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Archive for the ‘Church Order & Discipline’ Category

Here is a great article highlighting the lessons we can glean from John Knox and company on missions.

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The following is a section drawn from the Westminster Directory for Public Worship (1645).  May we be moved to respond!  “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD” (Joel 1:14).

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39077_lgWHEN some great and notable judgments are either inflicted upon a people, or apparently imminent, or by some extraordinary provocations notoriously deserved; as also when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained, publick solemn fasting (which is to continue the whole day) is a duty that God expecteth from that nation or people.

A religious fast requires total abstinence, not only from all food, (unless bodily weakness do manifestly disable from holding out till the fast be ended, in which case somewhat may be taken, yet very sparingly, to support nature, when ready to faint,) but also from all worldly labour, discourses, and thoughts, and from all bodily delights, and such like, (although at other times lawful,) rich apparel, ornaments, and such like, during the fast; and much more from whatever is in the nature or use scandalous and offensive, as gaudish attire, lascivious habits and gestures, and other vanities of either sex; which .i.we; recommend to all ministers, in their places, diligently and zealously to reprove, as at other times, so especially at a fast, without respect of persons, as there shall be occasion.

Before the publick meeting, each family and person apart are privately to use all religious care to prepare their hearts to such a solemn work, and to be early at the congregation.

So large a portion of the day as conveniently may be, is to be spent in publick reading and preaching of the word, with singing of psalms, fit to quicken affections suitable to such a duty: but especially in prayer, to this or the like effect:

“Giving glory to the great Majesty of God, the Creator, Preserver, and supreme Ruler of all the world, the better to affect us thereby with an holy reverence and awe of him; acknowledging his manifold, great, and tender mercies, especially to the church and nation, the more effectually to soften and abase our hearts before him; humbly confessing of sins of all sorts, with their several aggravations; justifying God’s righteous judgments, as being far less than our sins do deserve; yet humbly and earnestly imploring his mercy and grace for ourselves, the church and nation, for our king, and all in authority, and for all others for whom we are bound to pray, (according as the present exigent requireth,) with more special importunity and enlargement than at other times; applying by faith the promises and goodness of God for pardon, help, and deliverance from the evils felt, feared, or deserved; and for obtaining the blessings which we need and expect; together with a giving up of ourselves wholly and for ever unto the Lord.”

In all these, the ministers, who are the mouths of the people unto God, ought so to speak from their hearts, upon serious and thorough premeditation of them, that both themselves and their people may be much affected, and even melted thereby, especially with sorrow for their sins; that it may be indeed a day of deep humiliation and afflicting of the soul.

Special choice is to be made of such scriptures to be read, and of such tests for preaching, as may best work the hearts of the hearers to the special business of the day, and most dispose them to humiliation and repentance: insisting most on those particulars which each minister’s observation and experience tells him are most conducing to the edification and reformation of that congregation to which he preacheth.

Before the close of the publick duties, the minister is, in his own and the people’s name, to engage his and their hearts to be the Lord’s, with professed purpose and resolution to reform whatever is amiss among them, and more particularly such sins as they have been more remarkably guilty of; and to draw near unto God, and to walk more closely and faithfully with him in new obedience, than ever before.

He is also to admonish the people, with all importunity, that the work of that day doth not end with the publick duties of it, but that they are so to improve the remainder of the day, and of their whole life, in reinforcing upon themselves and their families in private all those godly affections and resolutions which they professed in publick, as that they may be settled in their hearts for ever, and themselves may more sensibly find that God hath smelt a sweet savour in Christ from their performances, and is pacified towards them, by answers of grace, in pardoning of sin, in removing of judgments, in averting or preventing of plagues, and in conferring of blessings, suitable to the conditions and prayers of his people, by Jesus Christ.

Besides solemn and general fasts enjoined by authority, we judge that, at other times, congregations may keep days of fasting, as divine providence shall administer unto them special occasion; and also that families may do the same, so it be not on days wherein the congregation to which they do belong is to meet for fasting, or other publick duties of worship.

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A powerful plea from J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) for a return to meaningful pre-membership instruction to recall the “paper currency” back to a “gold standard.”  This extract comes from his work, What is Faith?

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At this point, a question may perhaps be asked. We have said that saving faith is acceptance of Christ, not merely in general, but as He is offered to us in the gospel. How much, then, of the gospel, it may be asked, does a man need to accept in order that he may be saved; what, to put it baldly, are the minimum doctrinal requirements in order that a man may be a Christian? That is a question which, in one form or another, I am often asked; but it is also a question which I have never answered, and which I have not the slightest intention of answering now. Indeed it is a question which I think no human being can answer. Who can presume to say for certain what is the condition of another man’s soul; who can presume to say whether the other man’s attitude toward Christ, which he can express but badly in words, is an attitude of saving faith or not? This is one of the things which must surely be left to God.

There is indeed a certain reason why it is natural to ask the question to which we have just referred; it is natural because of the existence of a visible Church. The visible Church should strive to receive, into a communion for prayer and fellowship and labor, as many as possible of those who are united to Christ in saving faith, and it should strive to exclude as many as possible of those who are not so united to Him. If it does not practise exclusion as well as inclusion, it will soon come to stand for nothing at all, but will be merged in the life of the world; it will soon become like salt that has lost its savour, fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

In order, therefore, that the purity of the Church may be preserved, a confession of faith in Christ must be required of all those who would become Church members. But what kind of confession must it be? I for my part think that it ought to be not merely a verbal confession, but a credible confession. One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.

To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed.

After all, however, such inquiries into the state of the souls of men and women and children who desire to enter into the Church must be regarded as at the best very rough and altogether provisional. Certainly requirements for Church membership should be distinguished in the sharpest possible way from requirements for the ministry. The confusion of these two things in the ecclesiastical discussions of the past few years has resulted in great injustice to us who are called conservatives in the Church. We have been represented sometimes as though we were requiring an acceptance of the infallibility of Scripture or of the confession of faith of our Church from those who desire to become Church members, whereas in point of fact we have been requiring these things only from candidates for ordination. Surely there is a very important distinction here. Many persons — to take a secular example — can be admitted to an educational institution as students who yet are not qualified for a position in the faculty. Similarly many persons can be admitted to Church membership who yet ought not to be admitted to the ministry; they are qualified to learn, but not qualified to teach; they should not be allowed to stand forth as accredited teachers with the official endorsement of the Church. This analogy, it is true, does not by any means altogether hold: the Church is not, we think, merely an educational institution, but the visible representative in the world of the body of Christ; and its members are not merely seekers after God, but those who have already found; they are not merely interested in Christ, but are united to Christ by the regenerating act of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, although the analogy does not fully hold, it does hold far enough to illustrate what we mean. There is a wide margin of difference between qualifications for Church membership and qualifications for office — especially the teaching office that we call the ministry. Many a man, with feeble, struggling belief, torn by many doubts, may be admitted into the fellowship of the Church and of the sacraments; it would be heartless to deprive him of the comfort which such fellowship affords; to such persons the Church freely extends its nurture to the end that they may be led into ever fuller knowledge and ever firmer faith. But to admit such persons to the ministry would be a crime against Christ’s little ones, who look to the ministry for an assured word as to the way by which they shall be saved. It is not, however, even such persons to whom chiefly we have reference when we advocate today a greater care in admitting men to the ministry. It is not men who are struggling with doubts and difficulties about the gospel to whose admission we chiefly object, but men who are perfectly satisfied with another gospel; it is not men of ill-assured faith, but men of assured unbelief.

Even with regard to Church membership, as distinguished from the ministry, there is, as we have seen, a limit beyond which exclusion must certainly be practised; not only a desire to enter the Church should be required but also some knowledge of what entering the Church means, not only a confession of faith but a reasonably credible confession. But the point that we are now making is that such requirements ought clearly to be recognized as provisional; they do not determine a man’s standing before God, but they only determine, with the best judgment that God has given to feeble and ignorant men, a man’s standing in the visible Church. That is one reason why we must refuse to answer, in any definite and formal way, the question as to the minimum doctrinal requirements that are necessary in order that a man may be a Christian.

There is, however, also another reason. The other reason is that the very asking of the question often betokens an unfortunate attitude with regard to Christian truth. For our part we have not much sympathy with the present widespread desire of finding some greatest common denominator which shall unite men of different Christian bodies; for such a greatest common denominator is often found to be very small indeed. Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with. For our part, we regard it as a perilous business; we prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. We ought to search the Scriptures reverently and thoughtfully and pray God that he may lead us into an ever fuller understanding of the truth that can make us wise unto salvation. There is no virtue whatever in ignorance, but much virtue in a knowledge of what God has revealed.

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Small groups are immensely popular in evangelical circles these days, and increasingly commonplace in Reformed communions.  I’m not sure how much of this is due to the influence of New Calvinism or whether it’s due to old-guard Reformed folk warming up to broader evangelicalism.  Maybe both.  Regardless of the source, it’s definitely a popular construct.   Some would even argue that it’s a staple for ordinary church life.

I’ve been back and forth on small groups for some time.  In my more skeptical moments, the following concerns have come to mind.

First, in classic Reformed ecclesiology – which in my judgment is radically biblical – where do small groups fit?   They are not the public assembly, where the believers of a local communion “come together” to observe the corporate worship of God (Acts 14:27, 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:23, 26).   And you can’t assign them to the private (Mat. 6:6, 14:23) or family devotion categories (Gen. 18:19, Deut. 6:4-9), since you can’t have a small group with one person or just one family.   So if they are not in the three, traditional categories of worship/means of grace ministry (WCF 21.6), what place should they have?

I suppose an argument could be made that we can get them in the door by the body life argument.  Small groups could be seen as a manifestation of koinonia, our sharing in the common life of the Spirit.  Isn’t that Reformed?  “Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification” (WCF 26.2).   Well, I admit coming together for the Lord’s day services is not all there is to church fellowship.  There is much to be done on a smaller scale and with more intimacy.  Fine and good.  “They that feared the Lord spoke often one with another, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name” (Mal. 3:16).  But when informal, spiritual conversations transition into small groups, something changes.  It is formalized, it requires organization, structure, and facilitation if not leadership.  In short, it becomes programmatic.   So if it is programmatic, where does it fit in the apostolic program?   Is it a component of the ‘ordinary means?’

Second, there is the collective wisdom of our Reformed forbears.  While I’m no expert in 16th and 17th century church history, it does appear that the Westminster Divines discouraged small groups from having a normative place in the life of God’s people.  In fact, they appear to have been suspicious of them.  “Whatsoever have been the effects and fruits of meetings of persons of divers families in the times of corruption or trouble, (in which cases many things are commendable, which otherwise are not tolerable,) yet, when God hath blessed us with peace and purity of the gospel, such meetings of persons of divers families (except in cases mentioned in these Directions) are to be disapproved, as tending to the hinderance of the religious exercise of each family by itself, to the prejudice of the publick ministry, to the rending of the families of particular congregations, and (in progress of time) of the whole kirk. Besides many offences which may come thereby, to the hardening of the hearts of carnal men, and grief of the godly” (Directory for Family Worship, Section 7).

Third, there is the obvious susceptibility of small groups to the influence of egalitarianism, feminism, and a host of other -isms.  Clearly they are more vulnerable; and what is more, I have to wonder whether they are not in some ways the product of these extra-biblical spirits of the age.

So I ask the question – or to be more frank, I raise the doubt.   For now, at least.

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Thomas Boston wrote in his Memoirs that he had been troubled ever since beginning his ministry “with several things in our constitution [of the Church of Scotland], especially the manner of admitting to the Lord’s table, and planting of churches” (338).  Being appointed to a committee to review such matters, Boston took the opportunity to redress these problems.  The following is an overture from his pen, entitled “Of admission to the Lord’s table, and debarring from it,” contained as an appendix in his Memoirs (487-88).  While there are many contextual disconnects with our modern circumstances, there is much instructive here for the admission of new members and the role of catechesis in the process. 

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” 1. Admission to the Lord’s table, and debarring from it, being acts of church discipline and government in a particular congregation, belong to the session of the congregation, and are not to be exercised by any minister or elder by themselves, nor any society of ministers and elders in an extrajudicial capacity.

” 2. Besides the ordinary examinations in parishes, it is meet there be diets of examination particularly for non-communicants, and specially those of the younger sort. And for this end, that once every year at least, especially before the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the congregation, ministers, from the pulpit, exhort and stir up non-communicants to serious godliness, and the use of the means of knowledge; and intimate to all such as desire to be prepared to partake of that ordinance, that they give in their names to him, and wait on the diets of catechising to be appointed for such.

” 3. The names of such as offer themselves to be instructed, in order to their being admitted to the Lord’s table, are to be kept in a roll separate from that of the whole congregation, and to be brought into the session, and read before them; that it may be recommended to all the brethren, to have a particular eye on the inrolled, each especially on those of his own district; to excite, admonish, and exhort them, to a walk becoming the gospel, and the high privilege they are aspiring to.

“4. When a non-communicant removes out of one parish into another, it were fit that he produce sufficient testimonials from the place of his former abode, before he be inrolled amongst those who have offered themselves to be instructed as above said, in the congregation to which he comes.

” 5. When one desires to be admitted to the Lord’s table, he is in due time to intimate his desire to the session, that they may maturely consider of it. But it were fit, that the party should in the first place acquaint the minister with his purpose; who, if he finds he has not made a competent proficiency by the pains taken on him, in the examinations of non-communicants, or otherwise, may advise him yet to forbear for a time.

” 6. The session entering on this affair, a strict inquiry is to be made among the members, particularly at the elder or elders of the district which the party belongs to, concerning his life and conversation; whether he be guilty of any scandal; owns, submits to, and ordinarily attends, the ordinances of Christ, the public and private worship of God; if he be of a pious and sober deportment, and reputed to be a worshipper of God in secret; and if he be the head of a family, whether he worships God in his family.

” 7. If nothing be found on that part to hinder his admission to the Lord’s table, the session convening, on a set day, in the place of public worship, and the doors being open, that all the communicants, and those who have offered themselves to he instructed as ahove said, may have access, if they please, he is, in face of session, to give proof of his knowledge of the principles of the Christian religion, and particularly of the nature, use, and ends, of the ordinance of the supper, by making a confession of his faith, either in the way of a continued discourse, or by answering questions thereupon proposed by the minister.

” 8. And here special consideration is to be had of some who are known to be serious, and willing to learn, yet are weak ; namely, that the questions be proposed to them, so as they may be answered by Yes, or No; or that the truth and error be both laid before them, and they asked, which of them they believe.

” 9. The trial being ended, the session is to judge, whether the party be endowed with competent knowledge of the principles of the Christian religion, or not.

” 10. And if they be satisfied in this also, the party is to be put explicitly to consent to the covenant (whereof he desires the seal), to be the Lord’s, live unto Him, and serve Him all the days of his life, by answering expressly the following (or the like) questions. 1. Do you believe the doctrine of the Shorter Catechism of this church, so far as you understand the same, to be the true doctrine agreeable to the holy Scriptures, and resolve, through grace, to live and die in the profession of the same?  2. Do you consent to take God in Christ to be your God, the Father to be your Father, the Son to be your Saviour, and the Holy Ghost to be your Sanctifier; and that, renouncing the devil, the world, and the flesh, you be the Lord’s for ever?  3. Do you consent to receive Christ as He is offered in the gospel, for your prophet, priest, and king; giving up yourself to Him, to be led and guided by His word and Spirit; looking for salvation only through the obedience and death of Jesus Christ, who was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem; promising, in His strength, to endeavour to lead a holy life, to forsake every known sin, and to comply with every known duty?  4. Lastly, Do you promise to subject yourself to exhortation, admonition, and rebuke, and the discipline of the church, in case (which God forbid) you fall into any scandalous sin?

“11. The party having professed, consented, and promised, as above said, is to be admitted to the table of the Lord, by a sentence of the session; which is to be recorded in their register, and an extract thereof allowed to be given him, when called for.

” 12. It were fit, that the names of all those who, from time to time, are admitted to the Lord’s table, be inrolled in a bound book belonging to the session.

“13. And how often soever that ordinance be administered in a congregation, the aforesaid roll of those who have at any time been admitted, is always to be read over distinctly, in presence of the session, some competent time before, and the members required to declare, if they know anything against the life and conversation of any of them.

“14. If anything be objected, the session is to order private exhortation or admonition, or sist the accused before them, as they shall see ground, and find the matter to require. And this is to be so managed, as that the accused be sisted, as aforesaid, on report concerning the private exhortation or admonition made, before the time of the administration of the sacrament. But those who have once been orderly admitted, are at no time after to be denied the privilege they were admitted to, except in the case of scandal; for which they are to be debarred by the session, till they have removed the scandal, according to the discipline of the church: Which done, they are restored to their former church-state.”

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