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Archive for the ‘Theology of Community’ Category

One of my personal heroes is Scottish Presbyterian minster, Aeneas Sage (1694-1774). I’m not quite sure if everything written about him is totally accurate; I get a whiff of the hagiographic if not the legendary in some of the stories.  Yet, something in my gut tells me it is too good and so must be true!  (Like a historian friend of mine quipped, ‘If it ain’t true, it should be!’)  Whatever the case, Aeneas Sage captivates me, for as a pastor he knew how to captivate an audience – in more ways that one.

I’ve retold the following story countless times, from John Kennedy’s The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire.  I still remember first hearing it by an idiosyncratic minister having his wispy locks trimmed by his wife in his living room.  How his eyes sparkled as he struggled to repress laughter!  As I remember it again, it also gives me some tantalizing ideas in drawing a crowd for open air preaching, and of course, to win hearts for King Jesus in an increasingly secular age.  I already know one friend whose church has had good success gaining a crowd by basketball.  Then they preach a solid, Reformed sermon for 45 minutes – to public schoolers.  Maybe they took a chapter out of Aeneas Sage’s playbook.

If  you like the following, you’ll no doubt appreciate this piece about him too.  Now, without further audieu …

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Mr. Munro was preceded by the famous Mr. Aenas Sage —”a man of an undaunted spirit, who did not know what the fear of man was. He had, however, the fear of God, and great zeal for the good cause in its highest perfection. He was the determined enemy of vice, and a true friend of the gospel.” Such, according to Mr. Lachlan, was the character of Mr. Sage, the first minister who is known to have preached the Gospel in purity and with success in Lochcarron. At the time of his induction, the state of the parish was very much the same as it was found by the Presbytery to be in 1649, when after visiting it, they reported that “there were no elders in it, by reason of malignancy; swearing, drunkenness, cursing, Sabbath profanation, and uncleanness prevailed.” As to the church, there was found in it “ane formal stool of repentance, but no pulpit nor desks.” The stool, if the only, was truly the suitable seat for all the people of Lochcarron in these days; but the more it was required, the less power there was to make it aught else than “ane formal” thing, as the solitary occupant of the church.

Matters continued in this state till the induction of Mr. Sage, nearly eighty years after. He was just the man for the work of breaking up the fallow ground of a field so wild, and a rich blessing rested on his labours. On the night of his first arrival at Lochcarron an attempt was made to burn the house in which he lodged, and for some time after his induction his life was in constant danger. But the esteem he could not win as a minister, he soon acquired for great physical strength. The first man in Lochcarron in those days was the champion at the athletic games. Conscious of his strength, and knowing that he would make himself respected by all if he could only lay big Rory on his back, who was acknowledged to be the strongest man in the district, the minister joined the people on the earliest opportunity at their games. Challenging the whole field, he competed for the prize in putting the stone, tossing the caber, and wrestling, and won an easy victory. His fame, was established at once. The minister was now the champion of the district, and none was more ready to defer to him than he whom he had deprived of the laurel. Taking Rory aside to a confidential crack, he said to him, “Now, Rory, I am the minister, and you must be my elder, and we both must see to it that all the people attend church, observe the Sabbath, and conduct themselves properly.” Rory fell in with the proposal at once. On Sabbath, when the people would gather at their games in the forenoon, the minister and his elder would join them, and each taking a couple by the hand, they would drag them to the church, lock them in, and then return to catch some more. This was repeated till none were left on the field. Then, stationing the elder with his cudgel at the door, the minister would mount the pulpit and conduct the service. One of his earliest sermons was blessed to the conversion of his assistant, and a truly valuable coadjutor he found in big Rory thereafter. Mr. Lachlan thus describes the result of his ministry: —”Mr. Sage made the people very orthodox.” They “seem to have a strong attachment to religion.” “There is a great appearance of religion in Lochcarron; and as the fire of God’s Word is hereafter to try every man’s work, there is cause to hope that some of it will bear the trial.’

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200px-ThomasGuthrie1870sHere is an excellent article on a contemporary of Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie.  Like Chalmers, Guthrie (1803-1873) had a heart beating for the good of the souls and bodies of those downtrodden in Industrial-Age Scotland.  He also embraced the parish plan of action.  ‘Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work. Let us embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours. Let our only rivalry be the holy one of who shall do most and succeed best in converting the wilderness into an Eden, and causing the deserts to blossom as the rose.’

The author of this article, Andy Murray, blogs at Ragged Theology.  Andy also tells me that he’s just published a Kindle version of Guthrie’s memorable The City: Its Sins and Sorrows.

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Thomas Chalmers here responds to a close friend who felt the secularizing influence of unconverted company.  His reply?  Aspire for the emergence of Christian communities and restlessly work to build them by aggressive soul-winning.  Again, Chalmers exhibits a wholesome blend of romanticism and realism.   He also gives some other helpful words to those engaged in the task of reaching the lost.

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“You speak of uncongenial business or society in the evening, which broke up in some measure the religious frame of your mind on the preceding part of the day. Now, mark well that there will be no such interruptions in the Millennium; there are none such in a Moravian village at this moment; and there would be much fewer than there are in Glasgow had we a more extensive Christian community. The direct road to this is just to make as many Christian individuals and Christian families as we can; and in the exact proportion of our success shall we be rewarded by a freedom from all these temptations which the deadening and secularizing influence of the great majority of companies brings along with it. Let us ever keep by this object, then, as our great aim and purpose of our lives here below, combining, at the same time, all that discretion and skill which are necessary in the important work. Let us pray for that most desirable wisdom, the wisdom of winning souls—not forgetting that He who says, Keep thyself pure, also says, Lay hands on no man suddenly; and taking care, at the same time, never to convert the latter direction into a shelter for cowardice, or a plea for denying Christ before men. Oh, my dear sir, you are right to feel your shortcomings, and it is at the same time right to strike the high aim of being perfect, even as God is perfect. It is only wrong to conceive such a purpose in a dependence on ourselves; but who shall limit the power of His Spirit?”

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Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was an early voice opposing the compulsory, state-managed poor relief, what would later evolve into the present monster of the welfare state.  He argued that a compulsory, bureaucratized system tended to stop up four natural fountains of charity within society, fountains that had long adequately refreshed the poor in rural Scottish society for ages.  In order, these fountains were (1) personal industry, (2) the kindness of personal relatives, (3) the sympathy of the wealthy, and (4) the sympathy of the poor for each other.  Unstop these by eliminating the compulsory system, and in general, poverty is naturally relieved.  A few words from Chalmers himself on each, from his Collected Works, Vol. 14:

(1) Natural fountain # 1: personal industry.

“We know not a more urgent principle of our constitution than self-preservation; and it is a principle which not only shrinks from present suffering, but which looks onward to futurity, and holds up a defence against the apprehended wants and difficulties of the years that are to come.  Were the great reservoir of public charity, for the town at large, to be shut, there would soon be struck out many family reservoirs, fed by the thrift and sobriety, whichnecessity would then stimulate, but which now the system of pauperism so long has superseded;—and from these there would emanate a more copious supply than is at present ministered out of poor rates, to aliment the evening of plebeian life, and to equalise all the vicissitudes of its history” (402).

(2) Natural fountain # 2: the kindness of personal relatives.

“One of the most palpable, and at the same time most grievous effects of this artificial system, is the dissolution which it has made of the ties and feelings of relationship. It is this which gives rise to the melancholy list of runaway parents, wherewith whole columns of the provincial newspapers of England are oftentimes filled. And then, as if in retaliation, there is the cruel abandonment of parents, by their own offspring, to the cold and reluctant hand of public charity. In some cases, there may not be the requisite ability; but the actual expense on the part of labourers, for luxuries that might be dispensed with, demonstrates that, in most cases, there is that ability. But it is altogether the effeet of pauperism to deaden the inclination. It has poisoned the strongest affections of nature; and turned inwardly, towards the indulgences of an absorhent selfishness, that stream which else would have flowed out on the needy of our own blood and our own kindred. It has shut those many avenues of domestic kindliness by which, but for its deadening and disturbing influence, a far better and more copious circulation of needful supplies would have been kept up throughout the mass of society” (402-403).

(3) Natural fountain # 3: the sympathy of the wealthy.

By the state-managed system, the result is that the wealthy and the poor “stand to each other in a grim array of hostility—the one thankless and dissatisfied, and stoutly challenging as its due, what the other reluctantly yields, and that as sparingly as possible. . . Were this economy simply broken up, and the fountain of human sympathy again left free to be operated upon by its wonted excitements, and to send out its wonted streams throughout those manifold subordinations by which the various classes of society and bound and amalgamated together – we doubt not that from this alone a more abundant, or, at least, a far more efficient and better-spread tide of charity would be diffused throughout the habitations of indigence” (404-405)

(4) Natural fountain # 4: the sympathy of the poor for each other.

“In the veriest depths of unmixed and extended plebeianism, and where, for many streets together, not one house is to be seen which indicates more than the rank of a common labourer, are there feelings of mutual kindness, and capabilities of mutual aid, that greatly outstrip the conceptions of a hurried and superficial observer: And, but for pauperism, which has released immediate neighbours from the feeling they would otherwise have had, that in truth the most important benefactors of the poor are the poor themselves— there has been a busy internal operation of charity in these crowded lanes, and densely peopled recesses, that would have proved a more effectual guarantee against the starvation of any individual, than ever can be reared by any of the artifices of human policy” (405).

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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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Our hyper-individualized society possesses a very low sense of corporate solidarity. Every man does that which is right in his own eyes. Every man isolates himself, tears apart what God has joined together, challenging, “and who is my neighbor?” Or, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Tragically, this thinking bleeds over into the mentality of the Church. We have become conformed to this individualistic world, not transformed by the renewing of our mind. Shame on us!

When, however, we begin thinking corporately – and for that matter, inter-generationally (should I say, consistently covenantal?) – we will find ourselves doing much more than confessing our own individual sins. For starters, we will confess the sin of individualism. But what is more, we will sense the guilt that we bear as members of families, states, and nations. We will sense a shared guilt by our association with the compromised Visible Church. And we will certainly feel, in addition to our own sins, the shared sins of our forbears.

Observe this principle in Leviticus 26:40, 42, “If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me . . . then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land.” When exiled as a punishment for their sins and the sins of their fathers, Israel ought to repent and confess both. And they should do so with the assurance that the God who shows mercy from generation to generation will do precisely that!

See this also with Daniel in his great confession. This holy man, far from isolating himself from the larger body to which he belonged, rather owned it and identified with it. Even if the nation would not confess its sin, he would do it for them. Or, more to the point, as a part of them. “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land” (Dan. 9:6; see the reference to “our fathers” also in vv. 8 & 16).

Now we may not like this. We may complain, charging God with injustice. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek. 18:2). But the Potter has power over the clay. And it has pleased Him to make us not bare, atomized individuals – but much more. We are also members of corporate bodies. We are waves in a larger generational stream, branches in a much bigger tree. This is biblical. This is covenantal. This is reality! Let us acknowledge it and confess our sins. Including those we share with our ancestors. And if we do, should we not expect the God of the thousand generations to remember his mercies towards us – and our children (Acts 2:39)?

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Key to understanding Thomas Chalmers’ advocacy of the locality (or parish) principle for urban missions is what he called ‘the gregarious principle.’  Man by God’s design was made a social creature.  And as a part of God’s moral government, there are certain social laws that men disregard only to their detriment.  The locality principle does not disregard, but presumes the gregarious principle and harnesses its potential.  As a minister adopts a territory for its spiritual cultivation, he removes not only the geographic, but the social distance between himself, his church, and the people he is seeking to reach.  And in the end, heart joins with heart. 

The following quote illustrates Chalmers’ view of the social advantages in a minister doing outreach on the locality principle.  Notice his concern with social ideas such as acquaintance, intimacy, friendliness, welcome, and fellow feeling:

In the first place, then, it is not so likely that a minister will go forth on his share of the population, when spread at random over the whole city, as when they lie within the limits of a space that is overtakable. He feels an incitement to move in the latter way of it, which he does not feel when his attentions are dispersed over a wide and bewildering generality. He, under the one arrangement, may have rare, and rapid, and transient intercourse with the individuals of a diffused multitude; but this can never ripen into solid acquaintanceship with more than a very few.  Under the other arrangement, he may, at a greatly less expense, attain to terms of intimacy with some, and of civility with many. And it would add prodigiously to this operation, were his hearers, on the Sabbath, also his parochial acquaintances through the week. By this simple expedient alone, he would attain such an establishment of himself in his parish, in a single month, as he will not otherwise reach, but by the labour and assiduity of years. The very consciousness that, in a certain quarter of the city, lay the great body of his congregation, would be enough to assure him of a welcome there, and a friendship there, that would ever be inclining his footsteps to his parish, as the fittest scene of promise and of preparation for all his enterprises. And he would find, that the business of the Sabbath and the business of the week, had a most wholesome reciprocal influence the one upon the other. The former business would immediately open a wide and effectual door of intercourse with the people; and the latter business would not only retain the people in attendance upon their minister, but would rapidly extend their demand of attendance upon him, whenever there was room for it. . . .

But the second influence of locality in this matter, is perhaps of greater efficacy still. The first is that by which the minister obtains a more intense feeling of his relationship to his people. The second is that by which the people obtain a more intense feeling of their relationship to their minister. It is incalculable how much this last is promoted by the mere juxtaposition of the people to one another. There is a great deal more than perhaps can be brought out by a mere verbal demonstration, in a number of contiguous families, all related by one tie to the same place of worship, and the same minister. It would go to revive a feeling, which is now nearly obliterated in towns, whereby the house which a man occupies, should be connected, in his mind, with the parish in which it is situated, and an ecclesiastical relationship be recognised with the clergyman of the parish. In these circumstances, where there was no interference of principle, and no personal disapprobation of the clergyman, attendance upon the parish church would at length pass into one of the habitual and established proprieties of every little vicinage. Old families would keep it up, and new families would fall into it; and the demand for seats, instead of slackening under such an arrangement, would become more intense every year, so as to form a distinct call for more churches, whenever they were called for by the exigencies of a growing population (The Christian & Economic Polity of a Nation, pp. 67-68).

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