Wednesday 22 April 2009

Can we Learn Anything from a Presbyterian Understanding of the Local Church?

There are perhaps four aspects of a Presbyterian pattern for a local church that comprise a compelling argument for this form of a church order. The headings chosen all begin with the letter ‘C’ and this is in some measure coincidental but it does however aid our remembrance. The headings that describe this suggested NT church model are confessional, connectional, church polity and covenantal theology. Let us begin by explaining these terms and their correspondence with the NT.

1. Confessional
The Presbyterian confession of faith for the English speaking world is the Westminster Confession along with the Larger and Shorter Catechism’s. These form a subordinate standard to the Bible but they give a summary of what is believed to be the Apostle’s doctrine (Acts 2:42). Obviously these documents were not known to the first century apostles and they are not infallible, however the doctrines they contain were known and written about by the early church elders and in a sense these doctrines are infallible. The nineteenth Century theologian Benjamin B. Warfield wrote about these three forms of unity and stated: ‘They are the richest and most precise and best guarded statement ever penned of all that enters into evangelical religion and of all that must be safeguarded if evangelical religion is to persist in the world’.[1]
To be reformed means holding to a reformed confession as a basis for church membership, preaching and as a means of interpreting Scripture. It is not uncommon to hear some Christians boldly assert that ‘all I need is the Bible’. It sounds right and yet it is profoundly mistaken because the real question centres on how we interpret the Bible. There are three options when it comes to church tradition. Tradition is something that is seen in a negative light, as if all tradition is ugly and something to be rejected as utterly false. According to Heiko Oberman there are two ways to understand the relation between Scripture and tradition, called Tradition I and Tradition II. [2]
Tradition I is the Reformed principle of Sola Scriptura which accepts the Scripture as the single and unique authority in the church while maintaining a high regard for tradition to learn from the past, so that we can more accurately interpret Scripture. Tradition II would represent the Roman Catholic Church that places church tradition on an equal footing with the Bible. Alistair McGrath observes a third category called Tradition 0 which is a ‘fundamentally individualistic approach to Scripture and tradition’.[3] McGrath explains that this places the ‘private judgement of the individual above the corporate judgment of the Christian church concerning the interpretation of Scripture’ and furthermore he believes it is ‘a recipe for anarchy’.[4]
This poses a searching question for anyone who would claim the name Christian. Which approach to tradition best represents your faith and your church? Presbyterian churches should hold to Tradition I but always need to be aware of the danger of allowing their confession to be exalted above Scripture. However, to live without any confession of faith at all, opens the door to rampant individualism that exalts human opinion above every form of authority.

2. Connectional
A second dynamic attribute of Presbyterianism is labelled as connectionalism. This means that local churches are in some measure inter-connected while maintaining their own identity and local church government. Thomas Witherow explains that there are three forms of church government and writes:
Prelacy is that form of church government which is administered by archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons, and other ecclesiastical office-bearers depending on that hierarchy; and is such as we see exemplified in the Greek Church, the Church of Rome, and the Church of England.
Independency is that form of church government whose distinctive principle is, that each separate congregation is under Christ subject to no external jurisdiction whatever, but has within itself—in its office-bearers and members—all the materials of government; and is such as it is present in practical operation among Congregationalists and Baptists.
Presbytery is that form of church government which is dispensed by presbyters or elders met in session, presbytery, synod or general assembly; and are such as presented in Presbyterian Churches.[5]

Undoubtedly God blesses different forms of church government but if we look at the NT it seems there was inter-church connection for ministry, accountability and support. For example the conference in Acts chapter fifteen that discussed doctrinal matters on behalf of local congregations and then Paul’s example in collecting diaconal aid for the saints in Jerusalem and Judea from many Gentile churches (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2Cor. 8-9; Rom. 15: 22-9).
One pastor-theologian has commented that what led him from independency to Presbyterianism was the witnessing of gross injustices without any recourse alongside recognition of the interconnection of the one and many, the particular and universal. It is our contention that a Presbyterian form of church government principles, best represents the NT apostolic pattern.

3. Church Polity
In recent years there has been a lot of debate as to what are ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ doctrines for evangelical unity. While much of this discussion has been valuable it has sadly relegated the doctrine of the church to a position of secondary importance. This may have led some to altogether dismiss this crucial doctrine of which the NT has much to say.
The Presbyterian example that was modelled by the church in Geneva led by John Calvin and others has been replicated all over the world because men believed that a triform church office best represents the NT. This blueprint anticipates the offices of pastor (or minister), ruling elders and deacons. The pastor is primarily responsible as a man called, trained and equipped to lead the spiritual ministry of the church and most especially the preaching of pure doctrine. The elders are men who are to rule alongside the pastor and to oversee the church’s organisation, care and discipline (moral and doctrinal). The deacons do not constitute church rule but they are responsible for practical care and compassion. One of our aims must be faithfulness to Scripture, with an attitude that believes that we cannot improve on God’s plan. Obviously God’s plan will lead to the best care of the church and the best administration of the gospel. This three-fold pattern of church offices held by many Presbyterian Churches seems to faithfully describe the NT model for ministry.

4. Covenantal Theology
One of the exciting marks of Presbyterianism is its relentless pursuit for the accurate exegesis of Scripture and pure biblical theology—both are often sadly neglected in much of the modern church. Presbyterians emphasise a covenantal approach to theology which produces an important lens for biblical interpretation. This approach upholds continuity from Genesis to Revelation and the general view is that there was a covenant of works given to Adam before the fall and then the covenant of grace begins to unfold throughout the Bible, beginning from the first gospel statement in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15). J. V. Vesko explains that this covenant of grace is unfolded in four main covenants: Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic.[6] These covenants point the way to their climax which is the grace and redemption of the New Covenant purchased by Jesus’ own blood (Jer. 31:31-4; 1 Cor. 11:23-5; Heb. 8:1-13).
Four ways in which this covenantal continuity is manifested is in preaching, the law, baptism and the Lord’s Day. In preaching, sermons usually draw on the whole Bible and do not exclusively focus on passages from the NT and exposition should connect the Bible as a whole without apparent contradictions. This also means that the Law and especially the Ten Commandments have an important role for the church’s sanctification, even though we are saved by grace and never by the law. Baptism is administered to infants of believing parents as a connection to the OT covenant sign of circumcision but also to adult believers from non-Christian backgrounds. The Lord’s Day is seen to be a gift from God and this day (Sunday) is set aside for rest and the public worship of God. This is not a legalistic obligation but a joyful gift of the New Covenant that goes back to an ordinance given by God in Creation.

If this outline does not convince you fully, hopefully it will lead many to freshly investigate the importance of the local church to be organised in a way that is ‘decently and in order’ (1 Cor.14:40). Many significant theologians have unreservedly held to a Presbyterian pattern and these have included John Calvin, John Knox, Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield and William Hendriksen, to name a few. Presbyterianism is boldly proposed by Witherow who states: ‘Of all the churches now existing in the world, the Presbyterian Church comes nearest to the model of apostolic times’.[7]

However, it must also be stressed that though these principles are gleaned from Presbyterian theology, not all Presbyterian Churches put this into practice. Liberalism and other winds of doctrine have influenced many parts of Presbyterianism as it has many segments of the Christian Church. Additionally it must be pointed out that the Presbyterian Church does not hold the copyright to these ideas because they are believed to be drawn from the Scriptures. For example the concept of connectionalism is something that all churches should seek out to avoid the pitfalls of Independency. We need to be realistic in putting these lessons into practice as we minister in a world of diversity. May this brief paper, at the least, spur us on to place the doctrine of the church to the same place of priority that the NT writers gave it. It was not a secondary non-essential to them and it should not be to us.

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. II, ed. John E. Meeter, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973, 660.
[2] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008, 8-11.
[3] Ibid., 27.
[4] Alistair E, McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 144-5.
[5] Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which is it?, Edinburgh: Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1967, 14.
[6] J. V. Fesko, Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Christ of Eschatology, Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2007, 79-81.
[7] Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which is it?, 76.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

A Reformed Understanding of Pastor

The Reformed Understanding of Pastor

(This was delivered by Ed Collier at the conference called 'A Defence of Calvinism'.)

It’s important to see that historically the reformed understanding of the pastor flowed out of the reformed understanding of justification.

At the heart of the reformation in the 16th century was the rediscovery of the wonderful Biblical truth by Luther (and others) that salvation doesn’t come to us because of our righteousness or our works or our merits. But salvation comes to us because of what God has done for us in Christ, and us simply receiving that by faith alone.

And so Luther came to see that the true Church was that assembly of people who through faith were united to Jesus. And so he went on to ask the question, what was it that had brought these people to put their faith in Christ? What was the reason they believed? He saw the answer was that they’d heard the Word of God preached to them and had responded to that word with faith and repentance.

And so Luther concluded that if people were going to hear and believe then what the Church needed most of all was preachers and preaching. And of course that wasn’t his own logic. He got it from Paul in Romans 10. V 14 ‘how they shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard. And how shall they hear without a preacher?…v 17 So they faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

So Luther was saying if the gospel is justification by faith alone, and faith comes by hearing the word, and hearing the word comes through the preaching of the word, Luther concluded what we need is preachers and preaching. Preaching that would lead people to faith and nurture their faith.

And yet as Luther looked at the Catholic Church he saw that at preaching was inadequate and at worst it was non-existent.

He made this comment: ‘3 great abuses have befallen the service of God. First God’s word is not proclaimed: there is only reading and singing in Churches. Second, because God’s Word has been suppressed, many unchristian inventions and lies have sneaked into the services of reading, singing and preaching and they are horrible to see. Third, such service of God is being undertaken as a good work by which one hopes to obtain God’s grace and salvation. Thus faith has perished and everyone wishes to endow churches or to become a priest, monk, or nun’.

What Luther came to see then was that what was needed was a complete reformation of the ministry. The sacrificing priest of the Catholic Church needed to be replaced by the preaching minister. For Luther the pastoral ministry was fundamentally a preaching ministry. This was essential to the gospel and the life of the Church.

And what Luther emphasised was also emphasised by the other great reformers. Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin all put the highest priority on preaching in the life of the Church. This was seen to be the chief work of the pastor.

Calvin himself gave great emphasis in his own ministry to preaching the Word. Its estimated that each year he would preach 170 sermons with lecturing on top of that - so if you’re someone who complains a bit about having to preach twice on Sundays like I do, just think of Calvin preaching 170 times a year with lecturing on top!

Calvin gave that great emphasis to preaching because he saw that that was his main work as a Pastor. The Pastor, as the word also means, was a Shepherd. And as Calvin looked at the Bible he saw that the way he was to Shepherd God‘s flock, the way he would care for and guide and protect and feed the Sheep was ultimately through the preaching and teaching of God‘s Word.

And that emphasis has carried on to be at the heart of the reformed understanding of the pastor. Through the reformation period, through the Puritan period, down to the present day, reformed Churches put great emphasis on the fact that the role of the pastor is to preach and teach the word. Not just from the front on Sundays, but also in small groups, one on one, to families, in evangelistic efforts, in training up others - the key thing is preaching and teaching God‘s word.

Maybe its best summed up in the words of Paul to Timothy, (2 Timothy 4 v 2) “Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and teaching.”

But all this leads to the question, “in the Reformed view, what is the preaching and teaching of the pastor meant to be like? What should characterise the preaching and teaching that should be at the heart of the pastors work?”

The Reformers and Puritans brought out a number of main emphasises.

1) Preaching should be Biblical.

The job of the pastor is not just to feed the sheep with his own ideas and opinions and blessed thoughts. His job is not to lead them in his own ways. The job of the pastor is to bring God’s Word to the sheep.

See 2 Timothy 3:15-17 - Paul says to Timothy its God’s word that leads people to faith in Christ (v15), and its God’s word that enables people to grow in the faith so that they become complete and thoroughly equipped (v 16-17). The Bible contains everything we need. Which is why Paul goes straight on to say to Timothy - preach the word! (4:1-2)

That’s the job of the pastor. To preach the WORD. And that means explaining to people what Scripture means, and then applying it to their lives. Those are the 2 key words - explanation and application.

2) It should be doctrinal.

In other words in our preaching we shouldn’t simply be concerned to bring out the meaning of the text we’re actually preaching on, whether that’s John ch 1 or Exodus ch12, but we should be seeking to show how the truth of that text links in with the truth found in other texts.

So, for example, if we’re preaching on James 2 where it says we’re justified by works, we need to show how that links in with what Paul says about justification, and what Jesus says about justification.

So this is where Systematic Theology comes in. Showing how the different parts of the Bible connect together. Showing that ultimately it’s one mind behind the Bible.

3) It should be evangelistic/ gospel centred.

Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim 4 v 5 to ‘do the work of an evangelist’. And that reminds us that our preaching and teaching always needs to have a double focus. It needs to focussed on nurturing and encouraging those who are already Christians. But it also needs to be focussed on encouraging and challenging those who aren’t Christians to become Christians.

And gospel-centred preaching is essential to both those aims.
It’s the wonderful message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone that the lost need to hear so that they will become Christians. And its that same message that Christians continually need to hear to invigorate them, to encourage them, to excite them, to stir up love for God in them, so that the want to grow and serve God.

And so as preachers we need to continually keep a focus on gospel preaching. On bringing people to those fundamental truths of what God has done for us in Christ and how we need to respond to that.

4) It should be pastoral and practical.

In other words we need to be remember that there are real people out there, living real lives, facing real experiences, asking real questions, facing real difficulties and who need help to know how God’s word applies to their different circumstances.

So in our Churches we’ll have old people and young people, we’ll have single people and married people, we’ll have people trying to bring up children, and people who are grieving because they can’t have children. We’ll have people facing assurance problems, people with depression, people who are ill, people who are dying, people at work, people at university, people who are wondering how they should spend their leisure time, people who are wondering how they should use their money. All sorts of different people. All sorts of different circumstances.

And our job as Pastors then is not just to preach general truth to these people. But our job is to show how the truth of God’s word applies to these peoples different questions, problems and experiences. Whether that’s in our preaching or one-to-one etc.

The puritans were the masters at pastoral and practical preaching. So the first part of their sermons was spent explaining and unpacking the text of the Bible. And the second half was showing the “uses” of that passage. Showing how it could practically apply into peoples lives.
So there are some of the main things that the Reformed tradition has emphasised should characterise the preaching and teaching of the pastor.

But lastly I want to ask what is the aim of all this preaching and teaching. What is its main purpose?

Well the reformers and puritans emphasised that the main aim of preaching and teaching was what Paul says in Col 1 v 28 where he writes “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

Maturity in Christ! That was the great aim of the preaching of Paul and of the Reformers and the Puritans and needs to be the aim of our preaching too. We need to be preaching in such a way that leads people to put their faith in Christ so that they’re joined to him. But we also need to be preaching and teaching in such a way so that people will grow in their faith. So that they won’t simply stay as babes but that they’ll become mature.

Mature in their understanding and knowledge of God. Mature in their lives of holiness. Mature in their service to God. Mature in the way that they look to please God and bring his word to bear on every part of their life whether its work, or family, or leisure, or finances or whatever.

Our aim should be to have Churches where people are coming in and getting converted, and then growing in faith to be strong men and women of God. And its our preaching that’s essential to that aim.

One of the missionaries that my Church supports was visiting last year from Peru. And he was saying that if you look at the Church scene in Peru “it’s a mile wide and an inch deep.” In other words there are a lot of people who call themselves Christian, but there’s very little maturity. And I guess that’s a challenge for us and our Churches.
We want wide Churches. We want lots of being saved. But we also want deep Churches. Mature Churches. And our leadership and Biblical Pastoring is key to that.

Also think about Prayer life. Personal life!