Category Archives: Theology

2 Non-Negotiables for a Healthy Church

 

There are a lot of opinions circulating for what constitutes a “healthy church”.  Over the last few years, as I’ve been thinking through how the Scriptures define a church, both its form and function, it seems clear that there are two non-negotiable guiding principles that rarely get the attention they deserve.

Typically, when we read of the marks of a healthy church, we see lists that skip right to the “to do” rather than pointing out the corrective lenses that would allow one to see clearly what this list should include.  These two lenses are Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principal of Worship.  Let’s briefly define them and see how they impact the progression and development of everything else that would build a healthy church.

First – Sola Scriptura.  God’s Word is foundational because it reveals who God is and who we are in light of the knowledge of Him.  Sola Scriptura is a principle revived after the Reformation (though named and defined a couple centuries later) which is Latin for “Scripture Alone”.  This little phrase means

the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture. (ref)

Additionally, the sufficiency of Scripture or Sola Scriptura, assumes the inerrancy of Scripture.  The final statement in the definition cited above, that sola Scriptura “is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture” is an exhortation against Solo Scriptura, a danger that all professing Christians must guard against.  A good, biblical starting point for defining the sufficiency of Scripture may be found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

As it pertains to a local church, “a practical denial of Sola Scriptura“, even among those who profess adherence to it, is the chief malady in today’s churches.  It’s bad enough when a church is ignorant of this principle, but it’s perhaps worse when a church is knowledgeable of it, yet abandons the practical application of it.

Too often it seems that churches grant themselves Christian liberty to form and function a church how, either as an individual or small group of individuals, best see fit and then the congregation decides if they will go along with this or not.  This is often referred to as “vision casting”.  The problem is that the vision has already been cast by God in His Word and it is often being improperly adhered to.

For an application of Sola Scriptura in a church, we may first look at the qualifications of an elder to find out who should/shouldn’t be leading, 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Any step around or outside these requirements is a practical denial of Sola Scriptura.  In another application, we  may ask who holds the keys of the church, the congregation or the “clergy”, as it pertains to matters of admittance and discipline, Matt. 18:15-20.  Denying or failing to recognize who God has given this authority to is again a practical denial of Sola Scriptura.  A final example is in matters concerning the mission of the church, which is clearly defined in the words of our Lord from Matthew 28:18-20.  Ignoring this and focusing on matters of politics, redemption of society, or establishing social justice as primary importance, is again a practical denial of Sola Scriptura.

The most common objection to Sola Scriptura is another Latin phrase, Sola Ecclesia, which states that the Church is the final authority in all spiritual matters.  Historically, this has been the chief error of the Roman Catholic Church.  Likewise, abandoning Sola Scriptura and embracing tradition has become one of the primary reasons why so many people are leaving Protestantism for Roman Catholicism.  Practically speaking, most churches do not rely on either of these two, but are instead the product of tradition, sometimes without even realizing it.  This, not the Scriptures, becomes the guiding principle for how and why a church is formed and functions the way that it does.

Proper application of Sola Scriptura in the development of a healthy church means that the Scriptures should be the guide and final authority for how a church is formed and for how it functions.  Tradition, opinions, including “God told me”, and the church down the street must all yield to the authority of Scripture, either its prescription (command) or description (example) with respect to a “healthy church”.

Second – The Regulative Principal of Worship.  This principal, while distinct, flows right out of the application of the previous principal.  The Regulative Principal of Worship summarily states that God has determined how He will be worshiped.  RPW concludes that anything not expressly commanded by God in His Word is strictly prohibited, as it relates to His worship.  This principal has often been called “the foundation of all Puritanism”.  Writing against a popular objection to this principle, Puritan John Owen provides a common definition

That nothing ought to be established in the worship of God but what is authorized by some precept or example in the word of God, which is the complete and adequate rule of worship.

Conversely, the Normative Principle of Worship, largely held to by Martin Luther, and later the Anglican Church, states that whatever is not strictly prohibited in Scripture is allowed, as it relates to the worship of God.  As you can see, the former principal is much more limiting while the latter may open up the floodgates to what is allowable worship.  What’s to prohibit dancing or a play in worship, or elephants and motorcycles for that matter?  More practically, what determines whether you sing hymns or Contemporary Christian Music?

The most familiar examples of the RPW occur in the Old Testament as God clearly establishes the how, when, where, and who for His worship, c.f. Exodus 25:40.  Those who ignore this, such as Cain (Gen. 4:3-5) and Nadab and Abiuh (Lev.  10:1-3), paid the ultimate price for violating God’s prescribed worship.  In the New Testament, the principle can appear to be less clear, which has given license to many to worship God however they see fit, but this is not the case.  In fact, Christ rebukes the Pharisees for the vanity of their worship in following traditions and the commandments of men, Mark 7:1-13.  Additionally, we are given a clear command that constrains what is allowable teaching, Matt. 28:20.

In practice, most churches function under the much more liberal Normative Principle, essentially working from either a traditional, preferential, or pragmatic base, one in which everyone does what is right in his/her own eyes, i.e. popular opinion.  If the RPW is valid, and it seems that it clearly is, then the great duty of all churches, indeed all individuals within them, is to search the Scriptures to find how it is that God has ordered His worship.  Commenting on this, John Owen writes

This, then, is the church’s duty, to search out the commands of Christ recorded in the gospel, and to yield obedience unto them.  We are not, in this matter, to take up merely with what we find in practice amongst others, no, though they be men good or holy.  The duty of the church, and consequently, of every member of it in his place and station, is to search the Scriptures, to inquire into the mind of Christ, and to find out whatever is appointed by him, or required of his disciples, and that with hearts and minds prepared unto a due observation of whatever shall be discovered by his will.

It’s beyond the scope of this post, but we must seriously examine the Scriptures to ask has God either prescribed or described the form and function of His church?  Has God regulated His worship?  If so, how?  Turning once again to Owen we read

Take care that nothing be admitted or practised in the worship of God, or as belonging thereunto, which is not instituted and appointed by the Lord Christ.

The Word of God is sufficient for us in all matters of faith and practice, including the basis for the form and function of a healthy church, but do we practically operate this way?  Additionally, God has prescribed how He will be worshiped, but have we given this due attention and then obediently put it into practice?

One final exhortation from God’s Word, which should regulate our worship:

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. Deuteronomy 12:32

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 1 Corinthians 4:6

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Revelations 22:18-19

Reviving the Doctrine of Church Studies

 

It’s been a few months since we visited our ongoing study regarding the form and function of church.  We left off with an introduction to the universal concept of church as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.  Recall that generally speaking, the doctrine of the universal church finds chief support in Matthew 16:18 as compared with Matthew 18:17, though as we’ll soon see, whether rightly or wrongly some other verses are brought into the mix for support as well.

Additionally, in that last post, we looked at three key issues which have been the source of debate and disagreement regarding the nature of a universal church theory.  They were:

  1. The theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering), the New Testamen Greek word that is translated as church in our English bibles..
  2. The theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.
  3. The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.

We left that post with anticipation of a historical look at this theory’s development and to hopefully determine whether any of these objections have merit.  That is where we find ourselves today, reviving our studies on the doctrine of the church.

In order to accomplish this historical review, we’ll lean heavily on the overview provided in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof who provides a succinct history on the doctrine of the church.  I’ll be quoting him extensively as a solid, well-respected, point of reference, but ultimately to show how some of the conclusions we may reach are not unique, but have at least been mentioned in times past.  It of course does not mean that by citing him that we necessarily have come to agreement with his conclusions.  Generally speaking, Berkhof’s conclusions are typical of the Reformed tradition.

By way of continuing our review, in order to resume our series here, and as an introduction to Berkhof, we will follow his outline beginning with a well thought out introduction to the meaning and use of ekklesia in the New Testament (Old Testament as well).  For an expanded study, our post on this issue may be found here: What is an Ekklesia?

Berkhof writes,

“The New Testament also has two words derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.”  The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jew or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.  The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies.” Pg. 555-556

As in our study, Berkof points out the two significant terms in the New Testament which find their roots in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), sunagoge (synagogue) and ekklesia, which as we’ve mentioned is translated into English as church.  After doubting the validity of deriving the meaning of ekklesia from the compound of ek and kaleo, Berkhof adds,

“Deissmann (1866-1937, German Protestant) would simply render ekklesia as ‘the (convened) assembly,’ regarding God as the convener.  Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation.  Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God.  It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel.  Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquitted various significations.  Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ.”

Here we may observe a few noteworthy points, namely the recognition that ekklesia refers to the “convened assembly” and that Christ’s use of ekklesia, from Matthew 16:18, alluded to those who were “convened” or gathered around Him.  That’s an important point that is often neglected and may aid to ones understanding of whether Matthew 16:18 is a universal church reference or not.  Remember that this particular verse is often championed as evidence of universal church, i.e. that Christ’s use of ekklesia here necessarily implies that He is talking about the whole community of God’s people.  Contrary to this, Berkhof is describing it as the actual fellowship of those around Him, beginning with the twelve.

After this, Berkhof begins his descriptions of these various uses or connotations of ekklesia in the New Testament, the first of which he discusses is the most frequent usage.  According to him the most frequently used meaning of ekklesia “designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship.”  Here, Berkhof concludes that an ekklesia may be an ekklesia, even if they are not actually gathered together.  Additionally, he concludes that regardless of whether they are gathered or not, geographic location is still a determinant factor.  He then lists several passages as examples for gathered and ungathered, which I’ve included below.[1] This of course brings up an interesting point of discussion, which we’ll take up another time, namely, is a church a church when it is not gathered.

The second use of ekklesia in the New Testament, he concludes, sometimes “denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual,” citing instances of this word in Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15, and Philemon 2.  Along a similar line, Berkhof notes that at least once, Acts. 9:31, the word is used in the singular to denote a collection of churches from Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.  This usage is a debated passage and as he points out, “this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination.”

His final two uses, again by way of review for our own study here, are critical towards understanding the issue at hand, namely whether it is accurate to speak of an universal church, and if so, what exactly this should refer to.  He states, “in a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.”  With some hesitancy, Berkhof suggests this is found in 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28 and possibly the intention for the use of ekklesia in Ephesians.  Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Matthew 16:18 as so many do, so we’ll need to examine these additional references if we’re to find evidence of a universal theory of church.  Finally, he states that the word in its “most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Savior.”  He cites some examples that I’ve listed below.[2]

Wit this point, let’s recall the actual meaning of the word under discussion here, namely ekklesia, which refers to a gathering and note too the most frequent usage cited above.  Would it therefore be proper or accurate to refer to the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, or whether or not they have been united to Christ or not (saved) as the ekklesia, i.e. church?

Summarizing then these uses of ekklesia in the New Testament, at least according to Louis Berkof, we have the following

  1. A convened assembly with God as Covener.
  2. First used by Christ in Matthew 16:18 – a reference to those convened about Him.
  3. A circle of believers in a definite geographic location.
  4. May or may not be gathered together (for worship), meaning that they may be called a church whether they are physically present together.
  5. Ekklesia in the New Testament often referred to a gathering in a particular house of an individual.
  6. Ekklesia may generally refer to the collected body of believers throughout the world.
  7. The most comprehensive meaning of ekklesia refers to the whole body of believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been united to Christ.

After giving an overview of how the meaning of the English word “church” was transferred to the use of ekklesia, which we looked at earlier in this post, Berkhof overviews other scriptural concepts that refer to the people of God (i.e. Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, New Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, Pillar and ground of the truth) and then opens up his section on The Doctrine of the Church in History.  Here is where we will pick up in the next post for the purpose of understanding how this concept of the universal church has developed in history.

In the meantime, you can get caught up on this series here:

[1]Assembled: Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28,35; Not assembled: Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14

[2]Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18,24

The Reformation of Luther

 

Today, October 31, 2017 is the day that will be universally celebrated as Reformation Day, specifically the 500th Anniversary of the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg with the goal of generating an academic debate.  What followed were a series of events wherein Luther rejected the unscriptural practices of the Roman Catholic Church, upholding Scripture alone as the sole instrument of faith and practice.  As we’ve already seen, on the day when Luther nailed his theses there is a high probability that he was yet to be genuinely saved.  So, before God could use Luther in the way that He intended at the time and place that He intended for the purposes that He intended, Luther was in need of a reformation of his own, a personal reformation, one that could only be wrought by a divine work of God in the heart.

It has often been said that before God uses a man to do a widespread work of revival and reformation, He first does a work of reformation in that same man’s heart.  Such is certainly the case with Luther.  The controversy in which Luther eventually found himself, namely questioning the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and her leaders brought about by their improper use of indulgences strictly for the sake of financial gain, forced him to the Scriptures to search for support of this teaching and subsequently support of his own position.  Once here, Luther concluded that Scripture was the ultimate authority, not the Church.

Recall that in his own words, Luther considered himself a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church and a faithful servant of the Pope, as of 1517 at least (though as we will see later, possibly as late as May 1518).  By October 1518, Luther was in direct defiance of the Pope.

Citing Luther’s interviews with Cardinal Cajetan on October 12, 13, and 14 in 1518, Phillip Schaff writes, “Catejan treated Luther with condescending courtesy, and assured him of his friendship.  But he demanded retraction of his errors, and absolute submission to the Pope.  Luther resolutely refused, and declared that he could do nothing against his conscience; that one must obey God rather than man; that he had the Scripture on his side; that even Peter was once reproved by Paul for misconduct (Gal. 2:11), and that surely his successor was not infallible.”

By March 13, 1519 Luther had declared, regarding the Pope, “I know not whether the Pope is antichrist himself, or his apostle; so wretchedly is Christ, that is the truth, corrupted and crucified by him in the Decretals.”

How then can Luther make such a drastic turn about in 18 months?

Our answer is coming.

Finally, for the point of our discussion here, on April 18th, 1521 Luther stood before the new Emperor Charles, 6 Electors (Princes over City-States; including his own), “The Pope’s legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies of the imperial cities, ambassadors of foreign courts, and a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank; in one word, a fair representation of the highest powers of Church and State.  Several thousand spectators were collected in and around the building and in the streets, anxiously waiting for the issue.” (Schaff, Vol. 7, pg. 300)

What began as a “innocent” attempt to generate academic debate had now morphed into the entire Roman empire against one man who once claimed them as his own.  It was here, at the Diet of Worms, that Luther uttered his now famous defense and for us, answers the question of how reform was conducted in his own heart.  Schaff again recounts the moment for us, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience.” (Vol. 7, pg. 304-305)

Before Luther could act as the spark that would ignite God’s reformation, he was first in need of God to do a work in his heart.  This work was performed by God’s Spirit working through the Word of God to enlighten and illumine the mind of Luther to the truth’s of Scripture.  The overflow of this is seen in Luther’s words above, “I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures…my conscience is bound in the word of God.”

Much like Josiah 2100 years earlier and every other “reformer” that God has raised up for His own glory, Luther was the product of divine grace working in the heart.  This work of grace was and always is the first reformation and for Luther, it was his most lasting reformation.  From beginning to end, reformation, whether internal in the heart or on the world’s stage, is entirely a work of God.

To God Alone be Glory.