What Pastors Shouldn’t Tell Their Wives: The Danger Of Too Transparency

Megan Hill, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife, has been writing about what pastors tell their wives and what they should tell them. I can answer that question in one word: nothing. By nothing, I mean “no confidential information.” A pastor may tell his wife what he would tell other members of the congregation but no more. Of course he may ask for prayer. Of course he may tell his wife that he had a tough counseling session or a tough session meeting but he shouldn’t say with whom or “confidential” becomes a little leaky.

I understand that we live in an age of hyper-transparency, that many live in in full view of the digital public via social media. That reality, however, is no argument for ministers giving in to the temptation to share with their wives what they learn in session (consistory) meetings or in counseling sessions. What happens in session (consistory) stays in session. What happens in the counseling room, unless it involves a criminal matter or needs to go to the session, stays in the counseling room. It certainly does not go to the pastor’s wife.

This is not sexism. It’s mercy and wisdom. The pastor’s wife is not called to the pastoral ministry. She is not an unofficial co-pastor. She isn’t ordained (or shouldn’t be). Her vocation relative to the visible church is to be faithful to the due use of ordinary means, to love her husband and family. That’s it.

There are five reasons why the pastor’s wife does not need to know what the pastor knows.

1) Few things are as difficult in ministry as knowing what pastors (and elders) know. I have seen the burden add lines to the faces of pastors and ruling elders. Watch a newly elected ruling elder’s face the day before he takes office for the first time and the days after. There is often a discernible change. Pastors are called to carry this burden and to lay it before the Lord and to trust him with it. Those who learn to file it somewhere survive and those who do not, for whom it remains in the forefront of their consciousness, they will not likely survive pastoral ministry. The pastor’s wife is not a ruling elder or a minister. She’s not called to carry that burden.

2) It’s better for the pastor that his wife not know. When a pastor comes home from a difficult house visit (huisbezoek in Nederlands) it’s a great relief to see his wife, who is blissfully unaware of what just transpired. If she knows then he never really leaves it behind. There is no refuge. The session meeting just changed locations. That doesn’t help him. He needs her, sola gratia, to be free to love him and the rest of the congregation in the freedom of not knowing. He needs that more than he needs an ally against that obstreperous session member or that seemingly intractable counseling case.

3) It’s not good for the pastor’s family to know everything that is going on. One leak may lead to others. If the pastor’s wife is not called to know and carry this certainly the children are not equipped to deal with it. Leave them out of it. There is a reason that pastor’s kids can grow up bitter toward the church. Pastor’s need to resist the temptation to find vindication for themselves by unloading their burdens on their children.

4) Her view of the congregation isn’t trained or freighted or weighted down with the knowledge of what is happening in each family behind the pleasant facade. That’s as it should be. She shouldn’t know. She should be free to go on as if nothing happened. That’s important. There is grace. People do repent and move forward. Sure, everyone in the congregation can see the turbulent waters but they can’t all see what’s beneath. She’s free to be a prayer partner a and friend in a way that perhaps the pastor cannot be. Knowing what the pastor knows does not enable her to be unfettered in her life as a member of the congregation.

5) It’s not good for the congregation. Trust is a difficult thing to foster and it is easily damaged. It may take years for a congregation to trust the minister enough to confide in him and to seek from him the help they need. A careless word to his wife may destroy all that in a moment and that trust may never be restored. The members of the congregation should not look at her and wonder what she knows about them.

Please don’t misunderstand. The pastor is not a priest. He must keep the confidences that he may but when it comes to criminal matters or those things that must go to the session then he his bound to do it. Nevertheless, most things should be kept in confidence and those right between the minister’s ears. The good news is that, as the years pass, many of them just sort of slip away into the ether. I know that I’ve heard many things but right now, as I write, I can’t remember many of them. I can see faces and tears but no particulars come to mind. It’s a mercy.

By the Christ’s undeserved favor, with the Spirit’s help, and in the Father’s love it can be done. It must be done. It’s a matter of divine vocation. It’s a matter of integrity. God has called his ministers to hear confessions, to offer reminders of forgiveness, and counsel but the same is not true of every member of the congregation and that is what the pastor’s wife is: another member of the congregation. Perhaps this is a practical argument against every member ministry?

It seems worth spending a moment thinking about the idea of office. In this sense it refers to functions and particularly to duties. Used in this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus:

A position or post to which certain duties are attached, esp. one of a more or less public character; a position of trust, authority, or service under constituted authority; a post in the administration of government, the public service, the direction of a corporation, company, society, etc.

One of the major assumptions behind the post that needs to be explained is that there is an important distinction to to be made between persons and office. When a person becomes a lawyer or a minister, that person has a double identity. He is no longer a merely private person. He has a private life but when he acts in his office he is not acting in a private capacity but in a public or official capacity and in that capacity there are limits imposed on him by his office.

Consider a governor. As a private person he might well ignore insults and even threats but insofar as he holds a public office he is not free to exercise that sort of discretion because, in his office, he is no longer acting as a private person but as a public person. As governor he does not belong to himself. He belongs to the people of the state and he obligated not merely to himself and to his family but to the entire state and to the laws of the state. Thus, if someone makes a threat to the welfare of the state he must act in his office.

Ministers and elders hold an office. Insofar as they are officers in the visible church their duties, a trust, ministerial authority (i.e., they serve the Lord Jesus Christ), and they conduct themselves under a divinely “constituted authority.” Because they hold office in the visible church, ministers are not free to regard themselves as private persons. What they hear or learn in their capacity as pastors belongs to the office not to the person. That information is like the official papers of the congregation. When a pastor leaves the church he doesn’t take the office papers of the congregation. He leaves them with the church because they don’t belong to him but to the office.

This distinction explains why Reformed churches speak about the preaching and ministry the way we do. We usually describe the speaking that unordained seminary students do on the Lord’s Day as “exhorting.” We describe what ordained ministers do as “preaching.” That’s why licentiates are allowed to exhort but not to preach or pronounce the benediction. Those functions belong to an office not to a person.

Confidential information that is disclosed in a counseling session or in a session (consistory) meeting or in an executive session of an ecclesiastical assembly belongs to the office not to the person. It isn’t his private possession. He only knows it by virtue of his office. He wouldn’t know if apart from the office. It’s not his to share outside the office.

As I tried to suggest above, the pastor’s wife is not the pastor. There is no office of pastor’s wife. Her vocation is to love and support her husband. That support of her husband does not require her to know those confidences that belong to the pastor’s office any more than the confidences of the judge’s chambers belong to the judge’s wife.

Of course, the distinction between person and office entails a distinction between public and private. The pastor, like other officers, has both aspects to his life. When he speaks out of his office he speaks in a public capacity. By public, I do not mean “civil” or tax-funded, but public as distinct from private and personal. What he says is not his private opinion but the Word of God as understood and confessed by the church. Of course he has a private life but there must be a clear separation between what he says as a public person and what he says as a private person. This doesn’t mean that he has two moral lives, a private and public but he does have two spheres of responsibilities under Christ’s Lordship and under God’s Word.

There is an ambiguity here. There is another sense of the word “private.” Thus far I’ve been writing of private as a synonym for “personal” or “not official.” The second sense of private refers to that which is no one else’s business. In this sense “public” means “that which is open to everyone.” These are important distinctions in an age that has all but lost them. This is particularly true for those generations that have grown up with the internet and smart phones, who live their private (i.e., that which should be kept secret) lives in the the digital public domain. It seems as if the very idea of “private” has been eroded. Ironically, this has happened at the same time we’ve become hyper-sensitive about “privacy” relative to sensitive information. It seems as if it’s not whether information that was once private will be public but who will make it so and to what effect.

The spirit of our age tends to erode the distinction between public and private, between personal and official, but for the well being of the church and her ministry its essential for them to be retained and, where these ideas have been lost, restored.

The essay first appeared, in 2013, on The Heidelblog.

Less A Problem Of What The Spirit Is Doing And More A Problem Of What We Say

How Do We Assess What The Spirit Is Doing?
Since the early 19th century American Christianity has been largely dominated by a revival of the original Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. One can transpose much of what took place in the 19th century over the fist generation Anabaptists (1520s) and it matches up quite well. The original Anabaptists would have understood completely the Millerite eschatological fervor of the 1820s–40s. They would understand completely the claims of continuing revelation made by Joseph Smith and the Mormons in the same period. At least some of the original Anabaptists would have understood the bald Pelagianism of Charles Finney (1792–1875). The Cane Ridge Revival (1801) would have made perfect sense to the original Anabaptists as it fit their vision of piety almost perfectly.

Evangelical Christianity in America as it has been received in the 20th and 21st centuries is very much the product of that revived Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. The Second Great Awakening was a radically democratic, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, enterprise. Theologically, it was by turns mystical and rationalist. Further, the Second Great Awakening didn’t just happen out of the blue. It did not fall out of the sky like golden plates and magic spectacles. There’s a direct, organic connection between the 1GA and the 2nd but we’ll press on lest we move from preaching to meddling.

The enthusiastic (in the strict sense) piety of the 2GA faded in the second half of the 19th century but “fresh light” broke forth again in the revivals in Topeka, KS and Azusa Street (Los Angeles) at the turn of the 20th century. The patterns established in the earlier “revivals” have been formative for American evangelicalism.

One aspect of that revivalist pattern is the claim to renewed apostolic phenomena. Suggestions were made in the 18th century and proclaimed loudly in the 19th and 20th centuries that the apostolic phenomena had been restored to those with faith to receive and exercise them. Since the 19th century at least evangelical Christianity (defined broadly) has been divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” i.e., those who claim to have recovered the Apostolic gifts and powers.

As a consequence of these claims many evangelicals simply assume that when a contemporary leader claims to have the gift of “tongues” that what is seen and accepted as “tongues” is identical to what occurred in Acts and what is described in Acts. Such assumptions of continuity between the apostolic period and contemporary expressions of religious piety and enthusiasm have strongly colored evangelical assumptions about the nature of piety. It is a paradigm: it is assumed that spiritual vitality means reproducing apostolic phenomena. Any Christian who is not receiving direct revelations from the Spirit, exercising apostolic gifts and power is reckoned either to lack faith, to be missing out on a potential benefit, or to be making a false profession of faith.

Since the 1970s a somewhat milder version of neo-Pentecostalism has come to great influence in evangelical circles: the charismatic movement. This varied movement usually asserts less continuity between the Apostolic period and the post-canonical period. It has eliminated some of the more socially embarrassing aspects of neo-Pentecostalism (e.g., being slain in the Spirit) in favor of a moderated, more middle-class, suburban piety of direct revelations that are not considered necessarily equivalent to the canonical Scriptures and occasional exercises of prophetic gifts that may (or may not) be considered authoritative. When it comes to healing, the line separating the older Azusa Street piety from the Calvary Chapel charismatic piety is a little fuzzy.

Even in Reformed circles, which are typically cessationist, i.e., which typically do not accept the widely-held assumption of strong continuity between the apostolic period and the contemporary church, there are attempts to mediate between the neo-Pentecostalists, charismatics, and non-Pentecostalists by adopting the vocabulary of the charismatic movement. It is common for Reformed folk to say, “The Lord led me” or “The Lord showed me” or even “The Lord told me.”

Sometimes one suspects this is a defense mechanism. If we speak this way then perhaps we will not be accused of denying the ongoing work of the Spirit. In the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic paradigm, the assumption is that anyone who does not speak thus is implicitly denying the abiding presence, activity, and work of the Spirit. Some of this is cross-cultural or cross-paradigm communication. We’ve taken to speaking like charismatics in order communicate our conviction that the Spirit is at work in our communions and people.

The adoption of charismatic language to describe our experience comes at a cost, however, because we come to believe that what is being said is literally true. As Reformed folk read Scripture, the apostolic gifts and powers ended with the close of the apostolic age. As best we can tell, no one is actually speaking in natural foreign languages (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12–14) by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. None of us is being carried about from place to place by the Spirit (Acts 8:39) or healing the lame (Acts 8 and 9). None of us is putting people to death (Acts 5) or raising people from the dead (Acts 20) and none of us is impervious to the bite of poisonous snakes (Acts 28). None of us even is so indwelled by the Spirit that others are healed merely by touching our handkerchiefs (Acts 19).

How Should We Speak?
Above I began to sketch a case that for a way between neo-Pentecostalism/Charismatic piety and a sterile piety. Genuine, confessional Reformed piety is warm, Spiritual, and vital but we understand that the Spirit works through means (Word and sacraments). This means that there are two distinct paradigms before us. Christ’s presence mediated v the unmediated experience of God (QIRE). In some cases, however, the issue is less a matter of genuine difference but rather about how we should speak.

Historically, even though the church has often and rather conveniently fuzzed the boundary between the canonical and post-canonical periods (e.g., the hagiographies of the early church) as a matter of doctrine the main Patristic writers tended to recognize a distinction between the apostolic and post-apostolic periods. The scandal of the Montanists was that they claimed to represent a revival of the apostolic phenomena, a claim that most rejected.

As Warfield showed in 1918, the so-called “miracles” claimed by the neo-Pentecostalists simply don’t measure up to apostolic standards. The apostolic miracles were of a different order than anything that is claimed today. It wasn’t a matter of “so and so said that he heard that in Pakistan in 1937 x happened.” That’s what passes for the miraculous in our day. There’s word for that: credulity. The genuine thing was obvious, public, and empirically verifiable. They had nothing to hide because they had real power. They didn’t need ear pieces (Robert Tilton) or camera tricks and the like. There was no agony of deceit.

The truth is that those leading evangelical proponents of gifts tacitly admit that they aren’t really apostolic. One leading advocate admitted to a gathering of theologians that his first attempt to heal failed because he lacked sufficient faith. That’s not apostolic. Paul shook off the serpent at Malta because he had apostolic power not because he had sufficient faith (as if he would have died had his faith flagged for a moment). Paul sustained several stonings and other attempts on his life. We would not. We’re not apostles.

Please hear me. I am not saying that the Spirit cannot do today what he did in the first century, in the Exodus, in the flood, or in the resurrection. I quite expect to see Jesus return bodily. I expect to see a bodily resurrection and a metaphorical flood (1 Peter) but we’re not there yet. God has not promised to do in our age, in the post-canonical time between the ascension and the parousia, what he did in the canonical age.

What happens is that contemporary evangelical and charismatic folk describe ordinary phenomena in extraordinary, apostolic terms. They identify non-apostolic phenomena as apostolic. That’s cheating but it’s rhetorically powerful and persuasive. Many evangelicals don’t want to live in the post-canonical, in between time. It’s a drag. People want a power religion. Judged against the neo-Pentecostal and charismatic claims, Reformed Christianity seems decidedly weak and powerless (see all of 2 Corinthians).

So, what should we do? I propose that we speak the truth in love. Instead of making claims that we can’t back up we should speak simply. Instead claiming implicitly that we know what the Spirit is doing just now (we don’t know where the Spirit comes from or where he is going) we should say what is true. Instead of saying “the Spirit told me” or “the Spirit led me” we should say what actually know to be true. “I had a strong desire to pray” or “in the providence of God it turns out that as I was praying x was happening at the same time.”

Does the Spirit lead us, give promptings? Sure. That’s not in question. What is in question is what we should claim about them. The Word tells us that the Spirit is constantly, powerfully, and actively accomplishing his purposes. Confessing that truth is one thing. Claiming that we know just what he is about at any given moment is quite another. We say, “The Spirit was really present” when what we know to be true is that “we had an intense experience.” In fact the Spirit is always present. We may become conscious of certain intense feelings or experiences and if those are good and holy, praise God.

Implicit in the claim to know what the Spirit is doing is an unstated knowledge and claim to power. “It’s not in the Scripture but I know what the Spirit is doing in this instance.” I say that doesn’t accord with what we believe about the immensity of God, the omnipresence of God, and our doctrine of the providence of God. He is always sustaining, governing, upholding all things. We know that he is with his covenantal people is a particular way. That presumes knowledge of the Spirit’s work that we don’t have. It’s powerful and seductive but it’s powerful precisely because it fills in the sorts of blanks we want to have filled in. It sounds and seems more “spiritual” to say, “The Spirit led me to do/say/think” rather than “after prayer and study I did/said/thought.” The latter is corrigible and the former is less so. It’s really a sort of implicit claim to power, authority, and knowledge that, as far as I know, in the post-canonical era, no one has.

Why can’t we simply do good, useful, edifying things without attributing it directly to the inspiration of the Spirit? Why do we have to know whether it was directly from the Spirit? Partly, I think, because we feel guilty for being cessationists because the non-cessationists seem to having all the fun.

Brothers and sisters, we are not charismatics or neo-Pentecostals. We have a different paradigm. We should learn to be content with Scripture and with our own paradigm instead of seeking to plunder the Pentecostals. We do not believe that God occasionally drops into history to do the spectacular but rather we believe that he is constantly with us. We believe that he accomplishes extraordinary things through the ordained and regular (Rom 10). Which takes more faith? To believe that the Spirit is knocking people over, inspiring them to make incorrect prophecies, or to believe that God uses the foolishness of the preached Gospel (1 Cor 1-2) to raise spiritual dead (Eph 2) sinners to new life and to grant them faith and through it union with the risen Christ?


This essay first appeared in 2013 on the Heidelblog.

What The Spirit Is Doing Or What We Are Saying? Distinguishing Reformed And Pentecostal Piety

Introduction
Since the early 19th century American Christianity has been largely dominated by a revival of the original Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. One can transpose much of what took place in the 19th century over the first generation Anabaptists (1520s) and it matches up quite well. The original Anabaptists would have understood completely the Millerite eschatological fervor of the 1820s–40s. They would understand completely the claims of continuing revelation made by Joseph Smith and the Mormons in the same period. At least some of the original Anabaptists would have understood the bald Pelagianism of Charles Finney (1792–1875). The Cane Ridge Revival (1801) would have made perfect sense to the original Anabaptists as it fit their vision of piety almost perfectly.

Evangelical Christianity in America as it has been received in the 20th and 21st centuries is very much the product of that revived Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. The Second Great Awakening (hereafter, 2GA) was a radically democratic, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, enterprise. Theologically, it was by turns mystical and rationalist. Further, the 2GA did not just happen out of the blue. It did not fall out of the sky like golden plates and magic spectacles. There is a direct, organic connection between the First Great Awakening (hereafter 1GA) and the 2nd but we will press on lest we move from preaching to meddling.

The enthusiastic (in the strict sense) piety of the 2GA faded in the second half of the 19th century but “fresh light” broke forth again in the revivals in Topeka, KS and Azusa Street (Los Angeles) at the turn of the 20th century. The patterns established in the earlier “revivals” have been formative for American evangelicalism.

One aspect of that revivalist pattern is the claim to renewed apostolic phenomena. Suggestions were made in the 18th century and proclaimed loudly in the 19th and 20th centuries that the apostolic phenomena had been restored to those with faith to receive and exercise them. Since the 19th century at least evangelical Christianity (defined broadly) has been divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” i.e., those who claim to have recovered the Apostolic gifts and powers.

The Gift Of Interpretation
As a consequence of these claims many evangelicals simply assume that when a contemporary leader claims to have the gift of “tongues” that what is seen and accepted as “tongues” is identical to what occurred in Acts and what is described in Acts. Such assumptions of continuity between the apostolic period and contemporary expressions of religious piety and enthusiasm have strongly colored evangelical assumptions about the nature of piety. It is a paradigm: it is assumed that spiritual vitality means reproducing apostolic phenomena. Any Christian who is not receiving direct revelations from the Spirit, exercising apostolic gifts and power is reckoned either to lack faith, to be missing out on a potential benefit, or to be making a false profession of faith.

Since the 1970s a somewhat milder version of neo-Pentecostalism has come to great influence in evangelical circles: the charismatic movement. This varied movement usually asserts less continuity between the Apostolic period and the post-canonical period. It has eliminated some of the more socially embarrassing aspects of neo-Pentecostalism (e.g., being slain in the Spirit) in favor of a moderated, more middle-class, suburban piety of direct revelations that are not considered necessarily equivalent to the canonical Scriptures and occasional exercises of prophetic gifts that may (or may not) be considered authoritative. When it comes to healing, the line separating the older Azusa Street piety from the Calvary Chapel charismatic piety is a little fuzzy.

Even in Reformed circles, which are typically cessationist, i.e., which typically do not accept the widely-held assumption of strong continuity between the apostolic period and the contemporary church, there are attempts to mediate between the neo-Pentecostalists, charismatics, and non-Pentecostalists by adopting the vocabulary of the charismatic movement. It is common for Reformed folk to say, “The Lord led me” or “The Lord showed me” or even “The Lord told me.”

Sometimes one suspects this is a defense mechanism. If we speak this way then perhaps we will not be accused of denying the ongoing work of the Spirit. In the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic paradigm, the assumption is that anyone who does not speak thus is implicitly denying the abiding presence, activity, and work of the Spirit. Some of this is cross-cultural or cross-paradigm communication. We have taken to speaking like charismatics in order communicate our conviction that the Spirit is at work in our communions and people.

The adoption of charismatic language to describe our experience comes at a cost, however, because we come to believe that what is being said is literally true. As Reformed folk read Scripture, the apostolic gifts and powers ended with the close of the apostolic age. As best we can tell, no one is actually speaking in natural foreign languages (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12–14) by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. None of us is being carried about from place to place by the Spirit (Acts 8:39) or healing the lame (Acts 8 and 9). None of us is putting people to death (Acts 5) or raising people from the dead (Acts 20) and none of us is impervious to the bite of poisonous snakes (Acts 28). None of us even is so indwelled by the Spirit that others are healed merely by touching our handkerchiefs (Acts 19).

Reformed And Pentecostal?
Genuine, confessional Reformed piety is warm, Spiritual, and vital but we understand that the Spirit works through means (Word and sacraments). This means that there are two distinct paradigms before us. Christ’s presence mediated v. the unmediated experience of God (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, QIRE). In some cases, however, the issue is less a matter of genuine difference but rather about how we should speak.

Historically, even though the church has often and rather conveniently fuzzed the boundary between the canonical and post-canonical periods (e.g., the hagiographies of the early church) as a matter of doctrine the main Patristic writers tended to recognize a distinction between the apostolic and post-apostolic periods. The scandal of the Montanists was that they claimed to represent a revival of the apostolic phenomena, a claim that most rejected.

As Warfield showed in 1918, the so-called “miracles” claimed by the neo-Pentecostalists simply do not measure up to apostolic standards. The apostolic miracles were of a different order than anything that is claimed today. It was not a matter of “so and so said that he heard that in Pakistan in 1937 x happened.” That is what passes for the miraculous in our day. There is a word for that: credulity. The genuine thing was obvious, public, and empirically verifiable. They had nothing to hide because they had real power. They did not need ear pieces (Robert Tilton) or camera tricks and the like. There was no agony of deceit.

The truth is that those leading evangelical proponents of gifts tacitly admit that they are not really apostolic. One leading advocate admitted to a gathering of theologians that his first attempt to heal failed because he lacked sufficient faith. That is not apostolic. Paul shook off the serpent at Malta because he had apostolic power not because he had sufficient faith (as if he would have died had his faith flagged for a moment). Paul sustained several stonings and other attempts on his life. We would not. We are not apostles.

I am not saying that the Spirit cannot do today what he did in the first century, in the Exodus, in the flood, or in the resurrection. I quite expect to see Jesus return bodily. I expect to see a bodily resurrection and a metaphorical flood (1 Peter) but we are not there yet. God has not promised to do in our age, in the post-canonical time between the ascension and the parousia, what he did in the canonical age.

What happens is that contemporary evangelical and charismatic folk describe ordinary phenomena in extraordinary, apostolic terms. They identify non-apostolic phenomena as apostolic. That is cheating but it is rhetorically powerful and persuasive. Many evangelicals do not want to live in the post-canonical, in between time. It is a drag. People want a power religion. Judged against the neo-Pentecostal and charismatic claims, Reformed Christianity seems decidedly weak and powerless (see all of 2 Corinthians).

What Should We Then Do?
I propose that we speak the truth in love. Instead of making claims that we cannot back up we should speak simply. Instead of claiming implicitly that we know what the Spirit is doing just now (we do not—you do not know where the Spirit comes from or where he is going) we should say what is true. Instead of saying “the Spirit told me” or “the Spirit led me,” we should say what we actually know to be true: “I had a strong desire to pray” or “in the providence of God it turns out that as I was praying x was happening at the same time.”

Does the Spirit lead us, give promptings? Sure. That is not in question. What is in question is what we should claim about them. The Word tells us that the Spirit is constantly, powerfully, and actively accomplishing his purposes. Confessing that truth is one thing. Claiming that we know just what he is about at any given moment is quite another. We say, “The Spirit was really present” when what we know to be true is that “we had an intense experience.” In fact the Spirit is always present. We may become conscious of certain intense feelings or experiences and if those are good and holy, praise God.

Implicit in the claim to know what the Spirit is doing is an unstated knowledge and claim to power. “It is not in the Scripture but I know what the Spirit is doing in this instance.” That does not accord with what we believe about the immensity of God, the omnipresence of God and our doctrine of the providence of God. He is always sustaining, governing, upholding all things. We know that he is with his covenantal people in a particular way. That presumes knowledge of the Spirit’s work that we do not have. It is powerful and seductive but it is powerful precisely because it fills in the sorts of blanks we want to have filled in. It sounds and seems more “spiritual” to say, “The Spirit led me to do/say/think” rather than “after prayer and study I did/said/thought.” The latter is corrigible and the former is less so. It is really a sort of implicit claim to power, authority, and knowledge that, as far as I know, in the post-canonical era, no one has.

Why cannot we simply do good, useful, edifying things without attributing it directly to the inspiration of the Spirit? Why do we have to know whether it was directly from the Spirit? Partly, I think, because we feel guilty for being cessationists because the non-cessationists seem to be having all the fun.

Conclusion: We Have Our Own Paradigm
Brothers and sisters, the Reformed are not charismatics or neo-Pentecostals. We have a different paradigm. We should learn to be content with Scripture and with our own paradigm instead of seeking to plunder the Pentecostals. We do not believe that God occasionally drops into history to do the spectacular but rather we believe that he is constantly with us. We believe that he accomplishes extraordinary things through the ordained and regular ministry (Rom 10). Which takes more faith? To believe that the Spirit is knocking people over, inspiring them to make incorrect prophecies, or to believe that God uses the foolishness of the preached Gospel (1 Cor 1–2) to raise spiritually dead (Eph 2) sinners to new life and to grant them faith and through it union with the risen Christ?

Thanks to J. P. Sibley for editorial help with this essay.

Church Order Of The United Reformed Churches In North America (4th edition, 2007)

Source: urcna.org

Table of Contents

  • Ecclesiastical Offices (Articles 1-15);
  • Ecclesiastical Assemblies (Articles 16-36); Ecclesiastical Functions and Tasks (Articles 37-50);
  • Ecclesiastical Discipline (Articles 51-66).
  • Appendix 1 – Guidelines for a Licensure Exam
  • Appendix 2 – Guidelines for a Candidacy Exam
  • Appendix 3 – Guidelines for an Ordination Exam Appendix 4 – Guidelines for a Colloquium Doctum, Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government

Introduction
We as a federation of churches declare complete subjection and obedience to the Word of God delivered to us in the inspired, infallible and inerrant book of Holy Scripture. We believe and are fully persuaded that the Reformed Creeds do fully agree with this Word of God and therefore do subscribe to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. We acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the supreme and only Head of the Church. This headship is exercised in the churches by His Word and Spirit through the God-ordained offices, for the sake of the purity of doctrine and the holiness of life. The churches of the federation, although distinct, voluntarily display their unity by means of a common confession and church order. This is expressed as they cooperate and exercise mutual concern for one another. Since we desire to honor the apostolic command that in the churches all things are to be done decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40), we order our ecclesiastical relations and activities in the following articles covered under the following divisions:

  1. Ecclesiastical Offices (Articles 1-15);
  2. Ecclesiastical Assemblies (Articles 16-36);
  3. Ecclesiastical Functions and Tasks (Articles 37-50);
  4. Ecclesiastical Discipline (Articles 51-66).

I. Ecclesiastical Offices

Article 1
Christ has instituted three offices in the church: minister of the Word, elder and deacon.

Article 2
The duties belonging to the office of minister of the Word consist of continuing in prayer and in the ministry of the Word, administering the sacraments, catechizing the youth, and assisting the elders in the shepherding and discipline of the congregation.

Article 3
Competent men should be urged to study for the ministry of the Word. A man who is a member of a church of the federation and who aspires to the ministry must evidence genuine godliness to his Consistory, which shall assume supervision of all aspects of his training, including his licensure to exhort, and assure that he receives a thoroughly reformed theological education. The council of his church should help him ensure that his financial needs are met. (See Appendix 1.)

Article 4
At the conclusion of such training, a student must approach his Consistory to become a candidate for the ministry of the Word, which shall arrange for his examination at a meeting of the classis of which his Consistory is a participant. No one shall be declared a candidate for the ministry until he has sustained an examination at a meeting of this classis, in the presence of his Consistory, of his Christian faith and experience, of his call to the ministry, of his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, both in the original languages and in English translations, of the Three Forms of Unity, of Christian doctrine, Christian ethics and church history; of the Church Order, and of his knowledge and aptitude with regard to the particular duties and responsibilities of the minister of the Word, especially the preparation and preaching of sermons. Upon sustaining this exam in the presence of his Consistory and with the concurring advice of the delegates to this meeting of classis, his Consistory shall declare him a candidate for the office of minister of the Word. (See Appendix 2.)

Article 5
A man who is not a member of a church of the federation who seeks candidacy shall place himself under the supervision of a Consistory which shall make provision for his candidacy examination. (See Appendix 2.)

Article 6
The lawful calling to the office of minister of those who have not previously been in that office consists of:

First, the election by the council of one who has been declared a candidate according to the regulations prescribed herein, after having prayed and received the advice of the congregation; Second, the examination of both doctrine and life, which shall be conducted to the satisfaction of the delegates to the classis of which the calling church is a participant, according to the regulations adopted by the federation (see Appendix 3);
Finally, the public ordination before the congregation, which shall take place with appropriate instructions, admonitions, prayers and subscription to the Three Forms of Unity by signing the Form of Subscription, followed with the laying on of hands by the ministers who are present and by the elders of the congregation, with the use of the appropriate liturgical form.

Article 7
Those who are already ordained ministers within the federation may be called to another congregation in a manner consistent with the above rules, without the examination or the laying on of hands. Any minister receiving a call shall consult with his current council regarding that call. He may accept the call only with their consent. Upon receipt of proper credentials from the church he last served, he shall be installed with the use of the appropriate liturgical form and shall subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity by signing the Form of Subscription.

Article 8
A minister who has been ordained in a church outside the federation shall not be admitted to serve in a church within the federation without an examination conducted to the satisfaction of the classis, according to the regulations adopted by the federation, whereupon he may be declared by classis eligible for call by his sponsoring Consistory. (See Appendix 4.)

Article 9
A minister of the Word is bound to the service of the churches for life and may change the nature of his labor only for weighty reasons, upon approval by his supervising council with the concurring advice of classis.

Article 10
Each church is to provide adequately for the minister of the Word and his family while he is serving that church, and should contribute toward the retirement and disability needs of its minister. Those who have retired from the active ministry shall retain the title and dignity of the office of minister of the Word.

Article 11
When for weighty reasons and in exceptional circumstances a pastoral relationship has been irreconcilably broken, and a minister of the Word or the council of the congregation he is serving desires to dissolve their pastoral relationship, that dissolution may occur only when all the following conditions have been met:

a. this dissolution shall not occur for delinquency in doctrine or life, which would warrant church discipline;
b. this dissolution shall occur only when attempted reconciliation, with the involvement of both the church visitors and the classis, has been unsuccessful, resulting in an intolerable situation;
c. this dissolution shall occur only with the concurring advice of the classis;
d. the council’s provision for the adequate congregational support of the minister and his family

shall require the concurring advice of the classis.

The council of the congregation with which the pastoral relationship is dissolved shall announce his eligibility for call. This eligibility shall be valid for no more than two years, whereafter he shall be honorably discharged from office.

Article 12
The council shall present to the congregation nominations for the offices of elder and deacon. Only male confessing members who meet the biblical requirements for office and indicate their agreement with the Form of Subscription shall be nominated by the council. Prior to making nominations, the council may give the congregation opportunity to direct attention to suitable men.

Article 13
Elders and deacons shall be elected to a term specified by the Consistory, and upon subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity by signing the Form of Subscription, shall be ordained or installed with the use of the appropriate liturgical form before entering upon their work.

Article 14
The duties belonging to the office of elder consist of continuing in prayer and ruling the church of Christ according to the principles taught in Scripture, in order that purity of doctrine and holiness of life may be practiced. They shall see to it that their fellow-elders, the minister(s) and the deacons faithfully discharge their offices. They are to maintain the purity of the Word and Sacraments, assist in catechizing the youth, promote God-centered schooling, visit the members of the congregation according to their needs, engage in family visiting, exercise discipline in the
congregation, actively promote the work of evangelism and missions, and insure that everything is done decently and in good order.

Article 15
The duties belonging to the office of deacon consist of continuing in prayer and supervising the works of Christian mercy among the congregation; acquainting themselves with congregational needs; exhorting members of the congregation to show mercy; gathering and managing the offerings of God’s people in Christ’s name, and distributing these offerings according to need; and encouraging and comforting with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ’s mercy. Needs of those outside the congregation, especially of other believers, should also be considered as resources permit. The deacons shall ordinarily meet every month to transact the business pertaining to their office, and they shall render an account of their work to the Consistory.

II. Ecclesiastical Assemblies

Article 16
Among churches belonging to the federation, three assemblies shall be recognized: the Consistory, the classis and the synod. Classis and synod are broader assemblies that exist only when meeting by delegation. Only the Consistory is a continuing body.

Article 17
In all assemblies only ecclesiastical matters shall be transacted, only in an ecclesiastical manner.

Article 18
The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin and end with prayer.

Article 19
In every assembly there shall be a chairman, assisted by a vice-chairman. It is the chairman’s duty to state and explain clearly the matters to be dealt with, and to ensure that the stipulations of the Church Order are followed and that every delegate observes due order and decorum in speaking. In all delegated assemblies the above named functions shall cease when the assembly adjourns.

Article 20
In every assembly there shall be a clerk whose task it shall be to keep an accurate record of the proceedings. In the broader assemblies the clerk shall serve for a term to be specified by the body. Between broader assembly meetings, the clerk shall perform his duties under the supervision of the next convening Consistory.

Article 21
In each congregation there shall be a Consistory composed of the minister(s) of the Word and the elders, which shall ordinarily meet at least once a month. The Consistory is the only assembly in the church(es) whose decisions possess direct authority within the congregation, since the Consistory receives its authority directly from Christ, and thereby is directly accountable to Christ.
Article 22
When a congregation is organized within the federation, this shall take place under the supervision of a neighboring Consistory and with the concurring advice of the classis.

Article 23
When the deacons meet together with the Consistory, the body is referred to as the council. The council shall exercise such duties described in the Church Order or such duties delegated to it by the Consistory. The council shall operate under the authority of the Consistory.

Article 24
Although congregations are distinct and equal and do not have dominion over each other, they ought to preserve fellowship with each other because they are all united with Christ, the spiritual and governing Head of the church. Congregations manifest this unity when they meet together in the broader assemblies.

Article 25
Those delegated to the broader assemblies shall be seated only with properly signed credentials, and each delegate shall have only one vote. In the broader assemblies only those matters that could not be settled in the narrower assemblies, or that pertain to the churches of the broader assembly in common, shall be considered. All such matters shall originate with a Consistory and be considered by classis before being considered by synod. No broader assembly shall have the power to depose an office-bearer or otherwise exercise church discipline, since these powers belong to the Consistory.

Article 26
A classis shall consist of neighboring churches whose Consistories delegate two of their members with proper credentials to meet at a time and place determined at the previous classis meeting, within the next twelve months. If three Consistories in the classis deem it necessary that a classis meet earlier than the regular time determined, the Consistory charged with convening the meeting shall determine when and where the meeting is to occur. The churches shall take turns providing a chairman and acting as the convening church.

Furthermore, the classis shall inquire of each Consistory whether Consistory and deacons’ meetings are held, the Word of God is faithfully preached, the sacraments are faithfully administered, church discipline is exercised, the poor are cared for, and God-centered schooling is promoted; and whether the Consistory needs the advice and help of the classis for the proper government of the church.
Each classis shall inform the other classes regarding matters of mutual concern by forwarding its minutes to them in a timely manner.

Article 27
Each Consistory of the classis shall invite two experienced office-bearers appointed by classis, either two ministers or a minister and an elder, to visit the council once every two years, who shall give account of their visit to the classis. These visitors shall inquire whether the office-bearers faithfully perform their duties, adhere to sound doctrine, observe in all things the adopted order, and properly promote as much as lies in them, by word and deed, the edification of the congregation, including the youth, to the end that these visitors may fraternally admonish those office-bearers who have in anything been negligent, and may by their advice and assistance help direct all things unto the peace, edification and greatest profit of the churches.

Article 28
The churches shall meet as a synod at least once every three years. Each Consistory shall delegate two of its members to this meeting. Each synod shall determine a time and place for the subsequent synod and shall authorize a Consistory to convene that synod. If a majority of the
classes deem it necessary that a synod meet earlier than the regular time determined, the Consistory charged with convening the meeting shall determine when and where the meeting is to occur.

Article 29
If any assembly complains of having been wronged by the decision of another assembly, it shall have the right to appeal to the broader assemblies. An individual’s appeal must proceed first to the Consistory, and only then, if necessary, to a broader assembly. All decisions of a broader assembly are to be received with respect and submission, and shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they are in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order. Consistories who are convinced that they cannot comply with a decision of a broader assembly because it does not agree with the Word of God cannot be compelled to do so, provided that they state to the classis the points at which the decision of the assembly disagrees with the Word of God. If a Consistory refuses to comply with the final decision of the synod and a subsequent synod rules by majority vote that submission in the matter is essential for the unity of the churches, the congregation is no longer eligible for membership in the federation.

Article 30
Having availed herself of the avenues for appeal, a church through its Consistory may withdraw from the federation at any time by submitting a written statement to the classis to which the church belongs.

Article 31
If any church member complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a narrower assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to the broader assemblies. Until a decision is made upon such appeal, the church member shall conform to the determination and judgment already passed.

Article 32
Any church may be admitted into the federation provided that its office-bearers subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity and agree with this Church Order, and its minister sustains an examination by the nearest classis, according to the regulations adopted by the federation. Any such church shall be provisionally accepted into membership in the federation by the classis, pending ratification by the following synod.

Article 33
Whereas it is the sole right of a congregation to hold title to its property, the ownership of all property, real and personal, held by a congregation of this federation is vested exclusively in that congregation, and title shall be taken in its name alone. Each congregation shall have exclusive control over all of its temporalities, nor shall the exercise of its property rights, through the decisions of its Consistory, be subject to the supervision of the broader assemblies, nor shall the broader assemblies have the right to revise those decisions. The broader assemblies of the federation shall not attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation, whether or not such congregation remains within, chooses to withdraw from, or is removed from the federation.

Article 34
Churches are encouraged to pursue ecumenical relations with Reformed congregations outside of the federation which manifest the marks of the true church and demonstrate faithful allegiance to Scripture as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity. Each church is to give an account of its
ecumenical activities to classis. Fraternal activities between congregations which need not be reported to classis may include occasional pulpit exchanges, table fellowship, as well as other means of manifesting unity.

Article 35
The churches of a classis may, as a group, enter into ecumenical relations with an individual church or group of churches such as a classis or presbytery. The classis shall keep synod informed of such ecumenical relations, thereby honoring our federative bond.

Article 36
The federation may enter into ecumenical relations with other federations by synodical decision. Such a decision with respect to ecclesiastical fellowship shall require ratification by a majority of the synodically-approved Consistories in the federation. Such a decision with respect to church union shall require a two-thirds vote of a synod and shall require ratification by two-thirds of the synodically-approved Consistories in the federation.

III. Ecclesiastical Functions and Tasks

Article 37
The Consistory shall call the congregation together for corporate worship twice on each Lord’s Day. Special services may be called in observance of Christmas Day, Good Friday, Ascension Day, a day of prayer, the national Thanksgiving Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, as well as in times of great distress or blessing. Attention should also be given to Easter and Pentecost on their respective Lord’s Days.

Article 38
The Consistory shall regulate the worship services, which shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word: namely, that the preaching of the Word have the central place, that confession of sins be made, praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer be given, and gifts of gratitude be offered.

Article 39
The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

Article 40
At one of the services each Lord’s Day, the minister shall ordinarily preach the Word as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, with special attention given to the Heidelberg Catechism by treating its Lord’s Days in sequence.

Article 41
The covenant of God shall be signified and sealed to the children of confessing members in good standing through holy baptism administered by the minister of the Word in a service of corporate worship, with the use of the appropriate liturgical form. The Consistory shall properly supervise the administration of the sacrament, which shall be administered as soon as feasible.

Article 42
Adults who have not been baptized shall receive holy baptism upon public profession of faith, with the use of the appropriate liturgical forms, and be thus accepted as members. They shall be obliged to persevere in the fellowship of the church, not only in hearing God’s Word, but also in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Article 43
Baptized members who have been instructed in the faith and who have come to the years of understanding shall be encouraged to make public profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Those who wish to profess their faith shall be interviewed to the satisfaction of the Consistory concerning doctrine and life, and their public profession of faith shall occur in a public worship service after adequate announcement to the congregation and with the use of the appropriate liturgical form. Thereby baptized members are accepted into full communion in the congregation and shall be obliged to persevere in the fellowship of the church, not only in hearing God’s Word, but also in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Article 44
Persons coming from denominations other than those with which we have ecclesiastical fellowship shall be admitted to communicant membership only after the Consistory has examined them concerning doctrine and life. The Consistory shall determine in each case whether public profession of faith shall be required. Their names shall be announced to the congregation two weeks prior to reception, in order that the congregation may have opportunity, if necessary, to bring lawful objections to the attention of the Consistory.

Article 45
The Consistory shall supervise participation at the Lord’s Table. No member shall be admitted to the Lord’s Table who has not first made public profession of faith and is not living a godly life. Visitors may be admitted provided that, as much as possible, the Consistory is assured of their biblical church membership, of their proper profession of faith, and of their godly walk.

Article 46
The Consistory shall ordinarily administer the Lord’s Supper at least every three months in a service of corporate worship, with the use of the appropriate liturgical form. This administration shall conform to the teaching of God’s Word and the regulations of ecclesiastical order, in such a manner as is most conducive to the edification of the congregation.

Article 47
The church’s missionary task is to preach the Word of God to the unconverted. When this task is to be performed beyond the field of an organized church, it is to be carried out by ministers of the Word set apart to this labor, who are called, supported and supervised by their Consistories. The churches should assist each other in the support of their missionaries.

Article 48
Scripture teaches that marriage is designed to be a lifelong, monogamous covenantal union between one man and one woman. Consistories shall instruct and admonish those under their spiritual care who are considering marriage to marry in the Lord. Christian marriages shall be solemnized with appropriate admonitions, promises, and prayers, under the regulation of the Consistory, with the use of the appropriate liturgical form. Ministers shall not solemnize marriages that conflict with the Word of God.

Article 49
A Christian funeral is neither a service of corporate worship nor subject to ecclesiastical government, but is a family matter, and should be conducted accordingly.

Article 50
The Consistory shall maintain accurate membership records which include names and dates of baptisms, professions of faith, marriages and deaths of members of the congregation.

IV. Ecclesiastical Discipline

Article 51
Since Christian discipline is spiritual in nature and exempts no one from trial or punishment by the civil authorities, so also besides civil punishment there is need of ecclesiastical censure, that God may be glorified, that the sinner may be reconciled with God, the church and his neighbor, and that offense may be removed from the church of Christ.

Article 52
In case anyone errs in doctrine or offends in conduct, as long as the sin is of a private character and does not give public offense, the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.

Article 53
Secret sins from which the sinner repents after being admonished by one person in private or in the presence of two or three witnesses, shall not be made known to the Consistory.

Article 54
If anyone has been admonished in love by two or three persons concerning a secret sin and does not repent, or if he has committed a public sin, the matter shall be brought to the Consistory.

Article 55
Anyone whose sin is properly made known to the Consistory, and who then obstinately rejects the Scriptural admonitions of the Consistory, shall be suspended from all privileges of church membership, including the use of the sacraments. After such suspension and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication, the impenitence of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation, the offense explained, together with the care bestowed upon him and repeated admonitions, so that the congregation may speak to him and pray for him. This shall be done in three steps. In the first, the name of the sinner need not be mentioned, that he be somewhat spared. In the second, the Consistory shall seek the advice of classis before proceeding, whereupon his name shall be mentioned. In the third, the congregation shall be informed that, unless he repents, he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, if he remains impenitent, may take place with the full knowledge of the church. The interval between the steps shall be left to the discretion of the Consistory.

Article 56
If these steps of discipline, having been carried out in a loving manner, do not bring about repentance, but rather harden the sinner in his ways, the Consistory shall proceed to the extreme
remedy, namely, excommunication, in agreement with the Word of God and with the use of the appropriate liturgical form.

Article 57
The restoration of a sinner whose sins are public, or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised, shall take place upon sufficient evidence of repentance, in such manner as the Consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of the church. Whether in particular cases this should take place in public shall, when there is a difference of opinion about it within the Consistory, be decided with the advice of two neighboring churches of the classis.

Article 58
Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church by way of penitence, it shall be announced to the congregation in order that, insofar as no one can allege anything against him to the contrary, he may, with profession of his repentance, be publicly reinstated with the use of the appropriate liturgical form.

Article 59
Mature members by baptism who are delinquent in doctrine or life shall be admonished and, if they persist, shall be excluded from the church of Christ. The advice of classis must be sought before proceeding to such exclusion.

Article 60
Members by baptism who have been excluded from the church and who later repent of their sin shall be received again into the church only upon public profession of faith.

Article 61
When a minister, elder or deacon has committed a public or gross sin, or refuses to heed the admonitions of the Consistory, he shall be suspended from his office by his own Consistory with the concurring advice of the Consistories of two neighboring churches. Should he harden himself in his sin, or when the sin committed is of such a nature that he cannot continue in office, he shall be deposed by his Consistory with the concurring advice of classis.

Article 62
Included among the gross sins, but not to the exclusion of all others, which are worthy of suspension or deposition from office, are these: false doctrine or heresy, public schism, public blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, filthy lucre, in short, all sins and gross offenses which render the perpetrators infamous before the world and which in any other member of the church would occasion excommunication.

Article 63
The ministers, elders and deacons shall exercise mutual censure regularly, whereby they exhort one another in an edifying manner regarding the discharge of their offices.

Article 64
Those who seek membership in another congregation shall request in writing that their current Consistory send to the receiving Consistory an official letter including pertinent membership information and testimony concerning doctrine and life.

Article 65
No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, and no office-bearers shall lord it over other office-bearers.

Article 66
These articles, relating to the lawful order of the church, have been so drafted and adopted by common consent, that they ought to be observed diligently. If it be found that God may be more honored and the churches better served by changing any article, this shall require a two-thirds vote of a synod and shall be ratified by two-thirds of the synodically-approved Consistories of the federation prior to the next synodical meeting, after which meeting they shall take effect.

Appendix 1

Guidelines for a Licensure Exam

1. CREDENTIALS
a. A seminary faculty recommendation
b. A brief statement of personal faith and confessional commitment

2. PROCEDURE
a. The prospective licentiate must apply to his Consistory for the exam, securing the required credentials. At least thirty days before the exam, the Consistory is to announce publicly its intention to examine the prospective licentiate, providing opportunity for other Consistories to render observation and/or objections.
b. The prospective licentiate must be examined by his Consistory, and the successful completion of the exam will be certified to other Consistories within the federation.
c. An exhorting license is normally valid for one year, and extension may be requested annually in writing and may require another interview.

3. CONTENT
a. The prospective licentiate must submit two written sermons for review by his Consistory.
b. The oral exam must address the following: first, the licentiate’s godly walk; second, his commitment to the Reformed faith; third, his understanding of public worship; and fourth, matters of exegetical and homiletical method.

Appendix 2

Guidelines for a Candidacy Exam

1. CREDENTIALS
a. A recommendation from the prospective candidate’s council
b. A medical evaluation of health
c. A diploma certifying reception of a Master of Divinity degree or an equivalent academic degree d. A transcript of all seminary grades
e. A statement of testimony from the prospective candidate

2. PROCEDURE
a. The prospective candidate’s Consistory must request a meeting of classis for this exam.
b. The inviting Consistory must circulate copies of the required credentials among the Consistories of classis.
c. The inviting Consistory must make known that the candidate has sustained his candidacy exam and is available for call to the churches.
d. If the candidacy exam is sustained, and should the candidate accept a call within the same classis, the ordination exam is ordinarily waived, to avoid duplication of work within the classis. Taking note of this possibility, delegates hearing the candidacy exam should determine whether the performance is sufficient to warrant such a waiver.

3. CONTENT
a. The prospective candidate must submit three written sermons for evaluation. Two of these must be on an assigned Old Testament text and an assigned New Testament text. The third sermon must be a catechism sermon on a Lord’s Day or question and answer of his choosing. One of these sermons must be preached in a public worship service.
b. The two areas to be covered in this exam are (1) biblical and confessional commitment, and (2) ministerial competence. The former regards the prospective candidate’s knowledge of and loyalty to Scripture and the Confessions; the latter investigates his theological and ministerial knowledge and ability. This exam should, therefore, investigate the following specific areas:
(1) Practica: the prospective candidate’s personal and spiritual life, his relationship with the Lord, his growth in faith, his background and preparation for ministry, his understanding of ministerial office and his motives for seeking entrance thereto, liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care, evangelism.
(2) Bible knowledge: the prospective candidate’s doctrine of Scripture, canonicity, hermeneutics, etc., and familiarity with the contents of the various books of the Bible.
(3) Biblical exegesis: an Old Testament and a New Testament passage should be assigned to the prospective candidate at least three week in advance (one of them in connection with one of his assigned sermons); the examiner should inquire concerning the meaning of the text and the prospective candidate’s ability to work with the original languages and with a suitable exegetical method.
(4) Confessional knowledge: the history and content of the Three Forms of Unity, the prospective candidate’s willingness to subscribe to them by signing the Form of Subscription.
(5) Reformed doctrine: the teaching of Scripture and the Confessions regarding the six major areas of Reformed doctrine (Theology, Anthropology, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology).
(6) Church history: the flow of church history, in terms of major persons, heresies, etc., with special emphasis on the Reformation and the history of the Reformed churches.
(7) Ethics: the meaning and function of the Decalogue, also in relation to Christian motivation and character, and to contemporary moral problems.
(8) Church Polity: the history and principles of Reformed church polity, and the content of the Church Order.

Appendix 3

Guidelines for an Ordination Exam

1. CREDENTIAL: A valid letter of call

2. PROCEDURE
a. Exceptional case: If the ordination exam would occur in the same classis in which the candidacy exam was sustained, then the ordination exam may be waived by the delegates conducting the candidacy exam.
b. The candidate’s calling Consistory must invite classis to participate in an ordination exam.
c. The candidate is to preach a sermon in a public worship service which he conducts under the auspices of his calling Consistory.
d. Upon sustaining the exam, the classis shall declare the candidate eligible to be ordained as a minister of the Word and sacraments among the United Reformed Churches in North America.

3. CONTENT
The two areas to be covered in this exam are (1) biblical and confessional commitment, and (2) ministerial competence. The former regards the prospective candidate’s knowledge of and loyalty to Scripture and the Confessions; the latter investigates his theological and ministerial knowledge and ability. This exam should, therefore, investigate the following specific areas:
(1) Practica: the prospective candidate’s personal and spiritual life, his relationship with the Lord, his growth in faith, his background and preparation for ministry, his understanding of ministerial office and his motives for seeking entrance thereto, liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care, and evangelism.
(2) Church polity: the history and principles of Reformed church polity, and the content of the Church Order.
(3) Confessional knowledge: the history and content of the Three Forms of Unity, concerning the prospective candidate’s willingness to subscribe to them by signing the Form of Subscription.
(4) Reformed doctrine: the teaching of Scripture and the Confessions regarding the six major areas of Reformed doctrine (Theology, Anthropology, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology).
(5) Ethics: the meaning and function of the Decalogue, also in relation to Christian motivation and character, and to various contemporary moral problems.

Appendix 4

Guidelines for a Colloquium Doctum

1. CREDENTIALS: two letters of request and information relating to the background and circumstances of the relationship, one from the examinee and one from the sponsoring Consistory.

2. PROCEDURE
a. The calling Consistory must invite classis to participate in a colloquium doctum.
b. The examinee is to preach a sermon in a public worship service which he conducts under the auspices of his sponsoring Consistory.
c. Upon sustaining the colloquium doctum, the classis shall declare the minister eligible to be called by the sponsoring Consistory as a minister of the Word and sacraments among the United Reformed Churches in North America.

3. CONTENT
The two areas to be covered in this exam are (1) biblical and confessional commitment, and (2) ministerial competence. The former regards the prospective candidate’s knowledge of and loyalty to Scripture and the Confessions; the latter investigates his theological and ministerial knowledge and ability. This exam should, therefore, investigate the following specific areas:
(1) Practica: the prospective candidate’s personal and spiritual life, his relationship with the Lord, his growth in faith, his background and preparation for ministry, his understanding of ministerial office and his motives for seeking entrance thereto, liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care, and evangelism.
(2) Church polity: the history and principles of Reformed church polity, and the content of the Church Order.
(3) Confessional knowledge: the history and content of the Three Forms of Unity, concerning the prospective candidate’s willingness to subscribe to them by signing the Form of Subscription.
(4) Reformed doctrine: the teaching of Scripture and the Confessions regarding the six major areas of Reformed doctrine (Theology, Anthropology, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology).
(5) Ethics: the meaning and function of the Decalogue, also in relation to Christian motivation and character, and to various contemporary moral problems.
Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government

1. The church is the possession of Christ, who is the Mediator of the New Covenant. Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27

2. As Mediator of the New Covenant, Christ is the Head of the church.
Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23-24; Colossians 1:18

3. Because the church is Christ’s possession and He is its Head, the principles governing the church are not a matter of human preference, but of divine revelation.
Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1:18

4. The universal church possesses a spiritual unity in Christ and in the Holy Scriptures. Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:20; I Timothy 3:15; II John 9

5. The Lord gave no permanent universal, national or regional offices to His church. The office of elder (presbyter/episkopos) is clearly local in authority and function; thus, Reformed church government is presbyterial, since the church is governed by elders, not by broader assemblies. Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5

6. In its subjection to its heavenly Head, the local church is governed by Christ fromheaven, by means of His Word and Spirit, with the keys of the kingdom which He has given it for that purpose; and it is not subject to rule by sister churches who, with it, are subject to the one Christ. Matthew 16:19; Acts 20:28-32; Titus 1:5

7. Federative relationships do not belong to the essence or being of the church; rather, they serve the well-being of the church. However, even though churches stand distinctly next to one another, they do not thereby stand disconnectedly alongside one another. Entrance into and departure from a federative relationship is strictly a voluntary matter.
Acts 15:1-35; Romans. 15:25-27; Colossians 4:16; Titus 1:5; Revelation 1:11, 20

8. The exercise of a federative relationship is possible only on the basis of unity in faith and in confession.
I Corinthians 10:14-22; Gal. 1:6-9; Ephesians 4:16-17

9. Member churches meet together in consultation to guard against human imperfections and to benefit from the wisdom of a multitude of counselors in the broader assemblies. The decisions of such assemblies derive their authority from their conformity to the Word of God.
Proverbs 11:14; Acts 15:1-35; I Corinthians 13:9-10; II Timothy 3:16-17

10. In order to manifest our spiritual unity, local churches should seek the broadest possible contacts with other like-minded churches for their mutual edification and as an effective witness to the world.
John 17:21-23; Ephesians 4:1-6

11. The church is mandated to exercise its ministry of reconciliation by proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; II Corinthians 5:18-21

12. Christ cares for His church through the office-bearers whom He chooses.
Acts 6:2-3; I Timothy 3:1,8; 5:17

13. The Scriptures encourage a thorough theological training for the ministers of the Word.
I Timothy 4:16; II Timothy 2:14-16; 3:14; 4:1-5

14. Being the chosen and redeemed people of God, the church, under the supervision of the elders, is called to worship Him according to the Scriptural principles governing worship.
Leviticus 10:1-3; Deuteronomy 12:29-32; Psalm 95:1,2,6; Psalm 100:4; John 4:24; I Peter 2:9

15. Since the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, it is called through the teaching ministry to build up the people of God in faith.
Deuteronomy 11:19; Ephesians 4:11-16; I Timothy 4:6; II Timothy 2:2; 3:16-17

16. Christian discipline, arising from God’s love for His people, is exercised in the church to correct and strengthen the people of God, maintain the unity and the purity of the church of Christ, and thereby bring honor and glory to God’s name.
I Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:13; Hebrews 12:7-11

17. The exercise of Christian discipline is first of all a personal duty of every child of God, but when discipline by the church becomes necessary, it must be exercised by the elders of the church, the bearers of the keys of the kingdom.
Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 20:28; I Corinthians 5:13; I Peter 5:1-3

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 2004, 2007 United Reformed Churches in North America

Why Pastors Need a Seminary Education

The More Things Change

Over the years many things have changed at Westminster Seminary California (WSC). In the most important ways, however, the seminary has not changed. We still believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. We still believe the historic Christian faith as summarized in the ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions and catechisms. We are still dedicated to training men for the Reformed, pastoral ministry.

Though WSC has not changed fundamentally, the seminary business has changed dramatically in recent years. Today seminaries are offering their product (education and preparation for ministry) at a distance through satellites, video, and the Internet. WSC is enthusiastic about these emerging technologies and is exploring the best way to use them to advance Christ’s kingdom. One possibility under consideration is finding a way to provide continuing education to pastors through the Internet and other technologies (see below).

Some folk, however, see the Internet as a way not only to supplement a pastor’s seminary education and to strengthen his ministry (it surely is these things) but also as a way to replace seminaries altogether. This is a worrisome trend, frankly. The strongest argument which proponents of “home grown” pastors make is that the church should have a more intimate role in the training of her ministers. They see the Internet therefore as a way to harvest the best of scholarship while keeping candidates for the ministry in their local churches. This program, though initially attractive, rests on some false assumptions.

Face to Face is Best

Though there are many benefits to be had through the internet — you and I are using it right now to communicate — it can never replace the sort of community which exists between professors and students in the classroom, lunchroom and the office.

The word community is the right one in this context. Most of the students attend local Reformed churches (many of which exist because God used the Seminary faculty and students to plant new churches in this area) in which WSC faculty preach and teach. Some students live with faculty and there are gatherings in faculty and student homes regularly which make school and church life a sort of seamless garment. All this interaction contributes to the formation of men for the ministry. We regard the spiritual and theological development of students to be part of our ministry. So it is not true, as is sometimes implied in the discussion about the relative necessity of seminary, that men who go to seminary are somehow in the wilderness.

Would You Trust Your Heart to a Mail Order Surgeon?

At WSC we are still old-fashioned enough to believe, however, that a seminary education comes only one way: through hard work. Therefore, while many seminaries are now advertising (quite seductively it seems!) that one can earn a seminary degree while never leaving home, at WSC we believe that self-sacrifice is a part of ministry. Ask yourself this question: Would you choose as your heart surgeon who learned his skills via satellite and video tapes? Even with the assistance of a seasoned physician nearby, such training would clearly be inadequate. There is something about knowing how deep to cut which can only be learned through hands-on, tactile, face-to-face training.

Your soul, as our Lord Jesus taught us, is of infinitely more value than even your heart muscle. Notice that I keep saying, “At WSC” instead of “through WSC.” This is because Seminary is not just a vehicle, a means to an end. While students are here, they are students. They are not just passing through seminary. Their vocation is to study and prepare, in school, with pastors and scholars, to become pastor-scholars. By challenging, praying with, and lecturing to students we believe that we are preparing them to serve in Churches by providing them with the tools they will use every day for the rest of their lives in their pastoral ministry.

What we think about seminary is important because, since the formation of the Reformed Church in the 16th century, we have always believed in scholar-pastors. This belief distinguishes us from much of the rest of American and Modern Christianity. Some might say, “That’s the problem”. I respectfully disagree and for one reason primarily. Preaching is the minister’s primary calling. He is called to preach from the Bible. The Bible is, to quote J. I. Packer, a “very big book”. More than that, it was written in three languages in several cultures over quite a long time. It takes a certain amount of learning to get to grips with the history, theology, background and proper application of God’s Word. Nor is the Bible read in a vacuum. The Church has been thinking about and interpreting the Bible for a long time. So we need pastors who are not only trained to read God’s Word as it was written, but who are trained in the Christian tradition. This is not something done quickly, easily, or cheaply. It is not something which is done well by distance (electronic) education to large groups without access to a Seminary library or faculty.Thus, such distance-education is not adequate, at least not presently, for servants of God’s Word and his people.

It Takes One to Know One

Quite understandably, most pastors (like most physicians, lawyers and accountants) are far too busy to be able to keep up with the latest literature in any one field (e.g., New Testament studies) let alone all the fields required for seminary preparation. Staying abreast of academic developments is a full-time calling. Only recently one of our New Testament professors presented to the rest of WSC faculty a highly technical, but most interesting paper on recent developments in the study of the grammar of the New Testament. Most of the faculty, even though they are full-time scholars, were unaware of these changes. If full-time scholars struggle to keep up with the changes in the various fields, how could even the most skilled and industrious pastor fulfill all his parish responsibilities and do the sort of reading which would prepare him to train men for ministry full-time? Clearly this is highly unlikely.

Why Seminary Indeed?

One might say, “who cares if seminary professors know the latest scholarship, is it not all a waste of time anyway?” The answer is no, its not a waste of time. To use the medical analogy again, do you care if your physician reads the New England Journal of Medicine or are you prepared to do without antibiotics? Certainly there is much foolishness in Modern scholarship. Yet it will make its way into the Church and our pastors and elders must be ready to address it. More than that, there are benefits to recent scholarship. For example, one of our professors has made use of some newer educational techniques to make his Greek instruction even more effective. Its still hard work, but the students will leave seminary with the ability continue to improve their Greek skills, instead of putting the Greek testament on the shelf. In my field (theology) there is some very good scholarship being done which has brought back much of our 16th and 17th century tradition to life again through essays and translations. The church will reap many rewards from these sorts of studies.

Seminary and the Church

“But”, some object, “doesn’t sending men away to Seminary take them out of the local church?” The answer to that question is yes and no. Yes, sending men to seminary does take them out of one local church, but, of course, sending them to WSC, for example, means that they will find themselves them right back in another local church. It does not take men from “the” local church. Rather, sending men to Seminary shifts them temporarily from one local congregation to another.

“But”, someone says, “isn’t the local church the primary place for the training of ministers?” Of course the church has the central role in the calling and forming of ministers. The question is not whether, but how? Remember, seminary is a three and sometimes four-year commitment. The local church, if she is raising up future pastors, has young men for twenty years or more.

If our local churches are really concerned about the welfare of their seminarian sons, they can do many things to help. First they can pray for them. Seminary is a challenge. The academic demands are high. Think of those whom you know who have gone away to medical school. The demands of a WSC education are comparable to those of the best professional (law, dental, medical) schools in the nation. The local congregation can also support the student financially. It is a simple equation: the less time the student must spend working, the more time the student can spend studying. The more time the student spends studying, the better prepared he will be for ministry.

It is wrong to assume that a local congregation or even a Classis can replace a seminary. Which of our local congregations, or any combination of them has the necessary time, money, human and capital resources to train men for ministry? The WSC library holds tens of thousands of books and dozens of journals and thousands of back copies of magazines and journals. Few local congregations could support such an endeavor. This list doesn’t even mention the computer hardware and software which (which needs upgrading almost constantly) and the valuable resources constituted by a learned faculty, all gathered in one place.

Seminary: A Place for Reflection

The home-grown-do-it-yourself-learn-as-you-go model neglects another very important fact of education: time. Seminary is a time to come away from the typical schedule of ministry demands to think, learn, reflect on the Scriptures and pray. Any pastor will tell you that if there is one thing he misses from his days at Seminary it is the luxury of time away from the telephone (or email), and access to the latest journals and books, or even access to some of the very oldest books and time to read and meditate on them.

Follow the Money

In the discussion over “whether seminary” it is frequently objected that Seminary is “too expensive.” The assumption here seems to be that professional training for our ministers is could be done less expensively by frugal folk who know what they are doing. Those who say this have probably not tried to offer outstanding graduate level education in the USA. The administrative overhead at WSC is quite low. We employ a very talented staff, some of whom have given up lucrative careers in order to advance God’s kingdom serving at the seminary. The cost of seminary at WSC is ranked almost exactly in the middle of seminaries in the USA. Given the quality of the education at WSC, we think that the tuition is quite reasonable. Costs do rise, but some of them are uncontrollable, such as the cost of books which have risen considerably over the years. What should the seminarian-pastor do? Go without books? Would you visit a mechanic who had no tools?

One should not assume that the proposed electronic alternative is cheaper. Electronic-Distance education does not promise to be any less expensive, in the long-run. Daryl Hart, in the October, 1997 of New Horizons, noted that there are hidden costs to distance education. For example, some complain that they do not want to move to where the seminaries are. In that case, one wonders, in reply, if they ill want to move where the churches are? Some complain that they will have to meet the cost of living while at Seminary. Is there no cost of living where the prospective student now lives? If not, let us all move there. Of course that would raise the cost of living would it not?

Then there are the seminary facilities. Each distance-learning student must have a suitable PC (let us say about $1500.00) and the associated software, which will need nearly constant up-grading. More than that, the long-distance seminarian will need his own seminary library, since the equivalent does not yet exist online. A decent library for such an enterprise could easily cost $10,000.00.

In this scheme, one has made a substantial investment toward becoming self-taught, but there are less tangible costs as well. When, in this scenario, will the stay-at-home seminarian study his Greek and Hebrew? Who will mark his papers? Evaluate his sermons? With whom will he compare notes? Will he really memorize his Greek and Hebrew vocabulary or will that also be too much bother? Will he really spend the late hours necessary to do the reading and writing for class? A computer terminal or video screen is wonderful, but its not human fellowship.

No Easy Way

All this is to point out that there is no easy route to the ministry and we delude ourselves if we say that there is. It is the Church’s obligation to make certain that the seminaries to which she sends her young (and older!) men is worthy. What constitutes a worthy place? One which continues to confess the historic Reformed faith, which not only keeps up with the questions and criticisms offered by the culture, but which offers biblical and intelligent answers to those criticisms. That is, a worthy seminary is one which understands the times in which we minister and who equips her students to face those times, which equips her students to stand in the pulpit week after week and tell the truth, all of it, regardless of the consequences. WSC, was, is, and shall, by God’s grace, remain such a worthy place.

The Old Fashioned Way: They Earn It

WSC is old-fashioned in other ways as well. Unlike many seminaries, we still require students to learn to read God’s Word in the original languages. This was the vision of our founder, J. Gresham Machen, that Westminster would produce men expert in the Bible. For this reason, students spend much of their first year learning Greek and Hebrew. They’re expected to attend their other classes in Systematic, Practical and Historical Theology with their Bible open as well. They also attend more advanced courses in exegesis, i.e., the explanation of the biblical text. More than just biblical study, they learn what to do with the Bible in the Church. They learn the biblical theology of the Church, her offices, and the theology and practice of pastoral ministry.

The Proper Role of Distance Learning

The new technologies cannot and should not replace face-to-face seminary education. What they can do, however, is to extend our ability to help pastors continue their education. Having laid the foundation of life-long learning in the classroom, we can help pastors keep up with theological, intellectual and academic trends email discussion lists, web pages, interactive seminars via the Internet or satellite uplink.

Concluding Thoughts

Our seminary has been entrusted with a tremendous responsibility. At WSC the faculty takes this responsibility with the greatest seriousness. No seminary, or any human institution is perfect and we are profoundly aware of this fact. Nevertheless, the Lord has given us this ministry of training men for ministry. Our slogan (in the Greek text on our seal) says, “The whole counsel of God”. That is the mark we aim to hit: to train men to preach all of God’s Word. It is no easy task, but it is joyous one. I hope that you will pray for us as we pray for you and the prosperity of Christ’s Church.

Ventilator Blues

Most folk probably associate the Rolling Stones more with “Sympathy for the Devil,” than with historic Christianity, and few of us would expect to learn any theology from them but I noticed recently that in “Ventilator Blues” Mick and the lads hit a strong Calvinist note:

Ev’rybody walking ’round, ev’rybody trying to step on their Creator. Don’t matter where you are, ev’rybody, ev’rybody gonna need some kind of ventilator (“Ventilator Blues,” Jagger/Richards/Taylor; 1972)

According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, who calls himself Qoheleth (the title of the convener of the covenant assembly), the Rolling Stones got it right.

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Eccl 2:11).

In Southern California, as in other parts of the world, the freeways are full of fast-moving, cars carrying successful people to important jobs and places. My gym is full of middle-aged folk (of which I am one) huffing and puffing trying to mitigate the effects of the fall. The media buzz of email, phone calls, and television is unending. In the end, however, Qoheleth says that it is all wind-chasing and vanity. How ever fast we live, drive, and exercise, most of us will “need some kind of ventilator” (cf. Eccl 9:5).

For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity (Eccl 3:19).
As Qoheleth makes clear, in contrast to what we do, what God does endures (Eccl 3:14) and that there will be an end to every life (Eccl 8:8).

In the Day You Eat of It

Nor is it difficult to find evidence of continual defiance of the Creator. As the song says, everyone is trying to “step on their Creator.” We know the source of this problem. Contrary to Rome, which teaches that Adam was created with the inclination to sin and that inclination was restrained by a “super added gift” of grace so that Adam’s was fall from grace, Scripture teaches and we confess that God made Adam “good” (Gen 1:31). Rome teaches that Adam was not just to be glorified, i.e., to live with God in eternal blessedness, but rather they teach that he was to be “divinized” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §398).

We confess, however, that before the fall, Adam was not defective or inclined to sin in any way. This is why we say that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness; that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 6).

God made Adam to know his Creator, to obey him, and having passed the test set before him, to be glorified, not divinized. Our problem has never been lack of deity. It was disobedience.

In that covenant of life or works or nature (our theologians have used all three to mean the same thing), God established the law: love God with all your faculties and love your neighbor as yourself. He summarized the law in one command: “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” and attached to it a certain penalty for its violation: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).

By virtue of his good creation, his righteousness, Adam had within him the power to obey the law. So Heidelberg Catechism Q. 9 says, “…God so made man that he could perform it; but man, through the instigation of the devil, by willful disobedience deprived himself and all his descendants of this power.” Until the last century or so, this is how most of our Reformed forebears understood Adam’s condition before the fall and the mystery of the fall.

As God threatened, by our law-breaking we earned corruption and death. What had been a matter of freedom and joy became evil and hard (Gen 3:17). We began to return to dust (Gen 3:19). Before long, rebellion against God was so widespread that we brought upon ourselves a cataclysmic judgment (Gen 6-9). In our sin, we rebelled against God and sought to replace him and his law with ourselves and our own law. We tried to become autonomous.

We once mourned the existence of sin and death, we recognized that humans are rebels and sinners in need of grace and salvation. We recognized our need to be justified and sanctified because we recognized that there is a Creator who has revealed a universally binding law: Do and live (Luke 10:28). We used to describe the Christian life as “mortification,” the “dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism, 88).

By contrast, today our rebellion against God and its consequences seem to be universally celebrated. We no longer worry about sin and salvation. The mirror no longer frightens and disgusts us. Thomas de Zengotita is certainly right when he says that, like Narcissus, we are so infatuated with what we see that we have decided to clone it! For Moderns, sin is no longer the problem; the law is the problem. If we move the markers, no one ever goes out of bounds. Children no longer lose at games and everyone goes home a winner. We have declared that there is nothing wrong with us that a little therapy can’t fix.

As I have already suggested, there is nothing really new about the Modern impulse to deify ourselves. This is what Adam attempted, what Rome teaches, and this has been our natural inclination since. In the pre-modern world, however, there was at least some shame attached to sin. In Modernity, however, the entire enterprise has been to do away with God. Hence the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) declared the death of God long before Time Magazine found out about it in 1967. In his place we have endeavored mightily to put ourselves. Before Modernity, our philosophers and theologians, however errant they may have been in other ways, began with God as their starting point. There were great debates about what he had said, but there was no question that he had revealed himself.

In the Modern period, that certainty was shattered by a deep and fundamental doubt about whether God has really revealed himself. It has been replaced by another “certainty,” that God is not (Prov 14:1) or at least he is not such that we must begin with his authority and revelation. The French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” Descartes effectively re-wrote Scripture: “In the beginning I created reality and formed God from my imagination.” Since the eighteenth century, most of Modern philosophy and theology, even those who call themselves “postmodern,” has traded Moses for Descartes. “Trying to step on their Creator” indeed.

So, like the Stones, Qoheleth sang the blues and justifiably so, but he did more than that. He also sang a sort of shadowy Gospel song. It begins as a minor theme in the early chapters of Ecclesiastes. For example he says, “he put eternity into man’s heart….” (Eccl 3:11). It is sounded again in the middle of the book (Eccl 8:12) and is made explicit at the end of the book. He says, “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:14). The gospel, in broad terms, as it comes to expression in Ecclesiastes, has to do with eternal judgment. Some take Ecclesiastes to teach a non-Christian view of man, heaven, and hell; that this life is all there is, but such a reading of Ecclesiastes misses the point of the book. Qoheleth tells us the truth about sin and its consequences for human existence. It is true that we shall all die, but that is not all there is to be found in Qoheleth. There are also the righteous and the unrighteous, there is eternity and there shall be a day reckoning when the injustices of this life shall be made right and there is a living God who shall bring righteousness to pass in history.

As members of the new covenant, as those “upon whom the end of the ages has come,” (1 Cor 10:11), we can see a little more clearly than Qoheleth what this means. We know that it is our Lord Jesus, who was “born under the law,” (Gal 4:4), who obeyed for us, who was crucified and raised for us (1 Cor 15:1–4). This Jesus shall return in judgment (2 Thess 1:7–10) to deliver his people, to consummate his promises, to inaugurate the final state of existence and the glorification of his people (Rom 8:30). Those who have trusted in Jesus have nothing to fear in the judgment. Thus, our catechism asks,

Q. 52: What comfort is it to you that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, I, with uplifted head, look for the very One, who offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory

Do not overlook the fact that the judgment is described as a “comfort” to believers. The Heidelberg Catechism uses the word “comfort” six times and each time it refers to the assurance of salvation. Just as in Ecclesiastes ours is a life of sorrows and persecutions, but the entrance of eternity into history is a blessing for believers, for whom Christ has offered himself, from whom he has removed the curse and for whom he will come as a judge and redeemer. For Christians, the return of Christ is good news.

For us who by faith are united to Christ the end of all things has begun but we have not yet come into full possession of eternity. We still have this life to negotiate. Pending Christ’s return, the day and hour of which only God knows (Mark 13:32) most of us shall find ourselves in an antiseptic hospital room, suffering the indignities of medical treatment and finally death. That is sufficient cause to sing the blues. The reality, however, should also cause us to put our life in proper perspective.

Our culture promises us satisfaction if we keep the right diet, drive the right car, sleep in the right bed, make the right friends, and have the right job. It’s possible to find satisfaction and even joy in those things, but the Stones still have a point. These things, however good they may be in themselves, do not address our most basic need: righteousness before God and living with him in eternal blessedness. These good things don’t change the fundamental reality: “Don’t matter where you are, ev’rybody gonna need some kind of ventilator.”

The question is not whether we’re going to die. Rather the question is how are we going to live in the light of that fact? The New Testament addressed directly two non-Christian approaches to life. In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul spoke to the Athenian Philosophical Society which was composed mainly of Epicureans and Stoics. The Epicureans were skeptical about eternity, heaven, and hell so they organized life around the quest for refined pleasure. James Bond’s request for a vodka martini, “shaken, not stirred” is a good example of this philosophy. The Stoics, on the other hand, organized life around the quest for contentment gained through reason and aligning themselves with the nature of things. The popular “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People series is a good example of the influence of Stoicism in our time.

The Apostle Paul’s first response to these philosophies was to preach the law, to point out that we all have a true, non-saving, knowledge of God and his law that leaves us without excuse (Acts 17:22–31; Rom 1:18–2:16). He preached the coming judgment of the world and called them all to acknowledge the greatness of their sin and misery. The second part of his sermon was to preach the good news of the resurrection of Christ. As often happens, some of them regarded the resurrection as foolishness (1 Cor 1:21–25) but some by the grace of God, some of them put their trust in Christ (Acts 17:32–34).

The cold truth is that most of us shall end up on a ventilator and die. The proper response, however, is neither despair, nor skepticism but a sober reckoning with the truth. The proper response is to sing the blues, to recognize the greatness of our sin and misery (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 2), to repent of our rebellion and unbelief and then to sing the gospel song: “O’ Death where is your victory, O’ death where is your sting?” The proper response is to turn to the Savior who, by his obedience to the law and death, has earned life for all who believe. He has removed the sting of sin and death from us (1 Cor 15:55–56) and given us hope and a reason to live well in this life. Having sung the blues, that ancient blues man Qoheleth, looking forward to that day when the tomb would be found empty (Mark 16:6) also sang, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near” (Eccl 12:1).

The Synod of Dort on Sabbath Observance

Session 164, May 17 PM
Trans. R. Scott Clark

Rules on the observation of the Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, with the agreement of the brothers from Zeeland the following concepts were explained and approved by Doctor Professors of Divinity.

I.
In the fourth Commandment of the divine law, part is ceremonial, part is moral.

II.
The rest of the seventh day after creation was ceremonial and its rigid observation peculiarly prescribed to the Jewish people.

III.
Moral in fact, because the fixed and enduring day of the worship of God is appointed, for as much rest as is necessary for the worship of God and holy meditation of him.

IV.
With the Sabbath of the Jews having been abrogated, the Lord’s Day is solemnly sanctified by Christians.

V.
From the time of the Apostles this day was always observed in the ancient Catholic Church.

VI.
This same day is thus consecrated for divine worship, so that in it one might rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God.

Source: H.H. Kuyper, De Post-Acta of Nahandelingen van de nationale Synode van Dordrecht in 1618 en 1619 gehouden een Historische Studie (Amsterdam, 1899), 184-6.

The Mystery of Children’s Church

In Christian congregations across the Western world, at a certain point during the worship service small children are dismissed to the what is often called “children’s church.” I can understand why evangelicals (without a direct connection to or confession of the Reformed faith) and others, who do not have a covenantal theology, would send out their children during public worship but I do not understand why so many ostensibly Reformed congregations have adopted the practice of dismissing their covenant children from the service to “children’s church.” After all, we confess that God has promised to be a God to us and to our children.

As a pastor, I understand the practical problems. Parents want to be able to concentrate on worship and children can be distraction from worship. At least some of the same congregations that have this practice also do not set aside time outside of the worship service for Christian instruction or catechism. So, it seems, they’re holding catechism during the worship service. I guess that the reason that there’s no additional time for catechism is that the parents will not make time and the church will not make them make time. So, congregations are making do. Sometimes the bulletin explains that the children are sent out of public worship in order to “prepare them to worship.” At first glance this seems like an attractive option: it seems to provide for a way for children to be taught while parents get a break and are refreshed in worship.

It is hard to know where to start with this complex of problems. Obviously there is a question about the nature of the Sabbath. There’s a questions about the nature of worship. There’s a question of the nature of baptismal vows and church membership. There’s a question of Christian nurture and there’s a question of the nature of Christian parenting.

Obviously, to address all these questions would require more than a short essay. Nevertheless, if we think about the creational pattern (Gen 1-2) we see that, in the beginning, before Moses, God set aside one day in seven for rest and worship (Ex 20:8). Our children are to participate in both rest and worship. If children are sent out of public worship for something other than worship then they are not really participating in the divinely intended pattern for human and especially redeemed life (Deut 5).

In our time we tend to think that worship is chiefly about our experience and we expect worship to be edifying (as it should be) and even uplifting. It is true that having children in church means that it may be slightly less edifying (because the parent will be more distracted). It also means that it may be less emotionally moving. It is a little harder to to concentrate when your child is fidgeting next to you or someone else’s is wailing in your left ear. That’s okay. You might not have the same experience this week as you did when there was children’s church. That’s okay. Experience is not the most important thing in worship. It is about hearing God and responding appropriately, according to His Word.

Judging by Scripture, however, God does not mind that the quality of your experience is diminished. He takes the long view. Your children will grow up not segregated from public worship and the means of grace. They will grow up a part of the community of the redeemed and watching baptisms (so they can see what happened to them). They will see the supper administered and they will ask, “When can I have it?” They will hear the Law and the Gospel (Dv) and they will grow up knowing that this is their identity, that It is really true, that God said, “I will be your God and your children’s God.”

When Christian parents present their children for baptism, they take vows to instruct them in the faith, to pray for them, and to bring them to worship. Does Children Church, even in its best form, really fulfill the promises we made? does not the act of sending children out of the stated service for instruction send a more powerful message than the even good instruction will send? does not it send the message to the children that they are not really members of the covenant community? Does it not perhaps send the message that the gathering for public worship may be marginalized if something else is deemed more important? It sends the message that It is acceptable to arrange one’s priorities during the week so as to require this ad hoc solution, that church is something we do but not something we are.

Underneath all of this there is another series of questions: Of what we are, who Jesus is, what he did, and what the implications are for those who would follow him. We may look like happy, upwardly mobile suburbanites but we’re not. We’re wretched, horrible people by nature. That manicured lawn covers over a multitude of hell-deserving sins. We’re gossips, murderers, adulterers, and God-haters. If the children’s church-sending parents understood that, if they really believed that about themselves and their children, they would find time during the week to see that their children are instructed. They would be catechizing their children, praying with and for them. Then it would not be a matter of squeezing a little instructional time into the Sabbath. They would be pleading with the minister to teach their children.

If we saw ourselves for what, but for the grace of God, we really are, then we would understand the grace of God. If we understood the grace of God, we would more and more embrace the consequences of following Jesus. Death to self entails death to the successful suburban lifestyle where that lifestyle marginalizes Christ and his church.

How will it turn out? Only God knows but faith not only trusts but it also obeys. We do have the biblical, covenantal pattern and we do have the history of the church. One of the persistent problems faced by the Reformed churches since the 19th century has been its failure to retain its young people. In that same time we have seen the growth of age-specific “youth ministry.” Could there be a correlation between our adaptation of non-Reformed patterns of worship and catechesis and the loss of young people in the church? This way of looking at things seems counter-intuitive when everyone else seems to be saying that the answer is to “be more like the broadly evangelical church.” Of course, that advice assumes that they are doing a better job of retaining their young people than the Reformed churches. That is a big and probably false assumption.

Our children and grandchildren are counting on us to be their leaders, to provide for them, to do what is best for them even if they themselves cannot see it at the time. Keeping our covenant youth in the service is not easy and it will be a big change for many but it is not impossible if we think about the promises God has made to us and that we have, in turn, made to him and to our children.

Children’s church is a problem but It is not the problem. It is a symptom of much larger problems. It is not too late, because It is never too late to repent. Grace is free for everyone, pastors and parents alike. God bless those noisy congregations with fidgeting and fussy children. Let the noise of children inhabit all our congregations.

Including noisy, fidgeting children into our covenant community and into public worship will take work and nerve. Parenting takes nerves of steel sometimes but there’s a great payoff: children who grow up knowing that they belong to Christ and to his covenant of grace. Another benefit will be to reduce pressure to create age-specific music and worship “experiences” for young people. God’s Word knows nothing about age-specific music. The only songs we have in God’s Word are intended to be sung by all of God’s people, together.

Crouching Tiger, True Repentance

There is an argument that Tiger Wood’s sexual immorality is private and none of our business. Fine. His very public apology, however, gives us an opportunity to think about the nature of repentance and faith. During his apology Tiger made reference to his wandering from his childhood faith, Buddhism. He apologized to all those people, including his fans, whom he offended and whom he disappointed. He pledged to do better, to return to the laws of Buddhism, including, one imagines, its requirement for various forms of self-denial. There is one, however, to whom Tiger did not apologize and there is a law to which he did not pledge obedience.That law is God’s law: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything which is written in the book of the law (Gal 3:10; Deut 27:26). The law of God requires “perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2). The one to whom Tiger did not apologize, of course, is the thrice-holy God. However much Tiger may fear losing his wife, his family, or his endorsements, he has much more to fear from God who is a “consuming fire” (Deut 4:24).

Scripture does not know anything about apologies to God. Scripture only knows about perfect righteousness as the way to acceptance with God. As has been said often enough, God does not grade on a curve. Indeed, he does not.

Consider the wholly horizontal orientation of Tiger’s apology and the rather more, if you will, vertical orientation of David’s confession of sin in Ps 32. Discovered for the adulterer (and murderer) he was, David did not hold a press conference. Convicted by God’s Spirit of his sin against God (and Bathsheba and Uriah) he turned his face to God his judge. “Blessed is the man against whom Yahweh counts no iniquity” (Ps 32:2). The God-wardness of David’s repentance is perhaps even more pointed in Ps 51: “Have mercy upon me, O God…blot out my transgressions” (Ps 51:1). “Against you only have I sinned” (Ps 51:4). In these moments David understood that sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4) and “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

True repentance, as distinct from mere apologies, begins with a recognition of reality, of who and what God is and of who and what we are. It begins with the knowledge of the greatness of our sin and misery. True repentance reckons with the law as the perfect expression of God’s perfect and unyielding righteousness. True repentance drives one to Christ, the only righteous man, the only man who ever actually kept the law, and true faith trusts in that one righteous man and in his “one act” of righteousness (Rom 5:18; i.e., his whole, perfect obedience) for his elect.

True repentance, i.e., genuine sorrow for sin against God and heartfelt desire to turn away from it, is born of true faith. Unbelievers don’t repent. Believers do. They know the greatness of their sin and misery. Tiger does not yet appear to know that. He seems to think that if he just focuses a little harder, is more disciplined, if he denies himself the pleasures of this world (his language), he can get everything back on track. Perhaps he can—as far as we can see. At the last day, however, it will not matter that Tiger recovered his public image, that he built more schools, that he regained the trust of his family and followers. At the last day it will only matter if he has satisfied the righteousness of God and I guarantee you that, as remarkable as Tiger is, he cannot do it. No sinner can.

The great good news for Tiger and for you is that Jesus has already done it and everyone who trusts in him and in his obedience for sinners is reckoned as if he himself had done all that Jesus did. God accepted Jesus’ righteousness. Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection (1 Tim 3:16). As certainly as Jesus was raised from the dead, so certainly will God accept Tiger and you and whoever turns to Christ in true faith, i.e., a certain knowledge and a hearty trust that Jesus obeyed and died “for me.”

From that true faith, a believer begins daily to die to his own desires and to live to Christ. He continues to sin for the rest of his life but now we know what sin is and we know what grace is. We know that in God’s free acceptance of sinners for Christ’s sake there is power and new life and real hope for real change; not perfection in this life but free acceptance with God (grace) and mercy and the work of the Spirit in our hearts, minds, and wills. By his grace the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead unites us to Christ, through faith, and is at work in us making us slowly, imperceptibly like Jesus.

Tiger pledged to do better. That won’t be good enough. Pray that Tiger and everyone else who heard his apology realizes the difference between “doing better” and doing “everything written in the book of the law” and that Christians understand the difference between an apology and true repentance.

It’s Not Your Church: Recovering Mission for the Church

We often speak of “my church.” That is a colloquial way of saying, “the congregation of which I am a member.” We sometimes act, however, as if the church actually belongs to us. One doubts that many would be willing to admit that they think of the church as “theirs,” but it seems that some do think thus because they manifest their thinking by the way they treat the church.

One way in which this confusion over the ownership of the church manifests itself is the way congregations and their leadership think about the mission of the church. The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mitto, to send or to throw. Christ’s church has been sent by her Lord “to make disciples of all nations” and to baptize the same in the triune name of God (Matt 28:18–20).

One example of confusion over the ownership of the church occurs when a congregation, with the necessary resources, with an opportunity clearly before it, refuses an opportunity to extend Christ’s kingdom through planting of a new congregation because they fear losing current members to the church plant. Those who worry about the effect of the church plant on the mother church, as it were, seem to conceive of the church as a zero-sum game, as if somehow, if members left “their” congregation that “their” church would be diminished. The stance toward the church-planting proposal seems to be: let the outsiders come to us. This phenomenon has occurred more than once. The underlying assumption here seems to be, “the church exists for us.”

This is fundamentally a confusion of Christ and culture. In such a case, the “family” culture of the church has triumphed over the “kingdom” culture of the church. Yes, the church is a family and it is a body, it is a bread (1Cor 10:17) but it is also kingdom. Yes, it is painful to say goodbye to friends and loved ones or to see them leave one’s own congregation to plant a new one in another place, but this is why we need to understand that the church does not exist for our comfort. One thinks of Matthew 10:37–39:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

The kingdom of God, as it is represented by the visible church, has a claim on our loyalties that transcends even basic natural relationships.

Scripture repeatedly attributes ownership of the visible church to Christ. In 1Corinthians 1:2 Paul greets the “church of God” that is in Corinth. He spoke the same way in 2Corinthians 1:1. In Ephesians 5:23 Paul explicitly calls Christ, “the head of the church.” Christ is he who loved the church and gave himself for the her (v. 25). It is clearly taught in Scripture repeatedly that the church is a divine institution (Matt 16) established by Christ. He founded it. He rules it. He owns it. We work for him. He gave the visible church, his church, several mandates: love one another, preach the gospel, administer discipline.

Yes, church is a place where we gather but it is also a place where we send. We must do both. It is not an either/or proposition. The church is not only for us. The church is also for Christ’s glory. The fields are white unto harvest. The church is the divine institution with responsibility for that harvest. How can we refuse our Lord? How can we refuse to extend his kingdom? Have we talked so much about “this kingdom work” and “that kingdom work” that we’ve forgotten that the church is the ONLY institution to which Christ gave the keys of the kingdom? Would it not it ironic if we were obsessed with extending his kingdom through every institution except the one institution to which he gave the gospel and the sacraments? It would be more than ironic, it would be tragic.

Of Sacred Cows and Secret Societies

At the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA), in 1857, there were three great reasons given for separating from the Reformed Church in America (RCA): the RCA sang hymns instead psalms, the RCA did not send children to Christian schools, and the RCA tolerated membership in secret societies or “the lodge.” The CRC adopted reports in 1900 and again as late as 1977 reaffirming that position. Cracks in that position are beginning to show, however, and not just in the CRC.

In an issue of The Banner, in her column “The RCA: Our Closest Friend,” Gayla R. Postma suggests “[i]ssues like that [psalmody, Christian schools, and Freemasonry-rsc] may seem trivial today.” Such language might be expected in the denominational magazine of the CRC, a denomination which is steaming full-speed toward the safe, mainline harbor of the RCA. It is a little more surprising, however, to see a theologically conservative magazine, which seeks to serve the United Reformed Churches in North America (a break-away from the CRC) and the Canadian Reformed Churches, doing the same thing.

In the Autumn of 2009, the Christian Renewal (hereafter CR), a small magazine aimed mainly at the socially conservative Dutch Reformed, Doyewwerdian, and neo-Kuyperian communities in Canada, published a strongly-worded critique of Westminster Seminary California’s issue of EVANGELIUM on Christian education. The essence of the critique was that WSC wasn’t consistent (some of the articles were “right” but some were not right enough) and didn’t defend Christian schools correctly. Fortunately, not every Dutchman in Canada is buying what the CR is selling.

In the next issue, however, the CR published an editorial defense of the critique and described the piece in terms of “friendly wounds.” Proverbs 27:6 does say that the “wounds of a friend” are “faithful” (as opposed to false greetings from enemies) but friendship suggests that a critic is seeking our best interests. Whether that is true in this case is not for me to know but the review did not reek of charity. Rather, as Wes Bredenhof wrote, “the criticism expressed in Christian Renewal arose from as uncharitable a reading as one could possibly give.”

In light of the CR‘s pointed defense of this particular approach to Christian schooling, it was a little surprising to see them ignoring another, arguably more important position in Dutch Reformed history in North America: the rejection of Freemasonry as a competing cultic (religious, worship-related) loyalty. In the most recent (Nov 25, 2009) issue of the CR, appears part 2 of an obituary for the Rev Edwin Elliott, long time editor of the Christian Observer and devoted member of the Masonic Lodge. On his death, the Christian Observer published an extensive record of his remarkable involvement with an array of Masonic organizations.

Given the rejection of Freemasonry by confessional Reformed Christians this reader was more than a little surprised to see not only an article celebrating the life of Rev. Mr Elliott but a large photograph showing him in Masonic dress! When I looked into the “The Lodge” in the late 1980s it became clear very quickly that it teaches religious views and requires religious loyalties that are in direct competition with the teaching of our Lord. Every Freemason, at the most basic level, takes oaths that are forbidden by God’s Word. The extensive religious indoctrination of Masons, who progress beyond basic lodge membership, is even more patently contrary to the Reformed faith. In 1942 the OPC said:

…the evidence is overwhelming. There is no room for any reasonable doubt as to Masonry’s being a religion. Not only do the symbols, rites and temples of this order point unmistakably to it as a religion, but a great many Masonic authors of note emphatically declare it to be just that.

The Masonic Monitor says (quoted in the OPC report):

“So broad is the religion of Masonry, and so carefully are all sectarian tenets excluded from the system, that the Christian, the Jew, and the Mohammedan, in all their numberless sects and divisions, may and do harmoniously combine in its moral and intellectual work, with the Buddhist, the Parsee, the Confucian, and the worshiper of Deity under every form” (p. 285).

For these reasons and others the PCA and the OPC (see also this report) have expressly taken positions that forbid membership in Freemasonry.

So, just to keep score, according to the CR it is unforgivable to defend Christian schooling incorrectly but it is permissable to be a Freemason. Which of these issues cuts closer to the heart of the Reformed faith: denying the uniqueness of Christ (by virtue of membership in the Lodge) or defending Christian schooling imperfectly?

While we are at it we should wonder about the CR‘s stance on the other ground for the formation of the CRC: Psalmody. Where is the CR on hymnody vs psalmody? Is the CR a vocal advocate for the recovery of genuine Reformed worship? I do not recall the CR beating the drum, as it were, for the recovery of psalm-singing in the Reformed churches.

Finally, this episode illustrates why Darryl Hart is exactly right when he argues that we need to analyze such such issues by using the categories “confessional” and “non-confessional” rather than “liberal” v. “conservative.” Here’s a clear case where “conservative” just isn’t enough.

——

*The Christian Observer reports:

Edwin Elliott, Jr., was born into a family whose roots in Masonry go back several generations to his Scots ancestors in the Elliott Clan, and Masonry was a very important part of his life beginning in his youth. Edwin’s Masonic affiliations, honors, and degrees are many and varied, and include:

  • Manasseh Lodge No. 182, A.F. and A.M., raised a Master Mason on 24 April 1970.
  • Royal Arch Mason — Manassas Chapter #81
  • Knights Templar — Piedmont Commandery #26
  • Member of the Royal Order of Scotland
  • Received his DeMolay Majority in 1968
  • Received John Dove Award from Grand Royal Arch Chapter in December 2008
  • Founded Prince William Chapter Order of DeMolay and was first Master Councilor
  • Received Active Legion of Honor from DeMolay International in July 2005 — highest honor awarded by DeMolay
  • Orange Lodge — Charter member Patrick Henry Loyal Orange Lodge #1105
  • Sovereign Order of Knights Preceptor
  • Grand Guardian Council of Job’s Daughters
  • Charter member and Past Sovereign Master of the C.A. Sinclair Council Allied Masonic Degrees — Council #412
  • Order of the Amaranth — Destiny Court #14
  • White Shrine of Jerusalem — Dogwood #3
  • Knight Masons — VA Council #72 and #12
  • Washington & Lee York Rite — #93
  • Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priests — Nova Vita Tabernacle #73
  • Order of the Eastern Star — Wimodausis #106
  • Red Cross of Constantine — Shenandoah Conclave
  • Received John Dove Award in 2004 or 2005
  • Past Grand Prelate — Grand Commandery Knights Templar Virginia
  • Grand Chaplain — Royal Arch Masons
  • Charter member and Past Sovereign Master of the C. A. Sinclair Council AMD #412

The Secret of Knowing God’s Will

The single most pressing question I hear is: “How can I know God’s will?” Prospective seminary students want to know whether they should attend seminary. Couples want to know whether they should get married. Ministers want to know whether to take a call. The problem of knowing God’s will plagued my Christian life for years. Who knows how many books have been written (and that will be written) to try to answer this question? The good news is that the secret of knowing God’s will is right in front of us.

In this context, by “God’s will” I mean, “What God wants me to do in this particular situation.” There are essentially three ways by which people have tried to discern God’s will for their lives. Let’s call the first and most widely used approach the “pietist-mystical view” (PMV). The PMV appeals to 1 Kings 19:12 and the “still, small voice” (AV) or, as the ESV translates them, “a low whisper.” The PMV expects to replicate the prophetic revelation and seeks to know God’s “will” in any circumstance through everything from impressions to intuitions to claims of direct revelation. This approach to the will of God is virtually universal among evangelicals today. It was among the first things I learned as an evangelical in the mid-1970s in volumes such as Rosalind Rinker’s Conversational Prayer.

A second approach is the “mechanical view” (MV). The crassest version of this approach is simply letting the Bible fall open and taking the words before one as the indication of God’s moral will for a particular circumstance.  Another version of the MV is the post-canonical appropriation of the “fleece.” (Judges 6:37). The Christian determines that if the Lord, in his providence, does p that will mean q.

The third way is the confessional Reformation approach to understanding God’s moral will. However inconsistent particular Protestants have been in practice (and they have been), our theologies and confessions have distinguished clearly between the mind of God and the human mind and between two aspects of the divine will. We have also taught clearly how post-canonical Christians, i.e. those who do not live in the canonical history of redemption, may know God’s moral will.

The most basic distinction regarding God’s moral will is that taught in Deuteronomy 29:29, between the “revealed things” and the “secret things.” The latter are those things that belong to the divine decree (i.e. the decretive will) and to providence. We do not know whom God has elected. We do not know what God’s providence holds. We cannot presume to interpret God’s providence (Job 38). We do not know why the Tower in Siloam fell (Luke 13:4). We do not know who will come to faith. Apart from the ordinary providence of God, we do not know what will happen tomorrow (Matt 6:34). God has not promised to reveal those things. They are and shall remain secret. These things are necessarily hidden because God’s ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa 55:8–9). He is the infinite, incomprehensible, immutable (Nu 23:19; Heb 6:17), eternal Creator and we are finite, mutable (changeable) creatures.

The first part of the secret of knowing God’s will is knowing the difference between that which has been revealed and that which remains secret. According to Deuteronomy 29:29, God has revealed some things, chiefly his moral or preceptive will. These have been given to us and “belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The last clause is the clue that explains the distinction. If we want to know what God wants us to do, it is summarized, in Mosaic terms, in the phrase, “all the words of this law (Torah).” In other words, God has revealed his moral will. It is no secret.

God’s Will Hidden and Revealed

According to Deuteronomy 29:29, believers are to trust in, rely upon, listen to, and obey that which God has revealed rather than seeking that which He has not revealed. In the history of salvation, seeking what God has not revealed was considered idolatry and sin. Perhaps the classic example of this sin is that of Saul turning to the witch (the ESV has “medium”) of En-dor (1 Sam 28:7). They both knew it was wrong and criminal (under the Israelite civil law) and what is most ironic is that it was completely unnecessary. Saul’s first sin, in this instance, was that he did not obey the explicit revelation of God! (1 Sam 28:18). Like Saul, many of us have turned away from the explicit revelation of God’s moral will in favor of alternative sources of guidance.Â

One reason why we are tempted to act like Saul is Americans are conditioned to believe that there is a “secret” for everything and they seem to conclude that God’s moral will must also be a secret and that there must be a method for unlocking the secret. Many scholars have observed that American evangelicalism has similarities to gnosticism, i.e. the quest for secret knowledge. One of the fastest ways to entrepreneurial success in American evangelicalism is to peddle heretofore unknown secrets. Mormonism is founded on alleged new revelation that disclosed things hitherto secret and marginalizes Christ as God’s final Word. The Millerites offered a new revelation about the end times. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a new revelation that replicates ancient Christological heresies. The Church of Christian Science has a new “revelation” that replicates ancient Gnostic heresies. Bob Schuller and Joel Osteen offer the secrets of a happy life. Word-Faith preachers offer the secrets of health and wealth. Radical dispensationalists offer the secret of which biblical books are really canonical for this dispensation. The list seems endless.

Another reason is that we do not know the history of salvation and the pattern of revelation there. One effect of dispensationalism on American evangelicalism has been to divide wrongly the Word of God. For most American evangelicals, anything that happened in redemption prior to the incarnation is hazy at best and usually irrelevant except for an occasional “character study.” Everything that happened prior to Jesus’ birth is relegated to the “Old Testament” (even though Paul and the writer to the Hebrews use that phrase to refer specifically to the period from Sinai to the cross).

In truth there was a consistent pattern in the history of redemption. We see it in Noah. God delivered His church through the flood and then He revealed Himself by way of explanation. We can see this pattern in the exodus (Ex 14). The Lord delivered His people and then He gave them a canonical revelation explaining that redemption (the Gospel) and laying down His moral will for those whom He had redeemed (the Law).

Indeed, this pattern was reproduced all throughout the history of redemption. With the advent of our Lord himself incarnate came “the Word” “in the flesh.” We beheld his glory. Moses (not Abraham) was the type and shadow but Christ was the reality. As Geerhardus Vos pointed out long ago, when John says “true” or “truth” he means something like, “the in-breaking of the final reality in the person of Christ.” Christ is the revelation of God to us and he brought with him redemption and revelation. Following his ascension, another great act of redemption, God the Spirit came upon the apostolic church in a unique and powerful way to explain authoritatively, definitively, and finally the saving acts of God in Christ. This is the pattern then: sovereign, gracious redemption and definitive, canonical revelation. The revelation is as canonical and inviolable as the acts of redemption are unrepeatable.

A third reason why American evangelicals have been confused about the moral will of God is because they have rarely observed the basic biblical (and Reformational) distinction between those words in Scripture that are in the indicative mood, that narrate the great story of redemption, that announce the Good News of salvation, and those words that are in the imperative mood that demand perfect righteousness, that seek to drive impenitent sinners to Christ, and that norm the Christian life.

The Apostle Paul made this very distinction in Galatians 3:10. When Scripture says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law,” that is in the imperative mood. It is a demand for perfect, personal, and perpetual righteousness. It is not the announcement of Good News. In contrast, however, when Jesus announced, “God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life,” that is in the indicative mood. It is an announcement of the Good News that salvation has been accomplished for us by someone else and that salvation is received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Because of the general modern failure to make this distinction, many evangelicals have turned the narratives of salvation into an imperative. Instead of receiving the good news that God graciously, sovereignly, without our aid, redeemed us out of Egypt, through the Red Sea (on dry ground), American evangelicals have turned the gospel narratives into law: “Be like Moses” or “Don’t be like Aaron.” One consequence of the failure to distinguish Law and Gospel is that we have tried to find ourselves in the narratives of redemption but in exactly the wrong way. Instead of being recipients we have tried to become actors in the story. We fail to observe the distinction between the canonical history of redemption and post-canonical history. Hence much of the story of modern evangelicalism is of the attempt to replicate the apostolic church, apostolic phenomena in the post-apostolic era.

Put Down the Canon Opener

Modern evangelicals often assume that the line between post-canonical and canonical life is blurry or non-existent. It is widely assumed that we are in the exact same place in history as the prophets and apostles and that we can, if we have enough faith, replicate the same phenomena that occurred in redemptive history. In other words, for many evangelicals, we live in “redemptive history.” Anyone who challenges this biblicist paradigm is said to be “spiritually dead” or “unregenerate” or “dead orthodox.”

Confessional Reformed piety has not been been able to satisfy the pietists or the Anabaptists before them. Thomas Muntzer accused the confessional Protestants of dead orthodoxy in the 16th century. The dividing line was the question whether there is a bright line between canonical history and post-canonical history.

Reformed folk have tended to respect that bright line. None of us has been taken up into the Third Heaven (2 Cor 12:2). We have not seen the risen Christ (Acts 26:13). We do not receive direct revelations from Christ (1 Cor 14:30). We generally do not have healing services (Acts 5:15-16; 8:7) or raise the dead (Acts 9:40-41; 20:11) literally nor do we put people to death (see Acts 5) nor do we teleport about (Acts 8:39).

Respect for the bright line between canonical and post-canonical history does not mean that we believe that the Spirit is no longer active. He most certainly is. Whether what he has promised to do and does interests anyone is another question (see part 4 of this series), but we certainly understand him to be active. We understand him to operate through the preaching of the Word (Rom. 10) and we understand him to operate through the holy sacraments (Matt 28:20; 1 Cor 11; Luke 22; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5).

One great difference between Reformed and modern evangelical piety is the word “mediated.” We understand God’s presence and operation in the church to be “mediated” through the Word and sacraments. Like the 16th-century Anabaptists the modern evangelicals reject or are suspicious of the idea of mediated presence or mediated revelation.

Since the early part of the 18th century Americans have been deeply suspicious of all forms of authority. It was not long ago that US Senators were elected by state representatives. Gradually what was once a representative republic is turning into a giant town meeting. That’s because we are a revolutionary, egalitarian people. Whatever social benefits there may be to this way of thinking, it is not the way of the kingdom of God. This is another very good reason to distinguish between the civil and spiritual spheres. The culture outside the church is one thing, and the culture of the church is another. The confusion of the two, particularly to baptize the prevailing anti-authority, autonomous spirit of modernity, threatens to do great damage to the church of Christ.

The prevailing American cultural resistance to mediation means that we want to know for ourselves, directly. We do not want anyone to tell us. This is one reason why Pentecostalism and charismatic and other forms of pietist mysticism have flourished in the modern period in the USA. Who needs a preacher when the Spirit is giving everyone apostolic power and revelation? It feeds our cultural prejudices and it leaves unchallenged many cultural assumptions. Those traditions (revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, Pentecostalism) that stress the immediate encounter with the risen Christ flourish here because they are most like the prevailing culture.

The Subjective and the Objective

Prior to the modern period the predominant question in the West was, “What has God said?” There were different answers to this question. Rome pointed to the church as the source of revelation and the Protestants pointed to Scripture as read by the church. Both pointed to an extrinsic authority. In the modern period the place of authority moved to within us. We became the measure of all things. Perhaps the greatest question of the modern period (since c. 1650) has been, “Has God said?”

One reaction to the religious doubt and outright skepticism of the modern period has been to do an “end run” around the crisis via direct, unmediated access to the divine mind (rationalism) or to direct, unmediated divine revelation (mysticism) or to immediate experience of the transcendent. The pietist knows that the Christian faith is true because “He walks with me and He talks with me.” In principle, and too often in practice, the pietist simply gives up the historicity of the faith in favor of a subjective encounter with the risen Christ or with the transcendent.

The reaction to the subjective turn is to deny subjectivity in the faith altogether. This denial is a sort of intellectualism. The historic Christian faith is propositional and it is historical and anyone, as they say on public radio, “who says otherwise is itching for a fight.” Nevertheless, is that all there is? Is there any confirmation of the faith beyond what I read on the page in holy Scripture or what I hear in the sermon or eat at the table or see at the baptismal font?

“Beyond” is not the best word. This gets us back to the end-run approach. Better we should say “through.” Reformed folk believe that the Spirit operates through the Word and sacraments. Through the Gospel the Spirit works to make dead sinners alive (Eph. 2). Through faith the Spirit creates existential union with the risen Christ. By virtue of that union, the Spirit creates and fosters communion between the risen Christ and his people.

The psalms are replete with reflection upon the communion between Christ and his people. Consider just one example of Psalm 51:6, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” This is a high point in one of the most touching, personal, heartfelt, and intimate prayers in all of Scripture. This is a sinner crying out for the grace of forgiveness and a restored sense of God’s presence.

In Scripture and Christian experience we see seasons where one’s sense of the presence of God waxes and wanes (WCF 18.4). Psalm 21 is evidently the witness of a believer (David, according to the superscription) who is enjoying a rich experience of God’s presence. “For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.” This presence, which results in joy and peace, is in stark contrast to the presence he describes a few verses later, the presence of judgment and condemnation.

Reformed theology understands that the Spirit operates through the Word by illuminating that Word, by casting light on it, by making clearer what was obscure. Of course, Westminster Confession 1.7 reminds us “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves….” The Spirit does help us to understand what is necessary to know for faith and life. Paul speaks of this illumination when he speaks of “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…. (Eph 1:18)”

The Reformed tradition has written about this aspect of the faith at great length. William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, William Ames, John Owen are just a few of the well-known English writers who have written about these aspects of Christian faith and life. A number of Dutch Reformed writers (e.g. Gijsbertus Voetius and Wilhelmus a Brakel) addressed these same sorts of questions.

What we do not want to do is to give in either to religious subjectivism or intellectualism. Calvin says in his commentary on Acts 16:14–15,

But we must note the expression that the heart of Lydia was opened so that she paid attention to the external voice of a teacher. For as preaching on its own is nothing else but a dead letter, so, on the other hand, we must beware lest a false imagination, or the semblance of secret illumination, leads us away from the Word upon which faith depends, and on which it rests. For in order to increase the grace of the Spirit, many invent for themselves vague inspirations so that no use is left for the external Word. But the Scripture does not allow such a separation to be made, for it unites the ministry of men with the secret inspiration of the Spirit. If the mind of Lydia had not been opened, the preaching of Paul would have been mere words; yet God inspires her not only with the mere revelations but with reverence for His Word, so that the voice of a man, which otherwise would have vanished into thin air, penetrates a mind that has received the gift of heavenly light.

Therefore let us hear no more of the fanatics who make the excuse of the Spirit to reject external teaching. For we must preserve the balance which Luke established here, that we obtain nothing from the hearing of the Word alone, without the grace of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is conferred on us not that He may produce contempt of the Word, but rather to instill confidence in it in our minds and write it on our hearts.

The Struggle for Wisdom

We like the idea of special, individualized messages from God about our particular circumstance or question. We do not much like the idea of struggling in prayer and thought over what is the wisest course. But as important as the Reformed doctrine of illumination is, when it comes to making decisions, Scripture probably says more about “wisdom” than it does about illumination.

Remember, there is an entire section of holy Scripture that we describe as the “wisdom literature.” The most frequently OT term for “wisdom” (chokmah) occurs (I think) 113 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. To return to the verse we looked at last time, it is linked closely to the illuminating work of the Spirit: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom (chokmah) in the secret heart” (Ps 51:6; 51:8 MT).

Frequently wisdom denotes a particular (usually God-given) skill such as building or some other craft (Ex 31:6; 1 Kings 7:14). When it comes to making decisions we might think of wisdom as the God-given skill of applying the moral law of God to particular issues. Solomon had this sort of wisdom (1 Kings 10:23). He had a unique, God-given insight into the nature of things. He was clear minded. He had a firm grasp on reality. He paid attention. He learned. All of these things are aspects of wisdom. In Luke 2:40 we read that Jesus was endowed with wisdom (sophia). There is a worldly (unbelieving) “wisdom” which we might call either rationalism or empiricism. Those forms of “wisdom” make the human intellect or human sense experience the arbiter of all truth. Paul rejected this sort of pseudo wisdom (1 Cor 1:19-22; 3:19 etc). God’s salvation of his people in Christ seems foolish to the wise of “this age,” but Christ is God’s wisdom, i.e. the perfect and appropriate and even surprising saving act at just the right moment (1 Cor 1:24; Eph 3:10).

Paul prayed that the Colossians might have wisdom:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:9-10).

When Paul says “spiritual,” he does not mean “ethereal” or “immaterial” but rather he means, “that which comes from the Spirit.” It is not necessarily immediate, however. There is an objective standard of wisdom: the revealed will of God. The fruit of it is not that we know what God has not revealed publicly in his Word but that we live congruently to and in obedience to the revealed moral will of God. This bears fruit (James 3:17). This brings knowledge.

We often think that we have to know secrets before we can obey. Scripture teaches the exact opposite. John Frame very wisely said once in class that genuine wisdom begins with obedience. Only when we have obeyed the Lord (or at least tried to make a beginning of obedience) do we see and realize the wisdom of God’s Word as distinct from what we think is good or proper. It is counter-intuitive but it’s true nonetheless. That’s the difference between theory and practice. There are some skills that have to be learned through practice. The skill of swinging a golf club just so takes a great deal of repetition, discipline, and training. One can study video and books, and a grasp of the theory of a golf swing is essential, but so is practice. The satisfying “ping” of club meeting ball perfectly is the result of skill which, in turn, is the result of submission to the nature of the game. That’s a sort of wisdom.

If we want to know the moral will of God, we need a public revelation, which we have. We need illumination of that will, which the Spirit gives. We need wisdom, i.e. skill in understanding that will, in knowing ourselves, and in reckoning with the circumstance to which it is to be applied.

Wisdom is essential in knowing God’s will. Getting wisdom is not easy. It takes practice. You will fail. You will struggle. If it were easy, everyone would have it and it seems obvious that not everyone has it! That’s why God gave us an entire collection of axioms, a book of Proverbs, to see what wisdom looks like in daily life. Wisdom may not be “sexy” and one might not be able to market it as the latest and greatest thing, but it’s God’s thing and it’s just the thing for those who would be godly.

Interpreting Providence

In 1381 Archbishop William Courtenay held a synod at the Blackfriars in London for the purpose of condemning the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe. After the condemnations had been adopted, as Synod was breaking up, there was an earthquake. Courtenay took the earthquake as a sign of divine approval but Wycliffe took it as a sign of divine displeasure!

Thus we see the inherent difficulty in interpreting providence. Like all forms of natural revelation the meaning of providence is often in the eye of the beholder. Defenders of the Reformation sometime like to say, “God raised up Martin Luther.” So he did. Unless, however, we are Manicheans we must also say that God raised up Ignatius of Loyola. The fact that God “raised up” both neither proves nor disproves the correctness of Loyola or Luther.

Despite the hazards of interpreting providence Christians persist in trying to interpret providence as a way of finding “God’s will for my life.” It’s true that, in the history of redemption, people put out fleeces and cast lots (for good and ill) as a way of determining God’s will. Again I go back to the bright line between canonical, redemptive history and post-canonical history. Those episodes were not given as a sort of church order manual for post-canonical church life. They illustrate the power of God in delivering and guiding his people in the outworking of his saving purposes. We are not apostles and prophets.

Could we cast lots today? Well, I suppose, if there were two equally qualified candidates for church office and the elders cast prayerfully lots or drew straws to see which one should serve, I would not object but now we are simply looking at some ordinary mechanism for making a morally good choice. That’s a matter of indifference. No one would reasonably lay claim for direct divine guidance in such a case.

The truth is, as I’ve already shown from Scripture, we do not always know why God does what he does. We might have a partial explanation after the fact, in some cases, but in some cases (perhaps many) we will likely never know. Why do good, godly people become terribly ill and suffer while evil and ungodly people seem to get off scot free? It’s a fallen world and the consequences of sin are equally terrible and distressing. Can we always discern some lesson we were to learn from some episode? Probably not.

The goodness of God’s providence and the wisdom of his actions is not contingent upon our understanding. God’s acts are good despite the fact that we cannot always understand them. Whatever Jerry Falwell or others might have said or thought, the truth is that no one knows why God permitted those evil acts on 9/11 or why he permitted the extraordinary degree of evil that occurred in the 20th century. We do know God, however. We know him in Christ. We know him in his gospel promises and in his moral law. That’s enough. We do not have to go behind the revealed things to justify God. He is just in all he does whether we accept and recognize and explain it or not.

Much of contemporary evangelical piety (and too much contemporary Reformed piety) is taken up with the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE—see Recovering the Reformed Confession for more on these two phenomena). In their own ways each is an attempt to know God and His will apart from his ordained means. The result is a two-sided tyranny.

The first aspect of this tyranny is the fear that “I have not heard the still, small voice of God.” This leads to paralysis. It also leads to doubt. The logic is ruthless:

1. God still speaks outside of Scripture and gives direct guidance and revelation to Christians.

2. Christian X has not received such guidance and revelation.

3. Christian X is either a) not really a Christian or b) does not have sufficient faith or lacks the power of the Spirit, etc.

Whatever the cause, the outcome of the logic is unhappy, but what if the problem is not the second premise but the first? What if the first premise is flawed? Well, of course, that is what this whole series has been arguing. In fact we do not live in the canonical period, in redemptive history. The Red Sea has been parted. The tomb is empty. The canon is closed. We’ve seen how the Spirit operates through the Word and the sacraments, how he illumines the Word and how he gives wisdom to those who ask but perhaps you’re still in bondage because you’re waiting for the still, small voice? Quoth Bob Newhart: “Stop it!”

What if God’s will for your life was already revealed? Would that not be grand? Would it not be wonderful if you were not trapped in a circle waiting for God to speak but never really knowing if He has “spoken”? After all, how do you know if God has spoken directly to you? Is it an intuition? A hunch? Why does He seem to “speak” to others but not to me? Are there two classes of Christians? (those who receive special, extra-biblical revelations and those who do not?)

There are other questions the answers to which help relieve the crisis. Why is it that what God says so often sounds like what my revelation-receiving friend already thought? It’s remarkable how often God seems to agree with my revelation-receiving, still-small-voice hearing friend. As we read the whole of 1 Corinthians we see that Paul was quite opposed to the idea of two-classes of Christians. This is the problem with all forms of the “second blessing” theology. It necessarily creates two classes of Christians and yet it’s exactly contrary to Paul’s whole argument. All of us are members of the one body. Further, we are all members of the one body, part of the one loaf of bread, as it were, in the post-canonical period.

God has revealed himself in His Word. His will for your life is revealed. I can tell you what it is right now: trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor (Matt 5).

“But wait!” you cry. “Should I take this job or that job? What’s God’s perfect will for me?”

I will tell you God’s perfect will: Trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor. Take any job you want, within the will of God revealed in Scripture, as dictated by wisdom and circumstances. Certain jobs are out on the basis of moral considerations. Any job that requires theft, murder, idolatry, covetousness, sexual immorality, gluttony etc. In other words the will of God forbids you from becoming, among other things, a bank robber. I do not need an extra-biblical revelation to know this. It’s in God’s Word.

Then there’s wisdom. If you’re not good with your hands, perhaps you shouldn’t be a tradesman. If you’re not good with numbers you probably shouldn’t go into business or banking. You do not need a special revelation from God to know those things. You really do not.

This gets to the second aspect of the dark side of the QIRC/QIRE: the tyranny of the prophet. This aspect of things has been described in the wake/fallout of the Kansas City prophets debacle (late 1980s–early 90s) but it’s worth repeating. There’s little moral difference between someone telling us “God’s will” on the basis of the “small, still voice” or because he’s a “prophet.” In both cases, post-apostolic, ordinary Christians, who do not have the apostolic power, are claiming to know directly, apart from Scripture, by divine revelation what God thinks about this or that thing not mentioned in Scripture.

Such claims are the stuff of tyranny. Who knows if it’s true?

“What if it is true? Well, since I’m not getting any revelations, I guess I better do what the prophet says!”

Or not.

Of course these self-anointed lower or upper case prophets aren’t any such thing. The truth is that they are simply re-describing ordinary human experience in extraordinary, apostolic, canonical terms. They may do so out of the best of motives. They may really believe that God is speaking to them directly or they may have an earpiece with a helper feeding them information. Either way it really does not matter.

One glorious consequence of the biblical and Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura is that we do not have to pay attention either to the upper or lower case prophets. We are free in Christ. This argument goes back to the Reformed rejection of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists replied by calling us “dead orthodox.” Fine. Whatever. Bluntly, if being “led by the Spirit” means running around Europe claiming revelations and starting revolutions (see Münster) then we can live without that, thank you very much.

Of course “keeping in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:22) has nothing to do with that sort of fanaticism. It means producing the fruit of the Spirit and we know what that is because God revealed it to everyone in Galatians 5! You do not need a special gift to read God’s Word, trust it, and obey it. We are free in Christ to obey God’s publicly revealed will and we are free to ignore the spurious claims of all sorts of prophets. We are not missing out. They do not have anything we need. What we need is the moral will of God which is plainly revealed in the Word. What we need is the work of the Spirit to illumine that Word to us and to give us wisdom, and the self-appointed prophets do not have anything to do with that. You and I are free from the tyranny of human opinion because we are bound to the Word of God.