, something is dreadfully wrong. Sinclair Ferguson wrote a blurb on the front jacket of William Still’s The Work of the Pastor that reads this way: “Every minister should read this book once a year-at least!” It is excellent advice and here’s why.

Still begins by saying that the “end of all pastoral work must never be forgotten—that its ultimate aim is to lead God’s people to offer themselves up to Him in total devotion of worship and service. Many who are called pastors, having lost the end in view, or never having seen it, become pedlars of various sorts of wares, gulling the people and leading them into their own power. And when they fail to gather a clientele for their own brand of merchandise they uptail and away, for they are not really interested in the flock of God; they were using them only as a means of their own aggrandisement, to boost their ego and indulge their desire for power.”[7]

Still reminds us that even when you’re dealing with the “cultured despiser” or the “biblically ignorant” there must not be a difference made between “a teaching evangelism” and “doctrinal preaching.”[8] The way that this works out in the practice is like this: “All this suggests that if a man declares the whole counsel of the Word of God contained in the Bible, then he must be both teaching and preaching. I suggest to you that such a thorough, radical ministry is so little known today that most people, even in the evangelical church, have not the faintest idea of its effects and fruits.”[9]

But what if your congregation is comprised primarily of those who have just come to faith? Well, the simple answer is that you feed them off the Word of God and not a bunch of culturally hip claptrap and boondoggle. Still warns that “we must not make the disastrous error of going on preaching what is called the simple Gospel, isolating a few mere facts, wonderful as they are, until the last man-jack is known to have been converted.”[10] Allow me to comment on this briefly. Hardly a Presbytery meeting goes by that I don’t hear one of my colleagues ask a candidate, “How would you preach this sermon to a congregation that is more than 50% non-believers?” That has become such a wearisome question. It gives the impression that they understand ministry and really care for the lost while the rest of us incompetent dolts and boobs only care about ramming heavy doses of doctrine down the throats of people.

It’s quite conceivable that you could have a congregation of 50% non-believers although I truthfully believed that’s a stretch. But what if after a year or two under the preaching the percentage is relatively the same? What does that say about your preaching the whole counsel of God to them? What is our calling as pastors? “It is to feed sheep on such truth that men are called to churches and congregation, whatever they may think they are called to do. If you think that you are called to keep a largely worldly organisation, miscalled a church, going, with infinitesimal doses of innocuous sub-Christian drugs or stimulants, then the only help I can give you is to advise you to give up the hope of the ministry and go and be a street scavenger; a far healthier and more godly job, keeping the streets tidy, than cluttering the church with a lot of worldly claptrap in the delusion that you are doing a job for God. The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland. You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness.”[11]

Part of the problem today, therefore, is a lack of courage. When I was in seminary, Al Martin spoke at one of our preaching classes and he said words to this effect: If as a pastor you are affected by either the smiles or the frowns of the members of your congregation, then it’s time to hang up the old ecclesiastical jock. Still concurs and writes, “Courage is the greatest lack today. If all men in the ministry acted upon what they know we would have a far better ministry.”[12] At one point he wrote these words to his congregation: “I despair of some who come to our church and who read our literature, because what they hear and read is only one item of their spiritual diet. Indeed, they eat very little of anything but like children play with their food. That is why they are so thin.”[13] They are culpable for part of their spiritual malnutrition, but some pastors are also culpable for fearing them and the possibility that they will walk away if we preach the truth of the complete Gospel. In other words, “too many today pin their faith for fruitful evangelism on harping for ever on a few Gospel facts isolated from the broad and full context of the whole Bible.”[14]

Those of us who are PCA have freely said that we believe the Bible is infallible and the Westminster Standards are a reliable summary of what Scripture teaches. Now all that remains for us is to have the conviction of our vows and the courage to preach coram Deo. To do that, however, you need to be a man. Next time, Lord willing, we’ll begin to take a look at Belgic Confession articles 27-29.


[1] Herman Bavinck, Magnalia Dei, (Kok: Kampen 1909).

[2] Onderwijzing in de christelijke religie naar gereformeerde belijdenis.

[3] For thirteen years I was a pastor in the Reformed Churches in both Holland and Canada that used the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort.

[4] The chief author of the Belgic Confession was Guido de Brès, who was a preacher in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and who died a martyr at the hands of the Roman Catholics in 1567. The B.C. dates from 1561. The Synod of Dordrecht (1618/1619) adopted the B.C. as one of the doctrinal standards of the Reformed Churches to which all office-bearers were required to subscribe.

[5] Ecumenical and Reformed Creeds and Confessions, (Classroom Edition), Mid-America Reformed Seminary, (Hospers, IA: Siouxland Press, 20045), pp. 19-20. Emphases in the original.

[6] R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 20012), p. 77. Italics his.

[7] William Still, The Work of the Pastor, (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 20012), pp. 1-2.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid., 6.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 9-10. Italics mine.

[12] Ibid., 12.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 7.

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6 Comments:

Blogger SolaMeanie said...

Amen and amen!

BTW, Ron...you had me a bit hopeful when I read the title of today's post. I thought, "All right! Some ammunition for me to use against the baptismal regenerationists in the so-called "Restoration Movement." But this provides equally effective ammunition in another zone of conflict.

Double BTW, did you see the new book out on baptism by a fellow in the Presbyterian camp? There's a full page ad in the latest World Magazine for it.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Yes, I saw the ad. Just stay with me, we've got a long way to go on this subject of ecclesiology. We shall, by God's grace, eventually get around to the baptismal regeneration thing when we examine the Federal Vision. Talk about some bad, bad sacramentology. They also are in favor of paedo-communion. Have a great weekend.

10:14 PM  
Blogger lee n. field said...

Mr. Meanie -- As I was reading this piece I was just thinking of forwarding it to you. I see you're ahead of the game.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:49 AM  
Blogger SolaMeanie said...

Randy, that was a bit intemperate, wasn't it?

BTW, I saw your response to me on the other thread. I'm a bit hectic this week, but I will respond to it as soon as I get the chance.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Randy,
Go away. We're done. I spend little time--except when I'm talking baseball--with opinions. Since you say "our" calling as pastors I pray you're not including yourself as a pastor. IF you understood Reformed theology--which you don't. Your only appeal is to ancestors. Luther's daughter was solidly Reformed because she was Luther's daughter, right?--you would understand that what I wrote is nothing less that what has been taught in the history of Reformed thinking. Good-bye. Any more of your posts here will be deleted.

9:51 AM  

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