Tuesday, February 24, 2009


The Apple of God's Eye

This post began as a comment on Jailbreaker’s last post. Thinking about it since, it’s grown a bit:

... the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God ... we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24)

These two verses make it pretty much indisputable that those who preached the gospel in the 1st century saw themselves as preaching a message that was hardly "culturally conditioned." Jailbreaker's post does a good job of making the point that many of us have lost sight of that truth.

However, there seems to be a tendency on the part of some to draw from this insight some conclusions that, in the end, are simply indefensible, prominent among them the notion that what we call the "visible church" is more of a hindrance than anything else, and all that matters is what we call the "invisible church".

It would be an error to try to argue from the New Testament that the only content one can find there for what "the church" is supposed to mean is either the "visible" or the "invisible church", to the exclusion of the other. But more than one commentator has pointed out that, if one chose to do so, it would be the "visble church" that would have much the stronger case. The very fact of Paul's letters is a case in point. They were written to particular groups of believers, organized and with officers, and it was generally expected that they would be read to particular congregations and passed on to other particular congregations. Included among their exhortations is one "to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work." The writer to the Hebrews offers a similar admonition.

It would be hard to defend the notion that these admonitions meant anything to believers who never met with other believers, and who weren't under the care of elders. Moreover, Paul's pastoral letters make it clear that God does call certain men to to oppose those who will come into the church and try to corrupt its message, and, instead to proclaim its true message, and also to pass on their charge. Moreover, these letters make it clear that congregations should, if they can, afford these men support, so that they can pursue this calling.

So there it lies: Yes, we are one with "all the saints" in all ages and places, but we gather in particular congregations, which meet in particular places, have men in their midst who are called to proclaim God's word to them, and to "keep watch over their souls", and whom we are exhorted to support so that they can be free to do this--"professional clergy", if you will, or some other term if you won't. (Whatever term you choose for Christ's ministers, be sure not to make it one of denigration. One retired minister I know told me that he knew it was time to retire, when he found that he was the one who was crying in a counseling session. My personal opinion is that to treat him dismissively would be picking a fight with his Lord.)

Of course, there are dangers in this: If we gather as particular congregations in particular cultures, we will be tempted to confuse what is merely cultural in our organization for its essence. Even worse, the church will find "false sons in her pale" who will make it their business to substitute the culture's message and agenda for God's. We have to recognize that and constantly examine and reform ourselves. What we don't have to do is to fall into the trap of thinking that we should treat the "visible church" with contempt and devote ourselves exclusively to the "invisible church". Indeed, we should be very careful that we're not falling into a prideful trap when we think that way.

As we seek to “constantly examine and reform ourselves”, there are some questions which ought to be primary, and one that comes to mind may seem surprising to some: What about preaching?

It’s my understanding that, in the original languages, “to preach” carried something of the flavor of a herald, stepping forward to make a proclamation on behalf of a king. So, when we hear “preaching” (that is, a sermon), the proper spirit in which we ought to receive it is that, in a very real sense, Christ is speaking to us. Moreover, what is going on is essential, both in conversion, and in Christian growth (sanctification): “... how are they to hear without someone preaching? .... So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” Of course, after we hear a sermon, we do well to follow the example of the Bereans and go home to review it and to be sure that what we have heard from Christ’s herald was really Christ speaking to us, but that doesn’t change the basic expectation we ought to have when we “sit under preaching”.

Moreover, the importance of preaching is underscored by the use the Holy Spirit makes of it: “... you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; .... And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century, when asked by a visitor why he had such success, took the visitor to the church basement and showed him some women praying. He understood that, in the words of the American folk hymn, “Holy Manna”, “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down”. His preaching, be it ever so faithful, would still be “folly” to his hearers, unless the Holy Spirit made it effective in their lives.

Is this our view of preaching and its effects, when it is faithful and the Holy Spirit blesses it? Do we pray that our ministers will be faithful, true heralds of Christ, and that His Spirit would bless their proclamation? If so, then we have the central touchstone which we ought to use to “examine and reform ourselves”. But, and here is one point where I have some trouble with Jailbreaker’s post, no “outsider looking in [at] our forms, practices, and mindset” could have been of the least help in leading us to this view. To this outsider, preaching simply “takes the cake” among all the things he might be seeing (and many of them may be, even probably are, simply cultural) being the one that outdoes all the rest in being the most foolish!

Instead of turning outside our culture for this particular insight, we ought instead to turn “back” into it: The reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries went to great pains--admittedly imperfectly--to discern what the Bible, and especially the New Testament taught us of what is essential in the life of the visible church, and what ought to be excised from it. While much of this is forgotten now, a great deal of their attention was devoted to the worship of the church and the place of preaching in it. They, and especially those who came from the Swiss Reformation and the English Puritans, clearly saw the dangers described in Calvin’s saying that the heart of man is “an idol factory”.

To put things in Old Testament terms, the path from the illegal worship of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12 to the apostacy of Ahab in 1 Kings 16 was not a long one. Or, in terms of the 10 Commandments, break the 2nd, and breaking the 1st won’t be far behind. This is a lesson that the American church has gone beyond just forgetting. It hardly recalls that it was ever taught in the first place, and, when it does deal with it, it tends to do so with condescension. If we are to see reform and renewal in our churches, this sin (and it is that) needs to be lovingly confronted. We need to work for the day when our lives as congregations are once again oriented around the pulpit, faithfully filled and Spirit-blessed.

That brings me back my original theme of our attitude toward the visible church: We are not to treat her with contempt, but we are to be realistic about her failings, and it’s very hard to do the second of those without lapsing into the first. Moreover, even if one worships in a “Puritan” church (and I do), there will be all sorts of things that will drive one to distraction. It was hardly untypical that the minister friend I mentioned above was eventually worn out by his pastoral duties. The word “pastor” is supposed to remind us of “sheep”, and, as those who have ever heard a good “sheep sermon” can attest, the idea there isn’t supposed to be about cute, woolly lambs, but rather of stubborn, foolish animals whom the shepherd doesn’t dare let out of his sight for a minute! And, even in very faithful churches, they will do some awful things. It’s hard, for instance, for anyone who has ever been through a church “faction fight” to deal with the very fact that it could have happened.

Because of that sort of thing, I can personally attest that, “my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped”. In the course of that, I wrote a long letter to this same minister friend and, a few weeks later, we met and talked about it. He was understanding, but his bottom line was uncompromising: “Don’t you dare talk that way about Christ’s church! It’s the apple of His eye.”


  1. Certainly there are those who with contempt denigrate those who faithfully labor for a lifetime for Christ, receiving little back for their labor and far too much scorn. Some of those faithful laborers resemble the man who brought us the gospel a quarter century ago from the pulpit of a little church in Santa Cruz, and others resemble the Jailbreaker, who has devoted his life to figuring out what "preaching" looks like in a land largely without pulpits.

  2. ... which brings us to a more central question: can there be preaching (clearly a biblical term/concept) without a pulpit (an application without a clear biblical mandate)? RC Sproul talks about how every biblical text has only one correct interpretation, but may have myriad applications. Is it possible that our interpretation of "preaching" may be consistent, but our application may vary depending on the environment?

  3. Jailer's comments bring up two related issues: (1) What is "the gospel ministry" and who are "gospel ministers"? (2) Is there really such a thing as "the visible church" or are there just "visible saints"? To say that there is more than one view on these matters is to put things mildly. My personal position is that of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV, Section III:

    "Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto."

    Other believers may have very different takes on the matter, but, as long as they participate somehow in some structure which features faithful preaching, and in which the saints are gathered and perfected, I count myself blessed when I worship with them.

  4. This line of discussion intrigues me, so let me pursue it with some poorly developed, out-of-the-box thinking:

    - "Faithful preaching" - if we faithfully proclaim/herald the truth of Scripture on this site, for example, does that qualify as "preaching"? If not, why not? Is it because we are not gathered, or because we are not qualified, or because it is not verbal, etc.?

    - If the saints of God virtually "gather and are perfected" on this site, how does that fit into the picture? In what sense (if any) are we "gathered"? Are we "visible"? It would seem that we are in some sense, even if insufficiently or suboptimally.

    Of course I'm being provocative here, but I hope with good purpose ... I want to plumb the limits of interpretation and application of Scriptural terms like "preaching" and "gathering" which are means to more significant ends (say, the perfecting/sanctification of the saints). You'll notice I'm not asking whether we are a "local church". That would be an awfully hard sell even while being provocative. The virtual Lord's Supper seems an awful stretch, as does "corporate" worship, though I imagine somewhere someone is trying something--yet let's try to keep this within some bounds.

    Of course, there are those who "gather" with a television preacher every Sunday as a poor substitute for actual gathering. One might do that simply because he is lazy or rebellious (not wanting to submit to the authority of the body which might hold him accountable), or one might do it because he is bedridden, living on an oil derrick, or is otherwise unable to truly gather with the saints.

    The question is where do such people (indeed, where do we at the Jailer) fit in with the rest of the visible church?

  5. Thanks for the questions, Jailer. What follows aren't really answers, so much as thoughts on the subject:

    In the confession's words, Christ has given the "ministry" to the visible church. I don't know if I'd restrict that to just what we call "ministers", but I think it surely must include them. I think "ordination" passages, like Acts 14:25 and Titus 1:5 point to the importance of the "offices" of the church and the fact that "the church" must call them. Moreover, my particular take on Matthew 16:18 ("... on this rock I will build my church") is that the proclamation of Christ, His Person and His Work, is the "rock" involved, and those whom the church calls to make that proclamation - along with "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26) - are the true "apostolic successors". (They don't have "apostolic authority", but they are called by His church to proclaim the apostolic message.)

    Just who these men are and how they are to be called is something over which we can differ, but I'm convinced that, whatever our take on the matter, it ought to be something that we treat very seriously. For instance, the church at which I worship belongs to a denomination which has a "Form of Government". It has 32 chapters and a cursory count shows that about half of them are concerned with church officers, and especially ministers. That's an indicator of how seriously they take this matter and, by inference - especially when one looks at the sections which deal with the training and examination of ministers - how seriously they take the activity which (at least in Protestant churches) is considered central to the gospel ministry, that is, preaching.

    So, to finally come to one point, no, I don't think that we can consider even very faithful proclamation of truth on this website to be "preaching". I don't know if I stumble so much over the form it takes (not verbal) as much as I do over the fact that it's not a duly-organized activity of the visible church.

    As for "gathering and perfecting the saints", I do believe that preaching is central to that, but I also think the care given by "pastors" and "elders" is central to it. (1 Thess. 5:12-14, Heb. 13:17; 1 Timothy; Titus) Again to take the church where I worship as an example, when I became a member, I answered in the affirmative to a series of questions, beginning with some that were properly a "profession of faith", but culminating with the following: "Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?" God grant that, if the day should come that I "go off the deep end", He'll give me the grace to remember that promise. Meanwhile, I thank him for the men who are charged with "keeping watch over my soul". (Heb. 13:17)

    So, again to come to a point, I'd say that "gathering and perfecting the saints" principally takes place in Christian congregations, and under the care of the ministers and elders they call.

  6. I will follow your thoughtful non-answer and raise you a rambling stream of consciousness.

    First just an ediorial note: I'm sure you meant Acts 14:23 -- "Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust." From this and Titus 1:5, it is clear that Paul valued highly the appointment of elders (overseers) for the churches.

    On the other hand, your note on the ~16 chapters of information on church officers is interesting. I've been recently working on retooling the Constitution & By-Laws for our little church. In one sense it's been good trying to get us back to basics, while on the other it's been distressing ... almost depressing to have to think through the legal, administrative and "lowest common denominator" type things we must concern ourselves with. I much rather enjoy teaching than slogging through some of the tiresome stuff we have to concern ourselves with.

    Moreover, as an employee of the United States Government, I can say that such rules have a way of growing to the point where they become more important than the mission. Working close to the heart of the great bureaucracy sensitizes me to the danger of allowing such "tried and true" rule sets essentially become the "gospel", so that the actual gospel is lost in translation. Of course, this problem also concerned Jesus and the early church.

    One of the verses that comes to mind is Mark 7:5-6: So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?" He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'"

    While on one hand, right government and doctrine preserves the church against error and "wolves" among the sheep. Moreover, accountability is crucial, as you suggest. On the other hand, clearly there is a danger of letting the ever-creeping "tradition of the elders" overwhelm the right reading of Scripture and true devotion to the Lord. The danger is that the saints may be no longer "gathered and perfected" when the "tradition of the elders" overshadows the gospel.

    So there you have it ... church government of some sort is good and necessary, and spoken of often in Scripture. Yet church government, like any other government, has a habit of growing. Most bureaucrats I know are "great Americans", doing what they do fully believing that they are indispensible to some crucial national purpose. Yet cumulatively we seem to have become a great self-licking ice cream cone. Can it be that church government may also suffer the same tendency?


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