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Archive for December, 2011

Another stately quote below by Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) on the parish system.  Here, he affirms the absolute sovereignty of the Spirit in the conversion of men, yet urges the necessity of ecclesiastical infrastructure for broadest distribution.  Without rain, there is no life.  Yet there is a place for ‘aqueducts!’ 

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“The truth is, that whenever a more copious descent of the Holy Ghost shall come down upon us, it will pass through all the channels of conveyance that have been furnished for it in the land—entering into pulpits, and then spreading itself over congregations, and finding its way, most readily, through the most free and frequented pathways of communication that have been opened up between the ministers of religion and the people among whom they expatiate.  By subdividing parishes, we just multiply these pathways; and by localising parishes, we just make the pathways shorter, and more convenient and accessible, than before. We do not set aside the doctrine of a spiritual influence; for we believe that it is this which will be the primary and the essential agent in that great moral regeneration that awaits our species. But just as in the irrigating processes of Egypt, the reservoirs are constructed, and the furrows are drawn, and every field on the banks of the Nile is put into readiness for the coming inundation—so we, knowing that the Spirit maketh its passage into the human heart, by the word and the ordinances of the gospel, are just labouring at a right process of spiritual irrigation, when we provide such arrangements as will bring the greatest number of human beings into broadest and most recurring contact with this word, and with these ordinances.”

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This week, countless devout Christians throughout the world will celebrate the birth of the Savior.  Believers of every stripe revel in that great redemptive moment of the incarnation.  It marked the entrance of God into our sin-blighted world.  The Only-Begotten Son then began His saving errand by the gateway of the virgin’s womb.

It grieves these sincere believers when Jesus, ‘the reason for the season,’ is elbowed out by the crass materialism and secularism of the age.  When Jesus is absent, the celebration just rings hollow.  Gone is the manger.  Gone the shepherds watching their sheep.  Gone the chorus of angelic hosts, announcing the good news of the Christ-child.  When the ark is taken, Israel sighs.

And yet, as a Christian, I have a deeper grief yet.  My grief arises precisely in the fact that modern Christmas is just old paganism taking off its disguise.  Or, the rooster returning to the roost, if you will.

Anyone who has read even a little of the origins of Christmas will know that its origins were anything but Christian.  It represents a compromise in mission – an emasculation of mission, really.  When Europe was first being evangelized, the Church failed to insist that the pagans break off all ties with their ancient ways.  To throw them a bone, the Church baptized their winter solstice holiday, devoted to idols, and called it Christian.  But calling it Christian did not make it Christian.  And at the end of the day, paganism cannot be domesticated.  It must be converted, and all bridges burnt (Acts 19:18, 19, 1 Thess. 1:9).

With my Christian brothers and sisters, I join them in glorying in the incarnation.  With them, I grieve over the religious decline and the syncretism of the day.  But I would appeal to them to rethink Christmas.  And for that matter, rethink mission.

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“Every man is justly held to be morally responsible, to a certain extent, for the state of his own parish. This is the glory of the Parochial System. Whilst it leaves any man to dissent from the Church, who chooses, it makes sure, if carried out properly, that every man in the land, in the mountain or valley, in the dense lane or stately square, has some one ‘to care for his soul.’  As the whole world is made up of families, and will never be full of peace until every man takes a Christian charge of his own, so this whole land consists of parishes, and will never be right until every minister does his utmost for carrying Christian instruction, by the aid of another, if not personally, to every family within his territory.  No other plan can make sure none are neglected.”

– James Begg (1808-1883)

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Writing more than a century before the McDonaldization of the Church, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) exposed the fallacy of faith in structures for evangelization.  It is a “Quixotic imagination, that on the strength of churches alone, viewed but in the light of material apparatus, we were to Christianize the population – expecting of these new erections, that, like so many fairy castles, they were, of themselves, to transform every domain in which they were placed into a moral fairyland” (Works 18:109).  While perhaps most evangelicals would probably deny the bald proposition that the building can birth a believer, yet it is very easy subconsciously to think that outward can allure the natural man out of his state of spiritual rebellion.  The fact is, if you build it, they just won’t come.  It is fleshly to think otherwise, for the arm of the flesh – and the fleshly mind – are powerless.

Yes, but what if it is well stocked with professionals?  Professional preachers, counsellors, and administrators?  All with D.Mins?  What if the attractive building is complemented with wide array of wonderful programs for young and old, and for every other conceivable demographic slice?  If you build that, will they come?  No doubt.  But then there is coming (Jn. 6:24-26), and there is coming (Jn. 6:65-66)!

Yet, church buildings are of  value.  Chalmers believed as much and zealously campaigned for the provision of more church buildings in his day.  By his efforts, more than 200 were built in the 1830s throughout Scotland.  But buildings are nothing unless they are furnished with a faithful ministry.  What is more, he contended, they must not serve the public indiscriminately.  To the church and its ministry a fixed, geographical district ought to be assigned for its regular and faithful cultivation.  A church ought to be a neighborhood church, a parish church, with a busy parish minister.  

Build that, and they will come.  Those whom the Father draws, that is.

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A. C. Cheyne (1924-2006), a recognized Scottish Church History scholar summarizes the central ideas inherent in Chalmers’  “territorial parish.”  It was a “manageably small area housing a community of some two thousand souls who lived, worked and worshipped together, with a church and a school at its center and a minister and a kirk session to attend to both its spiritual and its temporal necessities: here, he argued, was the basic – he would even have said the redemptive – unit of Scottish society.  Here was the means of national regeneration.”   In my reading of Chalmers, I would suggest that he would say the preaching of the Gospel was the means.  Yet, he certainly saw the territorial parish as the most efficient vehicle for getting that Gospel preaching to every man, woman, and child.

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Call me a curmudgeon.  Or an arch-conservative, allergic to all things new.  And I will freely admit that I romanticize earlier days, fully aware that they were never so rosy as I fancy them.  But I am just not ready to jump on the small (‘cell’) groups bandwagon like so many other Reformed folks.  I have already raised some questions on the subject in a previous post.  I really do question how ecclesiologically Reformed it is after all.

But here’s another thing that makes me nervous of them.  I fear that they detract from a robust pulpit ministry, from Lord’s day to Lord’s day.  In some circles, cell groups aim to provide meaningful biblical study for preachers who want their Sunday services to be ‘seeker sensitive.’   In my judgment, that makes cell groups a crutch for an impotent ministry.

Related, it seems that they are now being touted (or maybe I’m just noticing it) as suitable vehicles for ‘missional’ outreach.  Unbelievers need a ‘safe’ place to be welcomed, where they will not feel judged.  So we can win them over to church, with all its trappings, through the back door.  Now, I am all for loving unbelievers and making them feel loved.  But what about public preaching as a means of grace?   What of God’s choice of the foolishness of preaching?  What of the scandal of the cross?  And does that scandal come in bold face through the small groups, or is it in the fine print on page 236?

Why are Reformed people enthusiastic about this?  Am I off, or is this broad evangelicalism, low churchism, or even anti-churchism sneaking in under the radar?

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“There is a deed or Grant of Christ made to Sinners, in the free Offer and Call of the Gospel . . . Tis true indeed, the eternal Destination, the Purchase and Application of Redemption is peculiar only to the Elect; but the Revelation, Gift and Offer is common to all hearers of the Gospel, insomuch as the great Mr Rutherford expresses it, the Reprobate have as fair a revealed Warrant to believe, as the Elect have.  Every man has an Offer of Christ brought to his Door who lives within the Compass of the joyful Sound, and this Offer comes as close to him, as if he were pointed out by Name.  So that none have reason to say, The Call and Offer is not to me, I am not warranted to embrace Christ . . . We have God’s commission to preach this Gospel, and to make offer of this Christ to every creature sprung of Adam, Mark xvi.15, and the event of the Publication of this Gospel among sinners follows in the next Words, He that believeth this Gospel shall be saved, he that believeth not shall be damned.”

Ebenezer Erskine (1680-1754)

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