Category Archives: The church

The Missional Church Part 2

Missional Church (part 2) – The Mindset – Acts 17.16-33

For Central Baptist Church House Groups on the 29th September (for Word doc, click here)

In this second study in our Missional Church series we turn to the mindset required as we engage in church planting. Paul exemplified this mindset in his cross-cultural evangelism – willing to be flexible on every, and any, non-essential, but completely rock-solid on the core truths of the gospel.

1.     Jim stated that central to a missional mindset is the ability to “observe, absorb and feel” – if you have time before the house group, spend an hour in the city centre observing and praying over the people walking by. Pray that God would give us compassion for the crowds as Jesus had (Matthew 9.36). Share some of your reflections on this experience with the group. Which of these three verbs do we prayerfully need to work on the most?

2.     Paul’s Athenian sermon is a great example of communicating in a language our hearers understand. What points of contact does Paul use to draw in the crowd? When does the tension arise? What is the key teaching that they cannot accept?

3.     Paul uses contemporary culture to build bridges to his hearers (see v 22,23 & 28). How can we use literature, media and conversations to understand people and listen to our culture? What messages do we hear? Spend some time sharing thoughts on how you could introduce & explain the gospel, beginning from areas of common ground (e.g. a song, book, movie or news story).

4.     What are the main themes that Paul touches on in his message? How does Paul communicate the gospel? What aspects of God’s character does Paul focus on?  How does he introduce sin, repentance and judgement?

5.     Jim said “God has to do something in us, before he can do something through us.” What is God’s final objective in all His work in us (Romans 8.28-30, Hebrews 12.7-11)? How is that sometimes different from our objectives in life? Share an experience of when God has broken you in order to shape you.

6.     Jim said one of the key things church planters need is “being prepared to take a hit” – have we taken a hit recently in our gospel witness? What are the points of tension with our society? Do you feel prepared to answer the objections? How can we gain a hearing for our response?

7.     Jim stated that “the vast majority of our city do not worship the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and so numb have we become to that that we accept it as the norm.” Is this true for us? If so, what are we prepared to do for them? Are ready to enter the harvest field?

Paul’s missional mindset meant that, as well as adopting the style of his preaching to his hearers, he also accommodated his lifestyle, as much as he was able, to those he was witnessing to. While holding the central truths of the gospel with an unshakeable grip, he used every means possible to bring his message to life. This required a high level of maturity where he was able to distinguish the essential from the peripheral. May God grant that we also would be empowered with the same passion for being soul winners and see many in our homes, work and community come to know the only Saviour.

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…To the weak I become weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings. 1 Cor 9.19-23

The Missional Church Part 1

Missional Church (pt 1) – The Message – Matthew 28v16-20.

(For CBC house groups on 15th Sep 2010 – for word doc download click here)

In this first of four studies centred on the theme of church planting, we look at Jesus’ message to his disciples – his mission statement for the worldwide church to pursue until he comes back. This message is to be the beating heart of every local church, an unending commission that calls the church to the task of world evangelisation supported by local training; of pioneer missionary endeavour combined with feeding the flock.

1.     What comes to mind when you think of church planting? Spend a few moments in the group sharing experiences of those who have been involved in church planting in the UK and abroad. What have we learnt from our experiences?

2.     The authority and presence of the Lord are the two bookends to the Great Commission. How do these two aspects of Jesus’ reign impact our approach to outreach and discipleship? How does the enemy seek to undermine our confidence in both these areas?

3.     Jim reminded us that the great need in Scotland is for “proclamation allied to planting”. What would you say is the greatest priority for the church to focus on in order to further this goal? How do our local church and denominational structures support or hinder this goal?

4.     Jim said “the church that gives, lives” – how does the example of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 4.32-35) and Antioch (Acts 13.1-3) inspire us to undertake this challenge? How did these churches receive blessing for their obedience?

5.     Jim argued that we cannot separate the task of growing the local church from mission. What happens to a church when they are separated? What do we need to change in our individual and corporate lives to re-unite these two?

6.     Jesus was the watershed in turning God’s kingdom message from “Come” (to the temple) to “Go” (into all the world). What has replaced the temple in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 3.16-17)? Does this perspective help us overcome the attacks we mentioned in question 2b?

7.     Someone once asked the question “Why should anyone hear the gospel twice before everyone has heard it once.” How would you answer this in the light of our discussion tonight? What would you say to someone who thought that “mission” only happened overseas? How can we be more effective in reaching those who have never heard in Dundee and beyond?

As the church grows, it is inevitable that it will expand into new territories and people groups. Jesus’ vision for the growth of the church across the entire world is to be like the strawberry plant – sending out runners into new areas, supported and upheld from the sending plant until it is ready to put down its own roots and send out runners from this new base. This view of the great commission helps to overcome the barriers we sometimes place between church ministry and world mission. We desperately need those (like Paul) with a burning ambition to preach Christ where He is not known (Romans 15.20) but, for a lasting impact, these pioneer missionaries must be followed by those who (like Apollos) have a heart for training and discipleship (1 Corinthians 3.6). Spend a few moments reflecting on where God would have us contribute most effectively to the extension of His kingdom.

Rebecca we’ve found your Dad

Book 4 Chapter 8 Section 1-16

Over Christmas I listened to a great programme on Radio 2. It was all about the Salvation army’s Family Tracing Service – this group work tirelessly to reunite loved ones who have lost contact for one reason or another. The one story that stood out to me was of a young mum who had lost touch with her Dad because of her parent’s divorce. She had little hope that the FTS could help, but sent the application form in anyway. One day she was just about to leave for the shops when the phone went. As she answered she was suprised to hear it was one of the FTS’s workers on the phone. She was expecting bad news, but instead the voice said “Hi Rebecca, I wanted you to know that I have found your Dad.” After 12 years of separation, Rebecca was overcome with emotion to hear that he was found and wanted to meet with her. It reminded me that delivering a simple and honest message, when delivered faithfully can often have a great impact on the hearer.

In this chapter of the Institutes Calvin presents the minister of Christ as the messenger bringing another’s message. It is precisely because the message did not originate in the messenger that it is both authoritative and unchanging. It is authoritative because it is a message from God, delivered to mankind through their peers. It is unchanging because the messengers have no remit to modify that message as they deem fit. Their job is to present the message with clarity and conviction, not decide which bits fit their or their hearer’s scruples.

Calvin begins by address the question: what are the limits of ecclesiastical power? That is, what was the nature of the authority conferred on ministers of the gospel? He begins be reminding us that authority is conferred on the position, not the person. The authority comes from delivering the word of the Lord, “for whenever they are called to office, they are enjoined not to bring anything of their own, but to speak by the mouth of the Lord.” Thus the importance of having a deep understanding of God’s word, that we may have something to say when we stand before people as God’s mouthpiece.

Progressive revelation is the theme of the next section, with Calvin recognising that as redemptive history unfolds, God’s ministers possess an increasing understanding of God’s character and plan of salvation. So, the resolution of the message becomes clearer from the patriarchs, to the prophets and then the apostles, and finally with the revelation of the Son, God’s testimony is now complete. No new teaching, prophecy or revelation is to be added to the testimony of scripture. Thus ministers are to cling solely to the revealed word, and not attempt to “coin some new doctrine”. Why did God do this? Well, “God deprives man of the power  of producing new doctrine in order that he alone may be our master in spiritual teaching, as he alone is true, and can neither lie nor deceive.”

If that is what should have happened, Calvin laments how far the reality is from the ideal. For the 16th century Roman Catholic church maintained that “a universal council is a true representation of the Church” and that “such councils are under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit”. But these councils are called, organised and run by fallen men who then demand that we “assent to all their dogmas, affirmative as well as negative.” Calvin agrees that the Spirit guides the people of God, but it does not perfect them in this life. Contrary to the claims of his opponents, who reason that “since the church is governed by the Spirit of God, she can walk safely without the word”, believers “confine themselves anxiously within the limits of the word of God, lest in following their own sense too far, they forthwith stray from the right path.” True, we enjoy the first-fruits of the Spirit in this present life, but we are also acutely conscious of our great weakness and fallibility. In summary Calvin describes his opponents as placing “the authority of the Church without the word of God: we annex it to the word, and allow it not to be separated from it.”

Response

Far from divesting the messenger of his responsibility for, and connection to, the message he delivers, this knowledge of its divine source affirms and secures such a bond. This is not some dreary announcement by a middle manager of the new company branding – a message that has no interest for the hearers and no conviction from the messenger. No, the gospel must be delivered by people who have so consumed its elements that it has been branded onto their soul. It is a message of life, joy and hope – not unlike the news that a loved one has been found after years of seperation. The way of restoration has already been secured, our duty is to simply deliver this message, faithfully, clearly and with conviction to enable both parties to finally meet. We share in the joy of reuniting family members – lost sons and daughters to their heavenly Father. Our message of reconciliation has never changed and will never change. May we be always found with that message on our lips.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman to the house of Israel, therefore hear the word at my mouth and give them warning from me….We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.” Ezekiel 3.17 & 2 Corinthians 5.20

Father, rise up those who will faithfully & lovingly proclaim your message to a lost world, a message of hope, life and joy. May we see many come back to their only true Father and be reunited with the parent who formed them before they were born. For your sake, Amen

There was a dream that was Rome

Book 4 Chapter 7 Section 1-30

In a touching scene in the film Gladiator the aging Marcus Aurelius tries to convince the impressive and loyal general Maximus Decimus Meridius to take up his challenge to reform Rome as the new emperor. Marcus Aurelius wistfully reminisces: “There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile”. But, Maximus cannot be convinced and the emperor’s hopes of reformation vanish. However, Rome would still dominate the world for the next 300 years, during which time a new power would emerge in Rome from amongst the followers of Christ. 

In this chapter Calvin traces the ancient accounts of how the Rome came to dominate all other churches of the West. Although he has briefly touched on some of the main themes in the previous chapter (see Chapter 6), it is here that Calvin deals in detail with the validity, or not, of the various claims of the Roman Papacy. It is a chapter rich in church history and Calvin demonstrates his strength in navigating these ancient times to understand the reason for the rise of Rome.

In what is quite a complex chapter that covers a great deal of early church history, I would suggest there are four main pillars upon which a case for the supremacy of Rome was built.

1. Claim of apostolic foundation & succession
This is a common theme throughout these chapters on the 16th century Catholic church and was dealt with in more detail a previous chapter. Although there seems to be no textual evidence, either in the New Testament or beyond to support the claim, Calvin admits tradition has it that Peter founded a church in Rome. Upon this uncertain event is weaved a web of dubious biblical interpretation that establishes Peter as the de facto leader of the apostles.

Whether this was the case or not, it certainly does not follow that the church which Peter founded must be superior to any other church founded by the other apostles. Finally, even if it was superior to the other churches in the first century, any invested authority was dependent on the purity and faithfulness of the church – a fact that would have disqualified Rome many years before the Reformation, despite their technical claim to have an unbroken line of succession of bishops from Peter to the Pope.

2. Growing influence in the Councils.
Once Christianity became a legal religion in the 4th century, the early church fathers began meeting at General Councils to defend the orthodox faith from certain heresies. Thus, beginning with the Council of Nice, Calvin observes how Rome came to dominate these General Councils. While initially there were no single leaders, by the time of the Chalcedon Council, the Roman Pontiff holds the first place “not because it is due his See, but because the council was in want of a grave and fit moderator.”

Subsequent councils tended to have the host bishops presiding over affairs, for example Mennas at Constantinople and Aurelius at Carthage. There was even an occasion when a universal council was held in Milan with no Roman bishop present. Indeed, there was a strong feeling amongst the bishops that “none should be called chief of the priests, or first bishop.” So for the first few hundred years of the early church, there was no ruling bishop amongst the patriarchs, despite attempts by Rome to the contrary.

3. Growing ecclesiastical power.
According to “Calvin ecclesiastical power can be reduced to four heads: 1) ordination of bishops, 2) calling of councils, 3) hearing of appeals (jurisdiction), 4) inflicting monitory chastisements or censures”. For ordination it was the practise of Italian bishops to be ordained in Rome, with other countries’ bishops ordained at their choice of location.

Regarding the calling of councils each metropolitan area could call a provincial synod, while only the Emperor could call a universal, general council. Appeals were initially held locally, and chastisements were mutual. If this was the situation for the first few hundred years, gradually the centrifugal force of Rome began to centralise these rights to them alone, or at least they would have the final word on an issue. In many respects this was due to our final factor:

4. Centre of the Roman Empire
With the official acceptance of Christianity as a valid religion in the Edict of Milan (313 AD), the way was set for an international power struggle that would last the next several hundred years. Given its place at the heart of the Roman empire, the Roman church was in a strong position to take supremacy, even without the claims to apostolic authority. Thus it proved. The church at the centre of the most important city in the world, eventually became recognised as being first among equals. What at first was offered voluntarily to Rome by its fellow churches in turbulent time, slowly became enshrined as their duty. 

This eventually led to a bitter power struggle between Rome and Constantinople when this latter city became the new seat of the Empire in 337 AD. For all the undercurrents that had led to the Roman church’s prominence as the head of the church, were now pushing in the other direction, in favour of Constantinople. Thus, with the empire moving on, Rome’s claim to apostolic authority became even more vital.

Response

I have never been to Rome but it is one of the few European cities that I really want to see. Although its glory has faded, movies such as Gladiator are able to bring it vividly to life. Arriving in Rome from the provincial cities must have been a truly overwhelming experience for a 4th century bishop. The crowds, the buildings, the wealth, the glory of the city must have been a site to behold. Despite its fall from its past glory, the tremours of its power are still felt today in our everyday language: “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, “all roads lead to Rome”, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and other sayings are repeated today in other contexts.

This chapter has demonstrated to me how strong the traditions of man can become if left unchecked. For the reasons described above Rome managed to solidify practises that were initially put into place partly voluntarily, to a point at which its authority was universal in the western church. To have such power and with so little true biblical authority is a lesson to us all in how quickly men can corrupt organisational structures. While God intended us to have freedom in the form of church governance and practise, our forefathers instead chose the traditions of man. How careful we must be in subscribing too much authority to man-made institutions, for the final day will reveal whether their power was derived from God or from man.

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth father, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called teacher, for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” Matthew 23.10

Father, we rightly ascribe to you alone the authority to first place in the church. You alone are our Teacher, Master and Father. No earthly person or institution should come between us and you, for we are your children, the sheep of your pasture. Restore to your church the complete and pure dependance on your will in all things. For your glory, Amen

I was there the day the strength of Men failed

Book 4 Chapter 5 Section 1-19

Elrond: “Who will you look to when we’ve gone? The Dwarves? They toil away in caverns, seeking riches. They care nothing for the troubles of others.”
Gandalf: “It is in Men that we must place our hope.”
Elrond: “Men? Men are weak. The Blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. It is because of Men the Ring survives. I was there, Gandalf. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there the day the strength of Men failed.”

The words of Elrond, King of the Elves, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings could well be used to sum up all that Calvin describes in this chapter about the utter corruption that infested the leaders of the church in his day. This chapter is a scathing account of the character and behaviour of the leaders. It is Calvin’s rallying call for the establishment of a new, purer, more faithful, more biblical church.

He begins his onslaught by considering how these leaders are called to be bishops. Are their life and doctrine assessed against the biblical standards? By no means, instead Calvin laments that “for a hundred years, scarcely one in a hundred has been elected who had any acquaintance with sacred doctrine.” In regard to their morals Calvin finds that there are “few or almost none whom the ancient canons would not have judged unworthy.” But how has this been allowed to happen, that such people have been allowed to govern a church? We find the answer when we consider who appoints them to be bishops.

Any influence of the people has been completely removed for “the whole power has been to the canons alone… (who) confer the episcopal office on whomsoever they please.” And whom do they appoint? “Some owe their promotion to kindred or affinity, others to the influence of their parents, while others procure favour by obsequiousness.” Even “boys scarcely ten years of age are, by permission of the Pope, made bishops.” Then once ordained they are “loaded with five or six, or seven cures (churches), of not one of which they take the least charge, except to draw the income.”

So how do they discharge their office once they have been ordained? Well if the office of a true minister is “to feed the church, and administer the spiritual kingdom of Christ, all those priests who have no work or stipend, save in the traffic of masses, not only fail in their office, but have no lawful office to discharge.” Calvin goes further and claims that “the preaching of the word, the care of discipline, and the administration of the sacraments, they have shaken off as burdens too grievous to be borne.” Instead they prefer to engage in “merely chanting and pompous ceremonies.”

Rather than discharging their office, they hardly even attend their churches, preferring to “spend their lives in devouring the revenues of the church which they never visit even for the purpose of inspection.” While Calvin admits that some do go once-a-year, or send a steward, they “look upon them merely as in the light of farms, over which they appoint their vicars as grieves or husbandmen.”

Finally, Calvin turns to the conduct of the priests. Rather than being the light of the world which Christ required, “in the present day there is no order of men more notorious for luxury, effeminacy, delicacy, and all kinds of licentiousness.” Indeed “nought pleases but what savours of luxury and the corruption of the times” for they “plume themselves on the delicacies of the table, on splendid clothes, numerous attendants, and magnificent places.”

How different to the attitude that should be in Christ’s ministers, who should be “a singular example of frugality, modesty, continence, and humility”. Indeed, the ancient canon of councils stated that “the bishops shall have a little dwelling not far from the church, a frugal table and furniture.” The Council of Aquileia went so far to declare that “poverty in the priests of the Lord is glorious.”

Calvin concludes his penetrating analysis of his contemporary church leadership by challenging them to deny the fact that “among bishops there is scarcely an individual, and among the parochial clergy not one in a hundred, who, if sentence were passed on his conduct according to the ancient canons, would not deserve to be excommunicated, or at least deposed from his office.”

Response

How do we respond to such a devastating critique? While we may want to acknowledge that the picture was not all black, and that there were some who were faithfully seeking to fulfill their calling, church historians agree that this was a time of intense corruption. Practises such as simony are well documented and reflect the moral temperature of the time. Calvin is not afraid to attack the only ecclesiastical authority of his day at the root of the issue – their authority to rule the people of God and impose their doctrine upon them.

By showing that the priests were not only not discharging their office, but that they had actually disqualified themselves from their sacred office, he is completely undermining their authority. Once their control over the people was sufficiently weakened, and a credible alternative proposed, the people were less afraid to reject the priest’s control. Having dealt with the priests and bishops in this chapter, he turns his attention to the pope in the next chapter.

Like a good author Tolkien knows that coming out of the darkest night, the hero shines all the more brighter. So Elrond sets the scene for Aragon to reclaim his rightful throne and lead the people of Middle Earth to victory over their enemies. The parallels to Calvin are stark. He stands at a vital point in history and surveys the devastation wrought my man. Calvin sees the weakness of men, and he renounces the system that allowed it to happen.  He too prepares the way for that Greater King to reclaim his church from the grip of man. He raises his prophetic voice to call the people back to repentance, back to scripture, back to their Saviour.

“Woe to you who long or the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light…  Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5.18-24

The Wonder Years

Book 4 Chapter 4 Section 1-15

The Wonder Years tells the story of Kevin Arnold, a likable kid who lives in 1960s suburban America. The show plays out the life of this young boy as he discovers romance, adolescence and friendship against a backdrop of family tensions and social unrest. With its mix of humour, comedy and feel-good-moments, it was a favourite in our house during my childhood. The show was a nostalgic look on more innocent times, when kids played in the street and built tree houses and right and wrong hadn’t become shades of grey. It took us back to our youth when the world was exciting and new adventures were around every corner.

There was a time when the church had this same sense of excitement and innocence. In the days before it became the organised, wealthy, divided, megalithic institution it is today, it was as fresh as a young green shoot bursting out of the dry ground. With a growing momentum resulting from its increasing influence in society, this new movement was changing the known world. In this chapter Calvin describes how this young church was organised and governed, what the responsibilities of the leaders were and how they distributed their resources.

Calvin begins by looking at the different classes of ministers prevalent in the early church. Reflecting the divisions in the New Testament, the early church distributed its ministers into three orders – pastors, teachers and deacons. To the deacons “belongs the care of the poor and the dispensing of alms.” Calvin also quotes Jerome who describes five orders in the church: bishops, presbyters, deacons, believers and catechumens.

Calvin describes the strategy of the church in each city. All teachers were called presbyters, with one from this group being appointed as a bishop, “lest from equality dissension should arise”. The bishop was not to have “dominion over his colleagues but…collect their opinions, take precedence of others in collecting, advising, exhorting, guide the whole procedure by his authority.” Above the bishops were the archbishops, responsible for a province, with patriarchs above the archbishops “for the preservation of discipline”. A provincial synod decided on matters that couldn’t be resolved by individual patriarchs. If it couldn’t be resolved by this synod a General Council had to be called. This was the hierarchy of the early church.

Calvin goes on to describe the role of deacons in the early church, who were responsible for receiving and distributing the daily offerings. The offerings were distributed into four parts – the clergy, the poor, repair of the church, and the bishop. The bishop’s allocation was not for his personal use, but that he might be hospitable to those in need.

Response

In this chapter Calvin outlines the blueprint that the early church overlaid on top of the biblical principles set down for governing a church. Although these precautions may seem Draconian to us, and in an ideal world we would prefer not to have such a hierarchy in place, they served the church fairly well in the early days. When controversies raged over the deity of Christ the General Councils were able to decree orthodoxy and set the course for future generations. In the early days the bond of continuity was able to ensure that those in positions of responsibility were men of integrity and deep humility. Men like Augustine, Jerome, Cyril and Gregory set the standard in their passion for truth and godliness.

Unfortunately, over the years the rot set in. The responsibility and authority that had been given to individuals in order to bring unity instead brought corruption. Men of weaker character and shallower doctrine reached the highest positions and this opened the floodgates for those below to take advantage of their freedom. The rest, as they say, is history. Calvin will go on to show that this blueprint was lying in tatters by the 16th century.

While many of us may wish that we could go back to the church’s youth, there is no turning back the clock. As an older and wiser Kevin Arnold reflected during one episode “Growing up is never easy. You hold on to things that were. You wonder what’s to come. But that night, I think we knew it was time to let go of what had been, and look ahead to what would be. Other days. New days. Days to come. The thing is, we didn’t have to hate each other for getting older. We just had to forgive ourselves…for growing up.” Looking back it seems that despite starting well, with a good structure and good intentions, every attempt to overlay an organisational structure over the biblical principles has eventually failed. Thankfully God is not content to leave his church alone. He reforms and revives and renews his people and will continue to do so until there is no longer a need for a hierarchy. Let us keep looking forward, to that day when each of us will glory in the splendour of his presence.

“No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying “Know the Lord”, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Jeremiah 31.34

Father, one day we will all be right, we will all have a full understanding of your truth. There will be no dividing lines resulting from our imperfect understanding of your word. All will unite with one accord to praise and magnify your name. These will be the real wonder years, the days of glory and unadulterated joy. These will be the days without end and without disagreement. Then will be finally be fulfilled the prayer of Jesus that we might be one, as you are one. Marantha! Amen

What a piece of work is a man

Book 4 Chapter 3 Section 1-16

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so”
Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2

So muses Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he confesses his depressive spirit to them. What an amazing creature man is, but at the same time what weakness he has. In this chapter of the Institutes we turn to the election and office of teachers and ministers in the church. What an honour for man that God should bestow the priviledge of being his representatives on earth. And yet no other aspect of Christian life better illustrates Shakespeare’s reflections on man than this one. History shows what great heights pastors and teachers have attained over the years in their faithful ministry of the gospel. But along the way there have been many notable and costly failures. As Franklin Roosevelt reminded us “with great power comes great responsibility.”

First of all Calvin recognises that God could have acted on his own, or use angels, but that there are several reasons why he chooses to use  men and women. He states that in this way God further condescends to our level, “he shows us by experience that it is not to no purpose that he calls us his temples”. In addition this method provides “a most excellent and useful training to humility when he accustoms us to obey his word though preached by men like ourselves, or, it may be, our inferiors in worth.” Calvin argues that if God spoke to us directly it would not be suprising if we obeyed his commands, but “when a feeble man, sprung from the dust, speaks in the name of God, we give best proof of our piety and obedience, by listening with docility to his servant.” Thirdly, using men for the ministry binds us together through our common need, each serving the other in a mutual bond of unity. We cannot say we do not need each other when it is by the ministry of our fellow man that God has appointed our instruction and edification.

Calvin then moves on to consider the honour and importance placed upon the office. He argues that “neither are the heat and light of the sun, nor meat and drink, so necessary to sustain and cherish the present life, as is the apostolical and pastoral office to preserve a church in the earth.” This is no optional extra that can be dispensed with at a whim, says Calvin. No, it is vital for sustaining the church in each generation. Calvin refers to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul states that “there is nothing in the church more noble and glorious than the ministry of the gospel, seeing it is the administration of the Spirit of righteousness and eternal life.”

Next Calvin looks at the various types of offices within the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And concludes that only the latter two have a continual place in the church, the former three being raised up when “the necessity of the times requires”. Calvin describes the difference between pastors and teachers as being “teachers preside not over discipline , or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of scripture only.” Whereas all these aspects are contained in the pastoral office.

Calvin then turns to the call of the ministry. He asks “who are to be appointed ministers, in what way, by whom and with what rite or initiatory ceremony”. Here he is only dealing with that external confirmatory call of the church towards an individual who has already received the secret call of God. Who? Only those who are of a sound doctrine and holy life, with a good testimony within the church and without. They should be men who are “not unfit for or unequal to the burden imposed upon them” for they should be “provided with the means which will be necessary to fulfill their office.” How? With great seriousness in those appointing them, in earnest prayer for the mind of Christ. By whom? While the apostles were called “at the sole command of God and Christ”, in our day it is by affirming response of the elders in the presence of the people. The form of ordination? The laying on of hands of the elders. That he who is ordained may know that “he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the church.”

Response

Calvin’s chapter on the ministry is a timely reminder of the honour and priviledge that has been bestowed on the office by God. To be God’s representative to his people in his church is surely the greatest of all callings and the highest of all honour. And yet if this is so, it makes me wonder why our colleges struggle to fill places and churches struggle to fill vacancies? Why is it that so few men come forward for the ministry? Has God stopped calling his ministers to this blessed vocation? Or are we failing to find, inspire, train, equip, empower, resource and commission these men?

I must confess that I do not believe God has stopped his calling work in the lives of young men. I believe he is still prompting, challenging and calling men to consecrate their lives to him. But when their are so many distractions and competing voices I believe that still small voice needs fanning into flame. I can think of a number of friends who have the gifting to be great pastors, but in the absence of opportunities and mentoring the call gets stifled. What opportunities are there for aspiring pastors and teachers at your church to gain experience in the ministry of the word? Are we willing to share the limelight to enable those less gifted and less mature to test their gifting? Is our church set up to regularly give opportunities and training to the next generation of leaders? If not then where are they to go to get this experience?

In the sovereignty of God he is able to overcome these problems and raise up his people. But must we make it so hard for his purposes to be accomplished? In an age when millions and millions of pounds are poured into finding the next singing sensation who will be unknown in five years time, can we not invest our time, energy and money in finding and training the next generation of leaders for the greatest of all callings, whose results will remain for eternity?

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men…To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.” 1 Corinthians 4.9+11

Oh that you would raise up an army from your people to live and die for the cause of Christ in Scotland and beyond. That there would not be enough churches to hold all those responding to your call. That your Spirit would move in power to take our eyes off this world and onto the eternal issues of heaven and hell. Father that you would prepare their hearts for the battle ahead and the sacrifice demanded. That they would ask for nothing but souls, expect nothing but a cross and see nothing but Christ crucified. Amen.

Rage against the machine

Book 4 Chapter 2 Section 1-12

Following Calvin’s description of the characteristics of the true church, he now turns his analysis on the Church of Rome. Calvin asks; is it a true church with its fair share of problems or is it actually a false church? It’s important to remember that at this point in history there was only one church and that to leave that church effectively meant being excommunicated from the body of Christ. Notwithstanding the consequences, Calvin concludes that according to the two criteria of the preaching of the word and the institution of the sacraments, the 16th century Roman Catholic church is not a true church.

Calvin says that the corruptions present in Lord’s supper and doctrine had become so bad that the Roman Catholic church had forfeited its status as the true church of God. Thus he argues that it is possible to separate from this false church and yet remain faithful to the true church. He argues that contrary to what the bishops were saying, “in declining fatal participation in such wickedness, we run no risk of being dissevered from the church of Christ.”

How did the bishops respond to such accusations? Well, surprisingly rather than argue on issues of doctrine and practise, they claim that the perpetual succession of the papacy at Rome is evidence of their heritage and authenticity. They appealed to ancient records describing the perpetual succession of bishops from the time of Peter to the present day. They say that history and tradition is on their side and establishes Rome as the centre for ecclesiastical heirarchy. Calvin argues that “the pretence of succession is vain, if posterity did not retain the truth of Christ.” He compares this argument to that of the Jews who believed that as long as the temple and ark of the covenant were present in Jerusalem, then they would be victorious in their battles (Jeremiah 7.4).

Calvin warns them against placing too much emphasis on external evidences as a measure of faithfulness. He says that they should remember the example of Ishmael who was circumcised, and was even the firstborn. And yet for all his outward advantages he was rejected by God in favour of Isaac.  Calvin also points to the perpetual succession of the Jewish priesthood as a warning against relying on succession on its own. He argues that “as soon as they are convicted of having revolted from their origin, (they) are deprived of all honour”, that is, unless we are prepared to say that Caiaphas and the first century Sanhedrin also belonged to the true church of God.

As a result of this teaching Calvin was accused of being a heretic and a schismatic. He describes the former as those who “corrupt the purity of the faith by false dogmas”, the second as those who “even while holding the same faith, break the bond of union.” Does Calvin admit to these charges? Well, he admits that they “preach a different doctrine, and submit not to their laws, and meet apart from them for prayer, baptism, the administration of the Supper and other sacred rites.” Well not surprisingly Calvin does not accept their criticisms. He argues that as communion is held together by “consent in sound doctrine and brotherly charity”, and that this latter element is dependent upon the unity of faith, to leave those who have previously betrayed the faith is not breaking communion, for it has already been destroyed.

Finally Calvin admits that although the Roman Catholic church had disqualified itself from being the true church, there was still some good within it and does not want to discard it root and branch. He recognises that although there was much decay, it retained “those vestiges of a church”, reflected in his comment that “while we are unwilling to simply concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them.”

Response

Its hard to put yourself in Calvin’s shoes and imagine a time when there was only one authority, one church, one ruling power. Like rebelling against George Orwell’s Big Brother in his book 1984, there could be terrible consequences to fighting the establishment. But that is exactly what Calvin did. His language pulls no punches and in these chapters becomes the most direct and vocal against his opponents of anywhere in the Institutes. He has finally come to the most direct point of conflict – the very right of the Roman Catholic church to impose its authority and demands on the people. Calvin discards this right at its very core, not arguing about superficial rituals or unbiblical doctrines, but as a master lumberjack he aims directly for the trunk of the tree and attacks.

It’s important we don’t confuse the 16th century Catholic church with our modern version. I am sure many of my Catholic friends are uncomfortable with Calvin’s language and views in this chapter. But looking back and reflecting on the depth of corruption prevalent at the time, I believe that drastic reformation was inevitable. Perhaps we wish it had been kept within the one church, perhaps we wouldn’t now have the plethora of denominations and branches of the Christian faith if it had been reformed from within. But it is all speculation now, the Reformation swept away the old ways and provided a credible, alternative church; one which had a renewed focus on the bible and practical godliness.

But in the 500 years since Calvin, who can deny that many of the same problems have not crept into the various branches of the protestant church? By God’s grace there have been instances of reformation across the demonination, but some of these branches stand in great need of a new reformation back to the word of God, back to sola scriptura, sola fide etc. If God tarries and the decline continues then may reformation come again, one day.

“If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7.14

Father restore us to a purity of doctrine and practise, reform our ways individually and corporately. Bring times of refreshing back to your people and bring a revival in this land of truth and godliness. For Jesus sake, Amen.

A diamond in the dust

Book 4 Chapter 1 Section 1-29

If there is one issue that divides modern evangelicalism then it is our ecclesiology – our doctrine of the church. Whether we are denominational, independent or emerging there is a wide disagreement over what the church is. So why did God establish the church and what advice does Calvin have for our 21st century predicament?  Well, after nine months of plumbing the depths of our vertical relationship with our maker, in the early chapters of book 4 Calvin switches the focus to our horizontal relationship with our fellow believer. This first chapter considers the nature and characteristics of the true church.

Why the church?

Why did God institute the church? For two principal reasons says Calvin, firstly to aid believers in their faith and secondly to secure the effectual preaching of the gospel throughout the generations. How does the church strengthen our faith? Well, through the teaching and example we receive from his appointed leaders and through the experiential instruction of the sacraments. Rightly applied, these means will enable us to grow in maturity. But why does it take so long? As Calvin points out “God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the church” and “all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose.” Calvin sees an important lesson in the fact that we must seek our instruction from our fellow man, for having to submit ourselves to the instruction from our equal’s tests our obedience and humility.

But this means of growth is not an optional extra for the believer. For Calvin, the church is the source of God’s forgiveness and salvation and he has little sympathy for those who separate themselves from the church. In a very strong statement he says “all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the church, desire to perish of hunger and famine.” If this sounds harsh to modern ears perhaps we have become too blasé about living as lone-ranger Christians.  But surely Calvin would not have us remain in any church no matter how bad it is? No, we must discern the faithfulness of our church to the standards of scripture.

What are the marks of a true church?

So how can we know the marks of a true church? Calvin states that the two essential features of a genuine church is one where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered. “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.” Calvin says that these two things should be the yardstick by which we determine whether a church is a true church, “for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God.” This is a surprisingly short list for us, and Calvin is quick to point out that even if there are many things wrong with a church, if these two things are there then it is a true church.

So when can we call it a day with a church and move on? Not without much soul searching, for “we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists.” Calvin uses the example of the church in Corinth where he points out that “it was not a few that erred, but almost the whole body had become tainted; there was not one species of sin merely, but a multitude, and those not trivial errors but some of them execrable crimes.” And what was Paul’s response to this situation, does he separate from them? “Does he discard them from the kingdom of Christ? Does he strike them with the thunder of a final anathema? He not only does none of these things, but he acknowledges and heralds them as a church of Christ, and a society of saints.”  If Paul will not separate himself from one of the most corrupt churches of the New Testament era, then, providing the pure ministry of the word and sacrament are still present, we should follow his example in our present-day churches and work for reformation from within, rather than separation and division.

Response

The fact is that we need each other. Despite all the pain that many of us hold in our hearts from our fellow brothers and sisters we cannot live without each other. Yes, there is a time to breakaway from the mainstream church, as Calvin, Luther and many others did during the Reformation. Yes, there are times when new works must be started in order for renewal and revival to take place. But how cautious we should be in separating ourselves from our brothers and sisters. I confess I was impressed with Calvin’s generous response to imperfect churches in this chapter – he warns us to make sure we have the strongest grounds before considering leaving a church. Is it really essential that we start a new church with our own personal brand of Christianity down the road from the established one? Are the differences so great that we can no longer fellowship together? Are the wounds so deep that forgiveness and restoration are impossible? The grace of God is greater than our expectations and deeper than our disappointments.

But we are only human, and we will let each other down and continue to hurt each other. Oh that God would raise up a people who are so passionate for the gospel and are in such unity that other secondary issues remain just that, secondary. Oh that he would raise up leaders of deep conviction and godliness that could lead his people with justice and compassion. For how wonderful it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity, as the Psalmist says, it is like the warm, comforting feeling of the anointing oil running down Aaron’s beard. There is something in the make up of a child of God that makes them crave for genuine fellowship and the opportunity to hear the voice of God expounded from the scriptures. And although it may mean that we get ourselves a bit dirty looking, when we find a family with this kind of genuine warmth we know that it is as precious as finding a diamond in the dust.

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” Psalm 133