The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Archive for the ‘Ecclesiology’ Category

The restoration of public worship (again)

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Having heard nothing yet from the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, about the prospects of Christian churches meeting for worship as soon as possible, and given recent developments, I have written again. And, again, I put it here not as the last word, but in the hopes that others might also be able to make representations along these lines for a recognition of our duty and our right to gather responsibly for the worship of the true and living God.

Further to my previous letter of Wednesday 27 May, I would like to raise once more the issue of the worship of Christian churches of the kind to which I belong.

As previously stated, in the matter of Christian worship, the focus in the Bible is on the people who worship rather than the place of worship. While I am sure that many are glad that places of worship are now open for private prayer, for Christians who value the gathering of the church for corporate worship (that is, our worship as a gathered body of believers) it offers little help. We can and do pray at all times and in all places. As made clear in my previous letter, for the Christians for whom I speak, nothing can replicate or replace the distinct spiritual privileges of meeting together for worship as a church, according to the direction of the Bible and therefore our religious principles. Such gatherings encourage and express our deepest convictions and hopes as believers in Jesus Christ.

Recently, the Prime Minister tweeted this: “People have a right to protest peacefully & while observing social distancing but they have no right to attack the police. These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery – and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve. Those responsible will be held to account” (@BorisJohnson, 9:13pm, 07 Jun 2020). Would the Prime Minister, and you, also be willing to assure us that people have a right to worship God peacefully while observing social distancing and not attacking the police? We believe we can and should be able to gather for worship outside of our church buildings, and to do so at least as responsibly, carefully and safely as any comparable activities.

In that connection, we are aware of moves toward the reopening of cafés, pubs and restaurants, perhaps allowing responsible service outside while maintaining social distancing. If this is the case, whether in June or July, then it should be possible for Christians to meet for worship outside their existing church buildings. My previous letter outlined some ways in which we might be able to do this responsibly, carefully and safely. Given the nature of our regular gatherings, especially with social distancing measures observed, the impact on the R number of meeting in this way for worship would, at worst, be minimal.

I appreciate that there are countless calls on your time and energy at present, and we do pray for God’s favour toward our country and those whom he has put in government over the nation. I look forward to hearing from you, and to positive suggestions as to how the church which I serve, and others like us, can honour God in our obedience to him, while also honouring the civil authorities which God has established.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 11 June 2020 at 14:16

The restoration of public worship

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Encouraged by efforts in other places, I have written to the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, about the prospects of Christian churches meeting again as soon as possible. The letter has been copied to Baron Greenhalgh, Faith Minister, and my local Member of Parliament. I put it here not because I think it is the last word, but in the hopes that others might themselves be encouraged to do more, better.

I hope that this communication finds you, and yours, safe and well during these still difficult days. My name is Jeremy Walker, and I am a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, West Sussex. I am writing about the government’s plans for the restoration of public worship in Christian churches.

As the government attempts to lead us out of lockdown, I am conscious of the difficult decisions and fine judgments that government and Parliament make and carry out, and the wisdom required. The church of Christ makes this a matter of particular prayer. We pray not as an issue of party political allegiance (1 Timothy 2:1–2) but because the church is a spiritual body rather than a political or even a social agency.

In this regard, I and others like me have been disappointed and even distressed to see the government’s plans for the restoration of public worship. At present, church buildings are in Step Three of the government’s plan (OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy), in which the ambition “is to open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons), hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas)” (page 31).

When it comes to the matter of religious worship, the focus in the Bible is on the people who worship. The focus in government policy appears to be on the place of worship. When the focus is on the latter, the physical space and social dynamics of a church building lead to it being classified among other enclosed social spaces like cinemas, theatres and restaurants. When the focus is on the former, the question becomes one of facilitating our corporate gathering as what the Bible calls “the body of Christ”—the people who are joined to him by our faith in him, and who thus become the spiritual family of God.

I note that the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has established a taskforce developing a plan to reopen places of worship. However, it seems that Christians who share my convictions about our faith and life (Protestant and Dissenting) are substantially absent from that taskforce. For the Christians of whom I am representative, both in Crawley and elsewhere, it is the act of worship more than the place of worship that is important. So, for example, the government suggests that places of worship may be open for private prayer before Saturday 4th July. While we commend any move toward the safe opening of our church buildings, we can privately pray anywhere and at any time, and we do, together with other acts of private and family devotion.

However, for the Christians for whom I speak, nothing can replicate or replace the distinct privileges of meeting together as a church under the Word of God preached to us in person. Christians like me join believers in other nations in making clear that neither confessional Christian faith nor the church as a body can faithfully exist without a Lord’s day gathering. As others have said in other countries, the Bible and centuries of habit oblige Christians to gather weekly for worship and witness around the Word of God and sacraments—we need one another to flourish in our service to Christ (Exodus 20:9-11; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 2:42, 20:7). This divine obligation and hard-won historic freedom supersedes all human legislation and regulation. The church is not comparable to any other social venue and cannot be dismissed as non-essential by an expert in any field. We say with respect that the church does not exist and is not regulated by permission of the state, for its establishment and rule is found in Jesus Christ himself.

The biblical rhythm of worship is weekly, gathering on the first day of the week to honour God and to receive spiritual blessings from him as his Word is preached. It is why the Bible commands us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25). The language of weekly corporate gathering is used repeatedly in the New Testament, and to it are attached any number of divine encouragements to pursue it, divine promises regarding it, and divine warnings against neglecting it. It is essential for us, and we are beginning to see among us and around us the effects of the churches failing to meet, both in the impact on us and on those whom we serve in various ways.

We understand that love to God and to our neighbour, with respect for and cooperation with the civil authorities whom God has placed over us, has necessitated not forsaking but suspending our regular assemblies. As Christians who know the hope of resurrection through Jesus Christ we do not fear death but we do wish to preserve health and life. However, we are convinced that more needs to be done to facilitate a restoration of our regular practice.

At present, we are permitted to spend time outdoors subject to government guidelines. Step Two of the government’s plan begins on Monday 1st June. It includes such measures as phased returns for schools, opening non-essential retail, permitting cultural and sporting events behind closed doors, and re-opening some public transport. There is some scope for increased social and family contact (pages 30-31 of the plan to rebuild).

I respectfully suggest that during this second phase it should be possible for Christians to meet for worship outside their existing church buildings. While we recognise that this involves more than physical families gathering, we believe that we can meet and conduct our worship safely. For example, the church which I serve, and others like us, might:

  1. Use our own church grounds, where we have them, or sufficiently wide open spaces, where we do not, to prevent potentially obstructing or endangering others going about their own business. We would be willing to meet early or late, as common sense dictates, to enable us to meet at all.
  2. Communicate and enforce health protocols in our gatherings based on government guidance.
  3. Prevent access to our buildings to minimise any actual or potential risks from proximity.
  4. Ensure that individuals or family units attending outdoor services are and remain at least two metres apart from one another for the duration of our services, including arrival and departure.
  5. Encourage attendees to use appropriate personal hygiene measures including but not limited to regular handwashing, the appropriate use of hand sanitiser, and the wearing of masks.
  6. Continue online provision of religious services as we are able, so that those who are not comfortable with gathering or who cannot meet in person due to age or health challenges can engage in some degree.
  7. Require attendees to affirm explicitly that they have no symptoms, have not travelled out of the country within the last fourteen days and have not been in contact with anyone with the virus.

I would also suggest that the third phase should explicitly provide for the safe restoration of public worship, whether within or without church buildings. For this to be done well, it might include the following:

  1. Communicating and enforcing health protocols in our churches based on government guidance.
  2. The initial limitation of access to our services and ministries to approximately 40% of our building capacities to permit physical distancing, expanding that number as circumstances permit. This will allow for plenty of room between persons well beyond two metres in most facilities and acknowledges that not all church facilities have equal capacity. If necessary, we could hold multiple or staggered services to allow as many as possible to attend.
  3. Providing a clean facility including hand sanitisers and wiping down of common surfaces between services.
  4. Encouraging attendees to use appropriate personal hygiene measures including but not limited to regular handwashing, the appropriate use of hand sanitiser, and the wearing of masks.
  5. Continuing online provision of religious services as we are able, so that those who are not comfortable with gathering or who cannot meet in person due to age or health challenges can engage in some degree.
  6. Requiring attendees to explicitly affirm that they have no symptoms, have not travelled out of the country within the last fourteen days and have not been in contact with anyone with the virus in order to attend.

Our first concern is for the glory of God and the good of all those for whom the church of Jesus Christ brings God’s good news. We should be grateful for a response from you as soon as possible, and willing to consider any further advice you have to offer us. I look forward to your positive response, and to a continued good and respectful relationship with civil authorities as we seek to honour our Creator and Saviour in the country of which he has made us grateful and prayerful citizens.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 27 May 2020 at 13:51

Weary shepherds

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As I speak with my fellow-servants, one of the comments that many make is of their sense of weariness during this season. Several of them have mentioned this in different ways at different points in their experience. Let me suggest several ways in which they are feeling particular pressures.

To begin with, we have our usual work to do. Much of it is hidden. That is always true. In some senses, we have advantages. There are parts of lockdown life that feel fairly normal to many of us. If we are to be properly equipped for the work of ministry, we will be often alone, praying and studying. We are used to being, under God, our own masters, organising our own schedules and filling our days with productive investments. Our lives tend to alternate between periods of intense isolation and periods of intense engagement with others (either individuals, or smaller or larger groups). There is a lot of pouring in and a lot of pouring out, and not always much in between. So, unlike some other workers, we are, in principle, able to continue those more isolated aspects of our normal routines and labours without much interruption. Most of us are still doing what we normally do, in that respect.

We also face many of the pressures that others are facing under these circumstances. Perhaps we have young families. Despite being classed as key workers, most pastors with school-age children who are not home-schooling already are now home-schooling, and they are often doing so in their working environment. There is an invasion of time and space into the periods and places in which we are perhaps accustomed to hours of undistracted labour. Or, we are now not able to go out to the places in which we were free of the distractions of younger children. Perhaps older overseers without children at home, or those with more gregarious personalities, appreciated the stimulation of social contact with other family and friends, and are now deprived of that, and find the extended distance from others oppressive. We all lack the relief of being able to spend time with our fellow church members and other friends. We may find that the church budget is strangled, and our salaries are cut; that brings its own fears. We may find we cannot easily get the exercise we need. In a season when it seems like our natural tendencies are being amplified and intensified, we are dealing with our own sins and weaknesses, with our own fears and concerns. We are concerned lest, in this way, we should sin against God and his people. We are often repenting to our families of our edginess and irritability as we find ourselves stripped down by the pressures of the moment. We become agitated, and we need constantly to remember that we are not intended to carry the church by our own strength.

We have all the normal business of the church upon us. People have not stopped being people just because they are stuck at home! God’s people are all wrestling with the unusual pressures of this season, and some of them are in danger of cracking. All the challenging situations and individuals are still there, some of them already growing worse, others just stewing and waiting until the lid is pulled off the pot again. There is church administration that still needs to be done, despite the limitations of the moment. There are other labours in which your pastors may be involved which continue to demand their time.

We have all the additional business of the church upon us. Much of the work above is needing to be done in novel ways. Not all of us are technophiles and some of us are technophobes and neophobes. Some brothers have been exhausted having to come to terms with radically new ways of doing even a little of what they before have done. For pastors with smaller churches, many have had to figure all this out for themselves, or in concert with a few equally ill-prepared friends. See that poor quality video where your pastor is brushing his hair and checking his teeth and talking to himself? Yup, it looks really bad, but he’s really stressed because he’s got little idea what he’s actually doing, and then he’s got to put up with the embarrassment, perhaps, of watching himself back and seeing his incompetence and awkwardness being broadcast to anyone who cares to see. Those first couple of weeks, in particular, he may have been in a flat spin for days on end, trying to work out how he was going to do something like feed the sheep under these circumstances. Many pastors are older men, and what is normal and natural for a younger guy feels like a strange new world to some. Some slept for no more than a few hours each day for days on end as we tried to adapt to this. Some of us had haranguing phone-calls or accusatory emails from church members (or other interested members of the wider community, including other believers) who thought we were doing too much, not enough, or everything wrong.

Some of us, in company with many others, are losing friends and family members to Covid-19 and other diseases. Some of us are taking funerals of people we knew and did not know. Some of us are desperately sick ourselves, or have family members who are struggling. Some of us are stepping in to help brothers who are laid aside during this season.

We have upon our hearts the care of the church for which we have, under God, a responsibility. The people of God are constantly upon our hearts. It is hard for us to communicate to someone who does not know this the sense of it. We have sheep who were already isolated because of sicknesses or sorrows, who are now even more cut off. We have sheep who are now more isolated or isolating themselves, men and women who do not, old shepherd 1cannot, perhaps will not engage with others by the limited means now available to us. We tremble for them. We see some of the sheep with weaknesses and sicknesses that are now advancing in the absence of the regular use of the regular means of grace. We may be caring for the sick and dying at a distance. We may be trying to work out how to buy or use masks and gloves and going into high-risk environments to care for those on the verge of death, and then wondering whether or not we can safely go home to our families, if we have them. We have people who are panicking and others who are wilting. We have sheep that have not yet been gathered who we cannot reach and to whom we cannot speak and with whom we cannot plead face to face. We have people who are complaining and questioning, becoming bewildered or frustrated. We are dealing with a number of people who, caught up in their own troubles and sorrows, act as if they are the only people with whom the pastors (or others) need to be concerned. Problems that were only bubbling are now boiling over as the heat is turned up. Yes, we see grace shining, too. We see saints who are stepping up and reaching out. We see gifts being exposed and employed that we might never have imagined. And we have to fight to keep our eyes on the pinpricks of light in what can, on some days, feel like a very dark night. We know we should be praying more, but we are struggling to find another hour in the day to set aside for more concentrated intercession. We do not begrudge these extra demands, but we do not always know how to respond to them. We may have wider responsibilities, too, caring for or counselling other ministers or investing in other spheres and congregations. Congregations without their own preachers are calling upon settled pastors for additional sermons, some pre-recorded, some live.

So we are adding to everything else our efforts to reach out to God’s people under these circumstances and hold together a scattered flock. We are calling round the congregation week after week and finding that just doing that can sometimes take a couple of days. We are finding that many people like the idea of web-conferencing, but if you say yes to every suggestion that you get together online, you can end up with whole mornings, afternoons or evenings just swallowed up with not very much, day after day. We are concerned that this might prove a sifting time, when fringe attendees and non-committal members just drift further and further away. We are concerned for the fragmentation of the congregation. We wonder what we will have to learn and re-learn when, by degrees, we start returning to something that will become normal, and may not be like the normal we had before. We are conscious that the house of feasting and the house of mourning may only be a step away from each other for the church at the end of this.

And we are trying to feed the flock. What means do we have available? How do we use them? Should we record sermons? From our church buildings or from our living rooms? Should we do live teaching? At the regular hours? How does this effect people with little or no internet access, little or no digital equipment, little or no technical aptitude, particular challenges or limitations, including physical disabilities? How easy will people find it to listen, or pray, or sing, at home, alone or with others? Should we preach shorter sermons? Should we continue with our regular series or preach something suited to the moment? What is suited to the moment? Do we need to be reminded more of God’s sovereignty, or justice, or mercy, or power? Do we need words of comfort, or prompts to self-examination, or calls to repentance, or just a more regular diet? Do we need all of the above?

And the preaching itself is hard work. We are speaking in a vacuum. Some are ministering through a lens, speaking to an invisible congregation, concentrating without external prompts and helps, trying to be engaged and engaging. Others have multiple faces on a fairly small screen, straining to gauge the mood and the responses of those to whom we are speaking without half the normal immediate feedback of seeing faces and bodies in their normal spaces and moving in normal time. We have few encouragements in ourselves or from others that anything actually hits home. We feel like we are casting our bread upon the waters, and we have no notion of whether or not we will find it again at any point in the near future. We cannot gauge whether or not the sheep are being well-fed. Even our normal encouragers may have their avenues of communication choked off. The people who normally give little in person are perhaps not even present on camera, or are even flatter there than usual, or—we fear—may not be engaging at all. Perhaps there are new faces on the web-conference, and we are striving to make the gospel clear. We hope that people from our communities are listening or watching, and we want them to hear of Christ and be saved. We go home exhausted, feeling flat and washed out. And what will happen when things begin to ease? Will we first be allowed to meet in smaller groups? What then for the more vulnerable who will still be kept away? How will we feed a flock that is half-gathered and half-scattered? How will we round up the ones who have wandered? How will we bind up the broken, bruised and battered from this season? How will we keep some people from overwhelming others when we come back together, and keep others from being overwhelmed? How will we mend any breaches? How will we foster a renewed and deeper sense of our commitment to God and to one another? What will we have lost? What will we have gained?

Why, then, do I say this? This is not a whinging article, written out of an overwhelming sense of self-importance and self-pity. It is not a denigration of the efforts of other workers, nor a dismissal of their weariness. It is not a backhanded plea for appreciation and applause. It is not a less-than-subtle way of talking about myself or a particular friend or friends. It is a genuine reflection of various conversations. It is a reminder of the reality of pastoral labour and a hint toward understanding. It is intended to prompt some genuine awareness and a proper sympathy. It is meant to be a help to us to understand our elders, so that we can properly pray for them and otherwise support them.

Your pastor is not after a medal. He is not seeking a certificate of commendation. There is a reason why the typical metaphors of pastoral ministry are military, agricultural and athletic. He signed up for a job of real work, and most of his rewards are deferred. But even soldiers and farmers and wrestlers get bruised and wearied in the work. I write because at the end of this period of lockdown, you might have a very weary, nearly broken pastor. Most of his labours are unseen. That is part of the calling. The parts you see are the tip of the pastoral iceberg. We do not know yet what will be the effects of the ending of lockdown on our humanity. I have seen suggestions that there might be some parallel in the experience of released hostages. Some have suggested that a brief season of euphoria might be followed by a period of crushing aimlessness and even despair. And your pastors will, God helping them, be there for you then as well. So, now and in days to come, do remember their labours. Remember that the treasure is in earthen vessels, dull and cracked. As you consider what has happened, is happening, and will yet happen, do not forget to pray for them. As you are able, support them. Heed their counsels and receive their investments. Encourage their hearts.

And brothers, do not over-isolate yourselves. Do not give yourselves something like an Elijah complex. If you have fellow-elders, make sure that you are in close touch with one another, taking time to care for and pray with one another. Reach out to friends, to brothers-in-arms. Find a friend, a counsellor and companion, if you do not have one. If need be, reach out to a man you know and trust in order to get what you need, humanly speaking. If all else fails, reach out to a trustworthy man that you do not yet know. Talk these things over, pray these things over. And that is the great remedy, in some senses. Take yourself to the throne of grace. Bring all these cares and concerns before the Lord your God, before the Great Shepherd of the sheep, before your Good Shepherd, who loves you with an unbreakable and unshakeable love. He upholds the weary. Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Take what burdens you to God, casting all your cares upon him, because he cares for you.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 9 May 2020 at 06:35

Lockdown: pastoral and preaching conundrums

with 4 comments

Various friends in ministry wrestle with the pastoral implications of the lockdown, as they serve in difficult circumstances locally, nationally, and almost globally. They are facing some particular questions, some apparently less substantially, many more so. Of course, many of those concerns and the responses to them are going to hinge, in large measure, on your sense of what preaching is and ought to be. Low and flat views of preaching are likely to prompt fewer and shallower questions. High and rich notions of preaching are likely to stir more and deeper concerns. Here are some of the common issues so far, with some thoughts toward answers.

Q: What vocabulary do I use to describe my activities when what I do falls short of the full-orbed reality?

A: I would not tie myself in knots about it. We have a common frame of reference for certain kinds of things, and we know when we are using a word for the right kind of thing without pretending it is the whole of that thing. For those of more tender conscience, I do not think you need to get wound up about whether or not you are using the right nouns and adjectives for certain activities e.g. if it is online, can you still call it a gathering or meeting, or do you need to keep qualifying it? If there is no congregation, must I avoid referring to it as preaching? There is some value in precision, as we shall see, but use the normal vocabulary and make the proper distinctions and qualifications when needed either to avoid confusion or make a point.

Q: How do I preach to a camera?

A: This is one of those examples where our casual use of vocabulary needs some particular nuance. We understand the question, but greater precision with our language assists with the answer. You do not preach to a camera. At the best, you are trying to do something as close as possible to preaching to the people who are through or behind the camera. The typical answer seems to be, “With great difficulty!” Some brothers broke down in tears the first time they tried to preach in an otherwise or largely empty room. Some found the pain got worse the second or third time, or the second or third week. Others found it shifted quickly to a kind of a dull ache. Some feel a near-perpetual flatness in preaching without a congregation, missing all the personal, pastoral prompts that keep a sermon lively in its delivery. We do not know how to adjust and to adapt in the act of preaching without the hints and tips that congregational posture, gesture and expression, those little prompts to shift our tone, pitch, and volume, or to tweak our substance to gain or keep the attention.

For some, the answer has been to shift more into teaching mode, delivering something more like a lecture from behind a desk or table at home, or standing in a living room. Others have tried to make that environment more ‘preacherly’ but have found it difficult to do so when accustomed to a very different environment. Those more accustomed to preaching and teaching in homes and other such venues have had an advantage here. Some are recording or broadcasting from a church building still, and have found the dynamic of being in a place where there is usually a congregation very hard. One or two have taken a wife or whole family along, and tried to preach as to a bigger congregation. This has proved hard for the preacher and for his wife and family, who also struggle with the unusual circumstances of hearing (especially younger children). One brother insisted on having no one else in the room, so that he could focus entirely on the camera, and speaking effectively to those who were or would be on the other side of it. This, he felt, gave him a more immediate focus and the closest thing to direct contact with his congregation. For myself, I have tried several different things, and confess again that nothing fully replicates or properly replaces the reality of a living man preaching the living Word among living people before the living God.

One could plot a graph along two axes: one is from livestreaming to recording, the other from a more intimate or informal to the more formal environment. So livestreaming in a more intimate setting will provide something of the immediacy of engagement but likely strip down some of the preaching dynamics, whereas livestreaming from a more formal setting (e.g. the pulpit of a largely empty building) will probably create a more ‘preacherly’ feel for the minister but less contact with those to whom he preaches. Recording from a study chair, or whatever, is likely to provide a measure of care in the instruction but cuts us off from the congregation almost entirely, making a sermon more like a shared private devotion; recording in a church building risks something of a performance but gives the preacher some expansion of soul, so long as he can remember that there are real people on the other side of the lifeless lens.

The congregational corollary of this, naturally, is, “How do I participate through a screen?” This, too, is a real challenge because so many of the normal constraints are lifted. I know some people are accustomed to wandering in and out of the services of worship on the whims of their children or the whimpers of their bodily functions, but to listen at home suspends so many of the normal and profitable disciplines of good hearing. Watching or listening on a device opens you up to the usual stream of device-based distractions, you can pause the preacher while you grab a drink, get a snack, use the toilet; you can adjust the volume, fast forward the ‘boring’ bits, replay the stuff you weren’t listening for, or just switching off. Some platforms tell you not just the number of views, but the length of views. It can be tough to see that a preacher captures most hearers for an average of about two minutes! More of this later.

It is massively difficult to ‘preach’ to a camera, and can be equally painful to watch or listen via an electronic device. I do not think there is an easy answer to this. To some extent, it will reflect the preacher’s own constitution and capacity, his previous experience of what it means to try to preach, and the kinds of responses that he is accustomed to from a gathered church. Most preachers have reported a distinct kind or unusual measure of exhaustion in different aspects of their humanity because of the intensity of concentration and focus required to communicate clearly and earnestly through this medium.

The short answer, then, is this: you do not preach to a camera. You preach to people. You might attempt to do something like preaching to people through the camera, and you will have to adapt many of the normal expectations and considerations.

Q: Am I performing when I am moved in preaching to no-one physically present?

A: Not necessarily, but it often feels like it. Typically, emotion involves reaction. We are often moved when we enter into the experience of others, whether joyful or miserable. Much affection is shared. Again, some of your responses may differ depending on your environment and your congregation (normal preaching place vs. other place, no live congregation vs. some live congregation, recording vs. livestreaming).

So, what is it that is moving us? Of course, we are not talking about the kind of preacher of whom Spurgeon spoke, who had the words, “Weep here,” scrawled in the margins of his sermon manuscript! We are interacting with God as we speak, and interacting with the truth. That truth is having an impact upon our own soul, or should be, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That affectional force is usually heightened or amplified as it reverberates through living souls, and eye meets eye, and heart meets heart, and deep speaks unto deep. In the absence of such a spiritual echo chamber, we might still be deeply moved, especially as we consider the people who are not there.

So, you must know yourself. If, engaged with the truth of God and the God of truth, you are moved in the depths of your own being, then that is perfectly legitimate. If you are in your normal preaching place, you may forget yourself in the act of ‘preaching’ as you enter into something persuasive or pressing, visualising your usual congregation. Bear in mind, though, that—as ever—the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets. The presence of a living congregation can sometimes act as something of a healthy check on a preacher, on which more below.

Q: Why do my speed, pitch and tone change (typically flatten out) in the absence of a congregation?

A: Because the impact of his congregation on the preacher is quite earthy. Several are finding that they speed up and flatten out without a congregation to push them into a normal cadence with proper variation, and a healthy variety of pitch and tone. In the absence of such prompts, both of acceleration and braking, rising and falling, you will need to labour that much harder to be both measured and engaging, bearing in mind that the challenges of listening to you on a screen are only likely to intensify the challenge of hearing your high-speed monotone! That kind of self-awareness may prove a blessing, though, once you are back in the normal course of things, God willing. Certainly it forces us to ask questions and learn lessons about our public preaching.

Q: Am I bolder or more direct when preaching through a screen, and is that a defect in my regular preaching or a function of the medium? Am I discovering that I am, in fact, a pulpit coward, willing to say things in the absence of a real person that I would never say with them sitting in front of me?

A: Part of the answer to this lies in a fair comparison with your regular pulpit ministry. Part lies in an awareness of the way the medium works, and how it can betray you or assist you.

Perhaps it is not unlike the difference between the man who regularly preaches to fifty and the man who regularly preaches to five hundred. On the one hand, Mr Fifty can bring the word of God tellingly to all the flock, while needing to make sure that he does not so single out one or two that the rest of the congregation immediately know who or what he is talking about, while he hides behind the pulpit. On the other, Mr Five-Hundred may be obliged to be broader in bringing the Word of God to a greater variety of circumstances, but might also be more direct with regard to certain matters, striking hard at certain sins without being in a position to single out individuals, or loosing his bow at a venture and allowing the arrow to fall where it will.

However, distance also breeds coolness, and the camera and the screen impose a measure of distance. Again, take into account the lack of congregational, personal prompts. For example, many pastors know what it is to go to have a hard conversation with a member of the church, and to semi-script their difficult words beforehand, only to find that sitting down with that person introduces a compassion and a tenderness that was lacking in the imagined interaction. The same can happen in the pulpit. The ebb and flow of the sermon is influenced, under God, by those kinds of engagements with the real people sitting in front of you. You remember their humanity more readily.

Furthermore, consider that a certain hardness seems to be one of the typical functions of the hiddenness of so much online interaction, either a kind of perverse ‘digital courage’ or a lack of the empathy and responsiveness that should develop when face to face. People seem willing to say things or write things to or about others when they are at an electronic remove that they would not, one hopes, dare to say face to face. Could that be creeping into our preaching when there is an invisible congregation? We certainly need to take account of that.

But it is not only the preacher. As we shall discuss more below, online gatherings for instruction or prayer can be derailed by either a simple lack of awareness, or—worse—that same kind of digital courage manifesting itself in words and phrases that a more immediately personal interaction would not draw out.

So, yes, it is a good question to ask. Perhaps you could ask it of your fellow-elders or other mature saints? “Is the tone and range and thrust of my ministry noticeably different than it was a month ago? Is there any harshness or insensitivity creeping in?” Do not let the medium betray you into a coldness and a hardness, nor lull you into a dullness and a vagueness.

Q: How can I effectively communicate with and care for Christ’s flock under my charge in these circumstances?

A: With difficulty. ‘Pastoral visitation’ becomes much more limited when you cannot sit down and talk with someone in depth. You realise how much of the occasional and incidental business of pastoral care is carried out in the margins of church meetings, a word here or there, someone who catches you while you or they are coming in, going out, or hanging around. Those snatched moments, in person, when taken together, weigh quite a lot. The value of the written note should not be underestimated, nor of the simple text or email. Some of these can be general, others might be more personal. I think that trying to call round the congregation, if necessary dividing up the workload between elders, is a valuable process. Do not be surprised to find that it takes a great deal longer than you anticipated. Urge your ready availability upon God’s people: some will come and find you out, others will need to be dug out. Bear in mind how the extra dimensions of a video call might be a help in some situations, or a threat in others. You might quickly become aware of some who are more vulnerable than others—not necessarily susceptible to physical disease, but to spiritual or emotional or mental malaise as a result of their circumstances. Some of those suffering might surprise you, as might some of those lasting the course quite readily. Engaging the deacons of the church will be vital, because—under these circumstances—there will be a lot of investment that straddles that line between pastoral and diaconal business, with perhaps quite a lot of handing back and forth as a situation shifts, or parcelling out specific aspects of care. As key workers, you may have a little scope to visit personally, as even a cheerful face and voice through a window or at the end of a garden path can be a tonic to the soul. Remember, too, that in many congregations there will be members who have effectively been in something like isolation for weeks or months: members physically incapable of attending services, brothers and sisters with compromised immune systems who have been having to live at a distance during periods of illness or treatment. Some of them might have developed a certain resilience, and might help you understand what others are now facing. Others might find that this situation becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There will be a lot of poised reactivity, of prepared responsiveness, that is required.

Q: Is shifting to ‘online church’ the easy answer?

A: Leaving aside the fact that ‘online church’ is a contradiction in terms, the short answer is: By no means! In fact, several using typical and typically average equipment and facilities have found at least as many problems online as offline, if not more. Again, it is not only pastors whose sensitivity and awareness suffers when contributing or participating online. Some report real insensitivity in prayer, because of a lack of awareness of who is digitally ‘present.’ Some of the problems are more basic: barely- or non-existent internet access for people, or faulty or older equipment, often leading to buffering problems with lags in video and audio. (You can tell when everyone else leans in to hear what, if anything, is being said.) Some people have never had to use their equipment in this way before, and all the settings and many of the functions are a new world. Some people, apparently fine with normal face to face interaction, cannot bear the idea of being in front of a camera or appearing on a screen. I imagine that some people are dressing for the occasion! Some either don’t or won’t turn of their microphones, or do not realise that once they are online we can all see and hear them leading to some interesting things heard and seen. (I got a beautiful comment on my appearance the other day, blithely broadcast to the entire group online.) Some people start spoken conversations, not realising that everyone is in on them, or that no-one knows to whom they are speaking. Some dominate online conversations because they can do so more easily, perhaps without realising. Some find the feel of people being in their home by device quite invasive. Some are persuaded that we are infiltrating their computers and causing permanent damage. Some find the feeling of half-connecting painful enough that they would rather not connect at all. Some preachers (and many others) struggle with the basic idea of framing a shot to be seen normally, and we end up with countless shots of one nostril and a lot of ceiling.

So, in addition to everything else that is lacking in terms of basic spiritual communication (see above), the online realm is just as fraught with issues as offline.

Q: Am I reaching a wider audience with ‘online preaching’?

A: Perhaps, but a number of men without a developed online audience have found that the numbers have rapidly declined after an initial burst of interest. In addition, some platforms allow you not only to see how many people have watched, but for how long. It can be a rather painful lesson to learn that the average time that your two watchers spent watching was about ninety seconds. Others have said how wonderful it is to have fifty or sixty people rather than twenty or thirty, but when it drops to fifteen or twenty, that can be disheartening. It is one of those situations in which we must weigh rather than count, or—if we do not have the tools to do either—to leave the matter with God. It may be a matter of casting your bread upon the waters (Ecc 11:1), and hoping to find it after many days. Perhaps some of those thirty second bursts of listening might stick in the soul and produce an abundant harvest in due course. Certainly, it is worth considering that there may be more gospel content online in real time and recorded formats in the last month than in the previous few years.

Q: So how much of this should we maintain when we get back to normal?

A: Who knows when that will be or what will be normal by then! Going back to the last question, how readily might people who have only heard the gospel online, and perhaps come to know Christ, come to make the transition to ‘real church’ rather than some sort of online pick’n’mix? How will we reach them, and bring them? Will they come of their own accord? What might be the fallout for church members who decide that actually they prefer a more remote life in which they can do what they want when they want with whom they want? Will this lead to a sifting as well as a gathering?

Will we have the opportunity to revisit our ecclesiology, and both emphasise and demonstrate some of the realties which, up to this point, were little more than theories in the minds of Christian men and women? It may be that the situation will have already enforced certain aspects of our churchmanship that before lay on the surface, but have now been driven deep into our souls. Our ecclesiology, not least our theology of a gathered church in a particular locality, might be either damaged or enriched, or perhaps both.

One brother said he was ready to drop all the online stuff like a rock once the situation was back to something more normal. He was expectant that most people would come eagerly back to the normal means of grace, and a little concerned that some would settle for what they considered was a ready replacement. I hope for the former, and I fear the latter. But I am also left thinking, with something of shame, that we have moved quickly and robustly when the whole church has faced these challenges. But, for many of us, there are men and women who have been and will remain isolated by physical circumstances. There are people who would drag themselves to church meetings by their teeth if they could only get there. Having been so quick to provide for ourselves under these circumstances, and without pandering to those who might abuse the opportunities, have we learned some lessons about how we can more effectively minister to those who will remain cut off when everyone else is drawn back in? Which of these modes and methods might remain in use, perhaps tailored to the dynamics of the new situation, so that we are not providing a short-cut to people who would rather not make the effort while still providing an escape route to people who would if they possibly could?

And, as we said, what will normal look like in a few weeks or months time? Who knows what sort of economic or social impacts will result? We cannot easily predict what the church might have lost or gained over that time, and what we will need to do in order to reset our corporate life. Those first meetings back might be difficult. There might be some gaps in the congregation that were not there before. There might be some new faces which were not there before. We might gather again in the house of feasting. We might gather in the house of mourning. Perhaps, as in the days of Ezra, we shall struggle to “discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping” (Ezr 3:13). I trust that we shall learn many lessons, and the end of a thing will prove better than the beginning.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 16 April 2020 at 15:23

The invisible congregation

with 7 comments

Yesterday evening, I sent out a brief and innocent tweet: “Preaching to an invisible congregation is more exhausting than I thought.” I was surprised by the tide of earnest response that it garnered from tired pastor-preachers.

Why should that be? What can we—pastors and preachers, and congregations—do about it? Answering that question will tell us a lot about our theology of preaching and our theology of the church, for better or for worse.

We must first take account of the limitations of pre-recorded or even livestreamed preaching. Perhaps the best way to communicate this is to give a précis of what I said at the beginning of our video recordings yesterday. It went something like this:

We are grateful to all who are joining us (from our own congregation and others) but we need to issue a necessary reminder.

While some means are better than others, because they have more dimensions of communication, recorded videos, livestreams, and the like are not a substitution for the gathering of the church, but reflect an interruption of it.

Genuine biblical preaching is a living man among living men before the living God: it involves a supernatural reality along appointed channels—both preacher and congregation subject to the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit and both communicating with each another under his influence.

In the absence of a congregation, those dimensions of real preaching are stripped away; the livestream or recording further diminishes that reality because of the extra distancing involved.

We are not, therefore, trying to accomplish what cannot be done. We are not setting out to replicate, by electronic means, the vital spiritual reality of the gathered people of God in the presence of our God under the Word of God.

These efforts are not a replacement for the gathered church but a supplement for the scattered church.

The situation we face keeps us spiritually hungry; this temporary and limited provision stops us spiritually starving.

These scraps will, with the blessing of God, keep you going, but they should also make us long for the restoration of the weekly feast and the laying of the eternal banquet.

That gives something of the backdrop to the challenges we face. Without denying the care of our Heavenly Father, or the goodness of the Good Shepherd, or the might and mercy of the Holy Spirit, the simple fact is that this situation robs us of the normal means and channels by which this act of preaching is normally conducted. That dynamic preaching triangle—in which the Holy Spirit is operating along three planes, involving God and the preacher, God and the congregation, and the preacher and the congregation, each operating upon each other with or under the Spirit’s superintendence—is missing one of its corners.

For the congregation, the mentality of ‘going to worship’ is reduced. Under these lock-down and shut-in circumstances, we are being encouraged to maintain a routine for home-working, to get into the groove of labour despite being not in the normal place of labour. In a similar fashion, getting up, getting ready, and getting out for worship, going to a particular place for that particular activity, helps to put us in mind of what we are about.

Add to that the fact that the congregation is now typically in a different and potentially distracting environment. One of the advantages of Dissenting chapel architecture is its deliberately clean minimalism, removing many of the elements which might otherwise take our hearts off the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. Now, the inventive or unfocused mind will find and have a hundred ways still to do that … the animal outside the window … the number of panels in the ceiling or wall … the play of the sunlight … the preacher’s verbal tic … the agitation of the family with the young children … the reflection of light from a watch face. Been there, done all that! But, the fact remains that many church buildings are uncluttered spaces designed to focus the attention on the preaching. Our homes are not the same. There are all the things that we are accustomed to do, all the things that we would not have to worry or think about if at home. We lack the gracious pressure of a whole congregation helping to establish a reverent and attentive atmosphere. We can get up and brew up, we can pause the preacher, we can relax in our comfortable chair and drift away. There is also the novelty factor, especially for those who have children. The fact that it isn’t ‘church’ can make it harder for our children to adapt.

And then, the preacher himself is not there to engage with them, to pick up on the ebbs and flows of a congregation and its listening. This is no longer a mutually responsive environment. Perhaps they are tuning in to someone else who is not even their pastor and usual preacher, so he is not even preaching with them in mind. The reality of this particular under-shepherd feeding this particular flock which he knows and for which he is, under God, responsible, is gone.

The preacher is, perhaps, aware of much of this. It may be that he has some very similar challenges for himself, for many were attempting broadcasts from a study or living room or kitchen. He is not in his typical environment for preaching. Perhaps he is sitting when usually he is standing, behind a desk when usually behind a pulpit. Distractions which are usually absent (barring those of the congregation!) are now painfully present.

Or perhaps he is preaching from a church building, and he has only before him rows of empty seats (perhaps a few family members), or just a camera (perhaps not even an operator). (Our recording involves a quick jog to press a button and back to the pulpit.) Now he is missing all the cues which, under God, normally stir his soul. The regular rhythms of gathered worship which so often generate spiritual momentum are absent. Worse, there are no people, no faces, no responses. And he is, or should be, conscious that—whether livestreamed or recorded—he has to overcome, under God, some of the congregation’s disadvantages, wherever they may be and under whatever circumstances they might be listening. And so he begins to preach … except it’s barely preaching. His normal thinking and feeling are all undermined by the absence of that natural and spiritual give-and-take which characterises real public ministry. He never was a mere automaton, spouting religious words. He struggles to concentrate, to maintain intensity, he has no external cues for the ebb and flow of the sermon, no external prompts for getting, keeping, or recovering the attention of a body of people. He is not so much leading the flock to the green pastures as pinging vitamin pellets at them with a catapult. Perhaps he is not sure where to look—at the camera, at the seats, out the windows. He does not want merely to read, but he struggles to do more than speak. Everything feels flat, and there is a possibility that he will over-compensate, and try to do what—under the circumstances—is nigh-on impossible to be done, and end up not with a flat mess but with a hot one.

And, then, perhaps worst of all for him, he may have an opportunity down the line to watch or hear a recording of himself, which—as most preachers know—leaves us ready to crawl into a deep dark hole of mourning and regret (or maybe just a real deep, dark hole), taking perpetual vows never to preach again, let alone in front of a camera, for his own sake, and the sake of all whom he loves and whose sanity he cherishes.

And that leaves us with the last point of that dynamic triangle: God. This is a good place to be left! If it were not for our Lord’s blessing upon regular ministry, it would be at least as bad as that usually, if not worse. It is he who, by his Spirit, establishes all those connections and makes them lively with heavenly forcefulness. The usual means he has appointed are no longer in place. The usual channels of blessing are dry or blocked. But, as a well-established Confession of Faith puts it, “God in his ordinary providence makes use of means, but he is free to work without, above, and against them as he pleases.” Praise God that it is so! What we are doing is just not church, and it is not quite preaching, but that does not stop the Lord blessing the usual means under unusual circumstances, using unusual means to usual ends, or even using unusual means to unusual ends. After all, there are many saints in many churches who are genuinely unable to attend regular services, and the Lord in his mercy makes what would normally be limited means sufficient not just to survive but even to thrive. Why should be not be able to do the same, even under these circumstances, for all of us?

With all that in mind, let me offer some practical suggestions. Members of congregations might plan to meet at a regular time (if livestreaming, this may be already in place). Whether individually, or as a family, prepare to be in a certain place at the appointed time, with everything set up and, if possible, tested. Do not go full slob: wash and dress as you would for church. Minimise distractions where possible—no food or drink, silence your phones, do not be preparing a meal or worrying about other responsibilities. Pray before you press play. Focus on the preaching of God’s Word. You may not be worshipping with the church, but you are and still can be worshipping God. Some technologies allow for commenting and interacting. Perhaps it is worth leaving that alone, and focusing on the listening? Pray afterward, alone or with others, for a blessing on what you have heard. Use what technology is available to interact with others afterward: pick up the preaching with family or friends, maybe send the preacher a message of encouragement to remind him that someone human was engaged and engaging. Be thankful to God for the wonderful means that are available for you to obtain something. And do pray for your pastor. He is trying to feed your soul from a distance. He is like a shepherd looking out over distant fields, seeing his sheep from afar, chained up and only able to lob something good in their general direction.

Pastors, too, should perhaps seek to maintain, as much as possible, their usual routines, even if their sermons are necessarily adapted to the present crisis and its particular circumstances. It is no bad thing to wash and dress as if you were ‘going to church.’ If you can, sing and pray, even if alone, so that your soul is stimulated and enlivened by those spiritual exercises. Whether at home or in a church building, it may help not so much to imagine as to visualise the congregation. Remember the faces to which and the lives into which you are normally preaching. In the same way as you normally preach to the people who are or who you wish be be in front of you, and not the people who might listen later, on this occasion speak as if to the people who are normally in front of you, regardless of who might hear it otherwise.Do not so much speak to a camera as through it. You may need to speak more briefly and pointedly, both to help you stay engaged and focused, and to help those hearing or watching to do the same. And then, when you have finished, do what you usually do—go to God with all your failings and feebleness, and ask him to bless what will lie dry and dusty on the surface of the soul without his gracious ploughing to carry it home and his refreshing mercies to cause it to spring up into life. Expect to be drained, perhaps in different ways or in different aspects of your humanity to the usual. Make sure you rest, and think about your labours, and learn how better to communicate truth under these circumstances, for as long as they may last. How thankful we should be that, though we may be physically far from the flock of Christ, we can still bear them up in our hearts, knowing that the Good Shepherd has promised that he will be with them always, even to the end of the age!

When all is said and done, do not expect it to be real church and do not expect it to be real preaching. Even with the blessing of the triune God, it cannot and will not be that. And so, let preacher and hearer alike be stirred up to eager anticipation for the day when we can once again see each other face to face, so that your joy may be full (2Jn 12), and when we—together in the presence of God—hear the word of life once more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 23 March 2020 at 16:34

A way to pray

with one comment

Although it seems a long time ago, it was less than a week back that I suggested a day to pray: Sunday 22 March 2020. Since then, much has changed, and church members are now largely distanced if not entirely isolated from each other, at least physically. If you were and still are hoping to embrace this opportunity, let me suggest—under these particular circumstances—a way to pray.

praying-hands-2

With some possible and slim exceptions, this will not be the gathered church at prayer. That does not stop us praying, because—while it may be particularly sweet and profitable to gather for prayer—we are not hindered by being in or out of any particular place, nor by being few or even one. That said, and acknowledging again that we are not heard because of our many words, nor because of many voices, there are particular encouragements in knowing that others are gathering together at the throne of grace to express, with one heart and one voice, the hopes and desires of our souls.

If you are a preacher, and wish to stir the hearts of the saints, might I suggest a sermon that is intended, under God, to direct us toward God with zealous faith. If you are a hearer or a reader, listen to something or read something that will, under God, have the same effect. I know that I have often preached on prayer, so I am confident that the saints I serve can easily find something along those lines, and I trust that the same will be true for you with your pastors. Likewise, there is such a wealth of excellent printed material on prayer that I hesitate to make any specific recommendations, but let it rather be briefer and warmer than longer and cooler.

Then, while it would be good to spend much of the day with an eye and heart heavenward, I also recommend setting aside particular times and finding a particular place, alone or with others, where you can give yourself to prayer. My intention is to be praying at the hours of our morning and evening worship (because I currently anticipate being at our church building at that time, I will incorporate it in the labours of the moment). If it helps, for me that will be about the hours of 11am and 6pm (GMT).

Find somewhere you can minimise unnecessary distractions; gather as a family if you can, or if you have friends willing and able to do so. If alone, it may be helpful to pray aloud, simply as a help to maintaining your focus and keeping your heart from wandering. If you are not accustomed to protracted seasons of private or communal prayer, then it will be better to pray briefly and often, occasionally and fervently, rather than to meander and struggle and feel as if you are making no progress. Expect prayer under these circumstances to be as much of a battle as it usually is, or more so.

If you choose to add fasting to your praying, then I would recommend reading this little piece by Samuel Miller, valuable particularly for its brevity and clarity and spirituality. It may help to know how to make the most of such an investment.

And how should we pray in substance? I am wary of over-regulating this, not least because there will be not only far more general petitions than I could begin to suggest, but also countless local, specific needs that will need to be brought before the Lord. However, if you are looking for a starting point, here are some suggestions, arranged around five points of adoration, humiliation, confession, appreciation and supplication.

Adoration

  • To the God who dwells in heaven and who does whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3).
  • To the Lord who kills and makes alive, who brings down to the grave and brings up (1Sam 2:6).
  • To the Lord who has, in mercy, not dealt with us as we deserve (Ps 103:10; Jon 4:11; Ezr 9:13).
  • To a God who is ready to hear the cry of his saints, and who is able to bring good out of evil (Ps 50.15; Gen 50.20).
  • To a God willing able to save all who call upon him, delivering from sin, death and hell (Ps 86:5; 145:8; Rom 10:8-13).

Humiliation

  • Because we are feeble and frail creatures who have forgotten our weakness (Ps 103:14-16).
  • Because it has taken such a season as this to bring us to God in this way.
  • Because we have imagined ourselves self-sufficient when we are utterly God-dependent.
  • Because we have placed too much trust and found too much satisfaction in the passing things of this passing world.
  • Because we are now utterly exposed in our need, and have no other recourse but to God.

Confession

  • That we deserve far worse than we receive, being sinful in nature and sinners in deed.
  • That we belong to cultures and societies who deserve the fiercest judgments, and that often our sins and our failings as God’s people are reflective of those around us.
  • That we have too often relied upon the arm of flesh rather than the Lord our God, and will be tempted to do so again.
  • That we struggle with sinful doubts and fears concerning the government and goodness of God.
  • That we have not been faithful as we should have been in warning and urging our neighbours as we should have done concerning their perilous condition outside of Christ.

Appreciation

  • That God, our God, remains in absolute control of all these events, and that we are safe in him, and can urge others to run to him to be safe.
  • That God has granted so many gifted people who are doing so much to hold back, treat, or cure this disease, and for the means we have at our disposal to survive and even thrive, spiritually and physically, during this season.
  • That, in large measure, our children are being spared death, and that so many people seem likely to recover.
  • For the common grace behind the courtesy and kindness which still characterise parts of our culture.
  • For the distinct opportunities we have been given to point men beyond what can be seen to what is unseen, and beyond what is temporary to what is eternal.

Supplication

  • That the Lord would be pleased to hallow his name, advance his kingdom, and secure his glory by all these events, and in mercy turn back the judgments he is sending on the nations of the world.
  • That he would grant grace to his saints to this end during this season, and that this experience would recalibrate our priorities not just for this season, but for all our days.
  • That we would be delivered from a spirit of fear, and rather know a spirit “of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2Tim 1:7), being characterised by genuine faith, manifesting a calm confidence in the God of our salvation.
  • That any time in which we are laid aside, whether well or ill, would be of lasting profit to our souls, rather than a season of decline and drift.
  • That believers who may, in addition to being in isolation, be genuinely isolated, might also be kept in good heart by the Lord, not least through his people’s love, and that Christians in difficult family situations, especially with unconverted family members, might bear a gracious and effective testimony during these days.
  • That Satan might be kept from sowing seeds of spiritual distance, discord and division among church members over any period of extended absence from one another, and keep our love for God and for one another bright and strong.
  • That the Lord would be pleased to spare the lives of his people, or to supply all needed grace that we might die well, and to spare those outside his kingdom who otherwise would be ushered into hell.
  • That he would give particular wisdom to the civil authorities and all those under their direction, concerning all the measures for control and eventual prevention and cure of this disease.
  • That our country might be spared panic and disorder during this time.
  • That this would be, in particular, a means of convicting, convincing and converting many who would otherwise have had no regard to their undying souls.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 19 March 2020 at 08:37

Social distancing and gathered worship

with 3 comments

What now? What next?

As expected, everything is shifting quickly. What I wrote just a few days ago may still be helpful in principle, but the practice is now challenging. In the UK, the government has given vigorous advice not to attend social gatherings (still only counsel, though strong counsel). I understand that in other parts of the world religious gatherings have been forbidden (by clear command). I expect, too, that everything will shift again quickly, and keep shifting, and we shall have to keep thinking out and applying our principles.

Please bear in mind that I am not suggesting here how we are to interpret these events, nor how we are to preach to them. That, perhaps, is for another time. This is about our attitude to meeting together under the present constraints.

It is important to remember, before we consider anything else, that government counsels and commands under these circumstances are not religious persecution as such. They may not be welcome, and we may be instinctively and strongly averse to them, but we should not put them, at this time and under these circumstances, in the wrong category. The governments of the world are, by and large, doing what they ought to be doing as ‘good’ governors, seeking to take care of those entrusted to their oversight. While I appreciate that almost no secular government has any real sense of what real Christianity involves, and that they lump all ‘faith communities’ and ‘religious gatherings’ together, I do not think we should instinctively resent these strictures.

Taking into account what I said before about respecting the counsels and commands of the civil authorities, I wonder if it actually makes things less complicated if we almost strip that issue out of our consideration.

What if we boil it down to this? “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29–31). Both of these will intertwine in this discussion.

Keep in mind, too, some of what we said before about principles of Christian liberty, and what it means to extend to others a proper freedom to act in accordance with an instructed conscience. This is difficult, because a member might not necessarily believe that the elders have chosen the wisest course, but should still be willing to embrace that course (provided that there is no question of the elders recommending something sinful, which may be a discussion that is required). None of us have the liberty to lord it over the consciences of others, and we must not allow our liberty to shackle others. You do not have the liberty simply to ignore your elders or trample upon the souls (and bodies!) of others, any more than you have the liberty to raise your fist against a government seeking to do its job well in a nightmarish environment. In this, “do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Rom 14:16).

The key points in the UK are as follows:

  • everyone in the UK is now being advised to avoid “non-essential” contact with others and “unnecessary” travel.
  • people are also being asked to work from home “where they possibly can”, and avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and social venues (in a question in the House of Commons, this was explicitly applied to gatherings of the church.
  • people are now being advised to stay at home for 14 days if they, or anyone in their household, has either a high temperature or a “new and continuous cough”.
  • people in at-risk groups will be asked within days to be “largely shielded from social contact” for 12 weeks.
  • the UK is to scale up coronavirus testing in the coming weeks.
  • from tomorrow, mass gatherings will no longer be provided with emergency workers.

Notice this is still only governmental advice. It is currently counsel not command. How, then, ought churches to respond to this? (I recognise that in other countries, this is already a done deal, and that counsel has become command.)

First, what does it mean to love God?

As I suggested before, believers should commit to doing all we can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. We must plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. To love God means to desire him and to delight in him, and that is nowhere more fully expressed than in the gathered worship of the church. There we hear his voice; there he lifts up the light of his countenance upon us, and gives us peace. That means a predisposition to gather together to worship him. The first four commandments require us to place God first, to put our trust in and worship him alone, to honour his name above all things, and to serve him with our time and energy on six days of the week, and to gather with his people on the day appointed for his worship, when not providentially hindered from doing so (I think it is worth pointing out both elements of that, not least because we have to contend with the government imposing certain restrictions not just on the one day but on all the days, and we might at least consider whether or not we are being consistent).

But, we are not a social gathering in the casual sense of the phrase. There is a vital spiritual dynamic at work which God’s people cannot afford casually to neglect. For these reasons, I do not think that we should quickly assume that absolute cancellations are the only way forward. At the same time, we are a gathering in which we will have quite prolonged and close contact, under normal circumstances. That will carry us to our concern for neighbours below. Even then, we should remember that many of us are likely to get this disease, or have already got it, and may be able to meet again afterward before too long, if we recover. We should remember the witness we bear to those around us by how we live, and what our priorities are.

Love to God does require a proper respect to the government that he has appointed, within the terms of the fifth commandment (which has application to the way in which we both exercise and respond to God-given authority). Among the things which we should do on the Lord’s day is to pray for our government.

Furthermore, love to God requires us to preserve his reputation, as it is carried by the church, both positively and negatively. We do, perhaps, need to take account of the fact that religious services of some kind proved a catalyst for major outbreaks in both New York State and South Korea. We must therefore avoid giving the impression that we are creating or exacerbating (even deliberately) an otherwise avoidable problem.

Loving God also means honouring his ability to bless us outside or beyond the ordinary means that we typically use for our spiritual wellbeing. Would we deny that God has, for example, been pleased to sustain the spiritual health of men and women who have been, perhaps for years, cut off from the normal means of grace? Can he not do the same under these unusual circumstances?

Second, what does it mean to love our neighbour?

It means, first, that we ought not to risk our own lives or the lives of others unjustly or carelessly. Whatever faith in God means, it does not mean the kind of bravado that flaunts itself. Whatever we do, we ought to take all reasonable precautions to protect and preserve health and life (in accordance with the sixth commandment). Anyone who does exercise their liberty in meeting should not make the gathering itself, or our behaviour at it, an act of bravado rather than of faith. Temple-jumping is not faith but folly – it is testing the Lord your God (cf. Mt 4.7). So, for example, if you choose to gather, you should observe not just the niceties of social distancing on the smaller scale, but take stringent and even aggressive measures to avoid any risk to health and life.

With this in mind, if you are at risk or a risk, you should act out of love to others, and absent yourself for whatever period is wise. If you are obliged to exercise your liberty in not meeting (with good reason), then you should do all you can to make the most of the Lord’s day, taking advantage of every means to enter into the spirit and purpose of the day. (Indeed, you should consider the best use of any other discretionary time forced upon you.) All those who are manifesting any signs of this sickness, or are within those periods of necessary wariness, should not attend; neither should those who fall within the ‘at risk’ or ‘high risk’ categories. If we can maximise the distance between those who appear to be a risk and those who are at risk, we can act with a clearer conscience.

We also need to think about the positive effect on our neighbours of continuing to worship God. Perhaps, for some, this will be the first time they have ever truly considered their mortality, and they need to know the God who saves. Perhaps the fact that we value God above all things, and place his worship so high on our list of priorities that, even in such a time as this, whether corporately or individually, we will organised our lives around its centrality, will be a blessing to them. Let them hear our hymns of praise sounding from our homes during the week and out of the church on the Lord’s day, even if only from a few voices; let them know that we are praying for them and for others; share with them opportunities to hear the Word of God immediately or remotely!

Elders, in making these decisions, must take into account that different congregations have different compositions. A congregation composed mainly of elderly saints might need to make some more radical decisions than one composed mainly of younger folks. If there are an unusual number of sick people scattered among the congregation, that will have an impact. If there are a number of spiritually immature people (whether a risk, at risk, or just a risk-taker!) who mistake folly for faith, pastoral instruction, admonition and rebuke might be necessary. If there are people of over-sensitive conscience, their consciences might need to be instructed.

It means that we need to use all the means at our disposal to feed the souls of God’s flock and to call sinners to repent and believe. Whether that means personal visits (within safe parameters, including standing six feet down the path!), regular calls, employing available technology to provide audio and video livestreams or recordings, or whatever it may be, we must not neglect to care for one another, body and soul. We need to press home upon men and women the fearful judgements of an offended God, and plead with them to turn from their sins, before a worse thing comes upon them. We need to explain that such horrors as these are the birth pangs of the great and terrible day of the Lord. The greatest love we can show to God and to neighbour is to preach the truth of his wrath against sin and his mercy toward sinners, of the salvation to be found in Christ for all who repent and believe, of the horrors of a looming hell and the glories of a promised heaven.

So, what will that look like for the church I serve? We have already stripped down to the bare minimum in terms of meetings and gatherings, a skeleton of Lord’s day morning and evening services of worship, and a Wednesday night prayer meeting. At this point in time, and unless and until the government’s advice changes again, I am anticipating that we shall do all we can to maintain that pattern, urging those who are a risk and at risk to take care of themselves and others by staying away, and enabling others to gather if they deem it wise and proper. We shall open the doors, probably a little earlier than usual. We shall encourage people to enter as individuals or tight family units, and sit accordingly, following stringent principles for social distancing, sitting apart from each other within the building. For the prayer meeting, we shall pray simply, successively, straightforwardly, and then leave quickly. On the Lord’s day, we shall do what we can to embrace all the normal scriptural elements of worship, but we shall probably do so in a more minimal fashion than usual, without feeling that anything is missing. We shall broadcast or record (both, if possible) our praying to the Lord and our preaching of his truth, so that God’s people can, in measure, enter in. While we appreciate the many good resources out there, I am God’s undershepherd in this place, and this is his flock under my care, and—God helping and sparing me—I am going to preach to the people I know and love until I cannot. When we have finished worshipping, we shall dismiss as individuals and families, giving people time to wash their hands and clear the building one after the other. And then we shall do it again when the next occasion comes.

And if we are actively forbidden for a time, for what appear to be good reasons, from meeting even like this? Then we shall consider meeting in the open air, well spaced out. And if that, too, falls under the ban? Then I shall probably go, perhaps with my family, or alone, to the church, and I shall preach my heart out to the saints and the sinners whom I love, even if they are not present, and I will use all the technology at my disposal to ensure that they hear it. And if I am obliged to self-isolate or to stay at home, or fall sick, then I shall either ask someone else, or tell everyone else to stay away, and then go and preach, or I shall find some way to preach at or from my home, so that the saints will be fed and the sinners warned. And if the Lord calls me home, I trust that someone else will take my place, and keep preaching his saving truth. All of this, if the Lord wills.

[A clarification drawn from a note to the church I serve: “Bear in mind that, as a scattered body, we are not trying to replicate what it means to be with God’s people gathered for worship; we are trying to minimise the impacts of our being scattered.’]

In doing this, I trust all of us who are involved, and who cannot be involved, shall be glad to remember that social distance from the saints is not necessarily spiritual distance from God. We shall remember that we may be absent in body but present in spirit, or that others are entering in from afar.

And, I hope, it will impress upon us who have become too accustomed to our privileges and too presumptuous concerning our blessings, that there is nothing on this side of heaven more like the heaven to come than the saints of God gathered in his presence on his day to worship his Name. May days in which spiritual scraps may become the food of our souls teach us to crave the banquets with which once we toyed! May enforced absences teach us the blessing and beauty of the church as she gathers before her God! May it stir up in us, and in many more, an appetite for God and for his Word which shall never leave us, as long as we are left in this world.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 17 March 2020 at 21:26

The church and the plague

with 4 comments

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour” (Rom 13:1–7).

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25).

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25).

“Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (1Thes 5:26).

“But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge’” (Acts 4:19).

“You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Lk 6:27–31).

And then the government said, “Thou shalt not gather, no, not for religious worship, not even on the Lord’s day.”

So what do we do? How do we proceed? Are we capitulating to anti-Christian authorities if we fail to gather together on the Lord’s day? Or are we honouring the authorities which God has put in place over us? Where and how do we obey the civil authorities, and how does that connect with our duties to the Lord our God? I have some kind of innate resistance to the idea of civil government regulating the worship of God. I trust that I have developed, over time, a principled commitment to being among God’s people on the Lord’s day, and making the most of those opportunities. However, I am most concerned to work out how to honour the Lord in all of this.

In this regard, I have read some amusing comments suggesting that, because—as is well known—all Europeans are basically socialists, therefore they will obey their governments without question, demonstrating mindless submission to their near-totalitarian authorities, whereas free Americans, of course, will resist their government the moment the big boys start throwing their weight around. Not quite following the logic there, but it seems a somewhat simplistic reading of the situation.

So, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, appointed by God. If we do what is good, we shall have nothing to fear from them. We are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. All this would include recognising the measure of oversight and national direction a competent and well-disposed civil government might be able to provide, and at least honouring the government’s intentions to preserve the health and life of its citizenry, maintain the economy, and so on. So, for example, if the government assures us that it has stockpiles of toilet paper, we don’t need to go on binge-buying toilet paper on the working assumption (working suspicion?) that they are trying to deprive us of toilet paper and hoard it for departments and officials of the state. If the government, for the preservation of life, urges or requires that we avoid public gatherings, including religious worship, we have—at the very least—an obligation to take that into account. In doing so, it is proper to take into account the difference between counsel and command: the government might advise us to do something which we choose to do or not to do, or to do in a certain way. In such an instance, we have a little more freedom of manoeuvre.

But what if the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids? Does it make a difference if it is temporary and a matter of outwardly good governance? God has commanded us to meet as a gathered church, has appointed the first day of the week as the proper day on which that should take place, and has made sweet promises in connections with those gatherings. Our love for God would surely carry us toward a dedicated commitment to gathering with his people in his presence for his praise. If we are healthy saints, we will have both a sense of our proper obligation and a proper appetite for the worship of God together. And, when we gather, there usually ought to be proper expressions of affectionate fraternity among us—whatever may be the equivalent of the holy kiss. Indeed, we might argue that such times as these are times when the gathering of the saints becomes more significant, not less so, as we come together to cast ourselves upon God, and receive the spiritual sustenance our souls need to keep faith keen, hope bright, and love strong amidst these challenges.

Now, what of the sixth commandment? We are told not to murder, and that commandment requires (to employ the language of The Shorter Catechism) us to use all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others, while forbidding the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tends toward that end. Earlier this year I was struck down, for what may be the first time in my life, with proper flu. I was in bed for about a week, careful about exposing others to any potential infection for several days after that, especially when resuming my public pastoral duties, and particularly careful about not visiting more vulnerable members of the congregation for a further period of time. Under normal circumstances, I would probably encourage people with a high level of sickness to take particular precautions about spreading their illnesses. While I do not encourage people to cry off the worship of God for petty reasons, if someone is sick (especially infectiously sick), then—for their own sake and that of others—they should probably ‘self-isolate’, to use the current jargon. In that sense, we are simply applying the regular principle to an irregular situation. If someone is either unwilling or unable to make a wise decision for themselves, perhaps some diaconal counsel would be appropriate, even to the point of advising them to return home for their own wellbeing, and that of others.

Then there are those principles of love to our neighbour which are the very essence of our obligations to our fellow men, and which lie behind the sixth and other more ‘horizontal’ commandments. In encouraging God’s people last Sunday to think through this, I emphasised that much of what is required is simply the extensive and intensive application of Christian courtesy as well as particular wisdom. This might include properly washing your hands, especially if handling food others will eat; not shaking hands, embracing, or whatever your equivalent of a holy kiss might be, if the other party is not comfortable with it, or obliged to refrain from it for their own sake or yours; not being offended by someone who wants to take more precautions than you; taking particular care around the particularly vulnerable, whether the elderly or those whose immune system is already compromised or whose health is poor; taking unusual pains with cleaning the church building, especially those spots or rooms where the transfer of a virus might be more likely. How would love to our immediate neighbour work out if the government were to forbid gatherings for religious worship, or gatherings over a certain size? In the latter case, some smaller churches might be fine, while others would be over the threshold. What about love to the souls of men? How do we regard their eternal wellbeing? Incidentally, loving courtesy and care should extend to our ministry to those within the congregation who might need particular assistance, should they be necessarily self-isolating, and so isolated, or in need of particular care. Are we ready, if need be, to risk our own well-being for the sake of our brothers and sisters? What of those who are outside the kingdom, and may go to face the judgement unwarned and uninstructed if we do not warn and instruct them? That is a question that all Christians, especially the pastors of a flock, need to answer in principle now, before a crisis presses it upon us. What if other congregations have pastors laid aside by sickness, or by sensible precautions against sickness? Are we ready to travel to minister the Word of God? Are churches ready to adapt their meeting times and circumstances in order to accommodate every proper opportunity to hear the truth which saves?

And what of celebrating the Lord’s supper? That might present a particular challenge. It may depend on whether or not you believe that the Lord positively requires that you come to his table every Lord’s day. If you belong to a church or group of churches which celebrate less regularly, or much less regularly, it might not make much difference. What about the use of wine as against grape juice? Would the presence or absence of alcohol help? What about the use of a common cup? What about breaking or cutting the bread into smaller pieces ahead of time, if you use a single loaf? Does any of that make much difference if plates or cups are being passed hand-to-hand? This will likely say something about our theology of the Lord’s table. If it is nothing more than a memorial, perhaps we might more readily dispense of it. If we approach it as something talismanic, perhaps nothing will stop us taking it (unless the perceived danger renders our superstitions void for the time being). If we consider it a genuine means of grace, we will doubtless acknowledge that we need and desire it now, of all times, but other considerations may influence how or when or how often we celebrate it. Of course, given that it is not an ordinance for families, mates, or small groups, but for when “when you come together as a church” (1Cor 11:18), it may be that—leaving aside the context of division within the congregation—you acknowledge that, under these circumstances, the church is not truly gathering (and I am not suggesting that you cannot come to the table unless every member is present). Perhaps you can simply wait until the hopefully brief storm is over.

Let us try to work out some principles and some practices. I would suggest that we should be eagerly disposed to gather for the worship of God. Our primary commitment and expectation should be that, whenever and wherever possible, we gather with God’s people for worship on the Lord’s day. Let that be your working assumption. Let all your planning and preparing be carried out with the aim of enabling God’s people to come together to worship him and enjoy fellowship with each other as regularly and easily and as safely as possible.

If such gatherings were to become ill-advised, actively unwise, or even temporarily illegal, how might we then respond? There are a number of possibilities. First of all, I would expect that anyone actually or probably sick with coronavirus or any other such disease would be taking care of themselves and others by embracing such an illness as a genuine providential hindrance to gathering. I hope that goes without saying. So what of others? Perhaps a church could gather outside, with families in self-isolating units, with the requisite or recommended space between them. It might be a wonderful opportunity for evangelising, especially if there were properties nearby from which people could hear the good news. I think of the centre of our neighbourhood, with a square space surrounded by benches. One bench per family unit? Others standing or sitting in the spaces between? The opportunity to listen from the surrounding homes? It may be that the church building is big enough or the congregation small enough for such a gathering to take place within the building, with people sitting apart from each other, and proper care taken about the possibility of infection from mutual touching of surfaces like door handles. Under any such circumstances, proper measures for minimising risk would be essential (including parents taking pains to make sure that their children are looked after in this respect, like the young lads last Sunday who insisted to me that they didn’t like hot water and so were not going to wash their hands properly). Perhaps hand sanitisers (if they are still available) could be put at entrance points, with regular written or spoken reminders of good practice.

We might need to do a little ecclesiastical triage. Perhaps we could begin by stripping back some of the added extras to the essential rhythms of church life. For example, the church I serve has a number of additional meetings during the week, over the course of a month, or as one-offs, which we might need to review. While part of me says it is all the more important to preach the gospel under these circumstances, it is not necessarily a good idea to try to gather a crowd of strangers into one room at such times as these. So, we might focus on the morning and evening gatherings of the Lord’s day, and perhaps also meetings for prayer, which become more pressingly needful.

If other options are more limited, technology might be a particular help. For example, could the preacher go to the church building with his family, if healthy, and any others willing and able to attend? He could preach so that it could either be live-streamed to those who are not able to gather, or even recorded and/or streamed if no-one else can attend? We know, I hope, that there are spiritual dynamics associated with the gathering of God’s people to hear God’s word that cannot be replicated or transmitted by digital communication of the event, but such options at least keep in the loop those obliged to be absent, and might provide a temporary alternative (perhaps some instruction as to the pros and cons of such an arrangement might helpfully be given). Some churches already do this as a help to people already unable to attend, and this simply extends that provision on a temporary basis. It certainly has an impact on celebrating the Lord’s supper, as outlined above. Presuming I am available (and making plans if I am not), I currently intend to be at the church building on the Lord’s day, perhaps ahead of the usual hour if live-streaming proves a challenge with our limited resources, and making sure that audio and video recordings of the ministry were available for people to tune in at the regular times in order to give them some sense of normality and some necessarily reduced but still profitable dimension of church life. If things became more difficult, perhaps an elder could provide some kind of broadcast or recording from home, ministering to God’s people so that they could at least feed from the Word of God. If such technology lies beyond the church, there may be other faithful congregations providing a service that the saints could employ and enjoy, though every step of distance from the regular life of the covenanted congregation may well diminish something of the blessings that we derive, though the Lord knows how to shepherd his people in all seasons. Take into account, too, that in some cultures and contexts, such technological shortcuts may simply not be available. For some congregations, there may be older saints without the apparatus or awareness to use such means, and they might be the very ones who need most care of body and soul.

And what if the civil authorities were temporarily to ban all gatherings, including for religious worship? What then? I think I would be content, for the time being, to employ some of the means above to maximise the opportunities to preach the gospel to as many people as I could, within and without the walls of church buildings, and by as many legitimate means as I could find or devise. I am not persuaded that extravagant displays of civil disobedience, under these circumstances, are warranted or wise. And if, down the line, such government intervention became coercion or persecution, then I would feel perfectly at liberty to resist with a polite and humble disobedience any attempt to prevent the exercise of my God-given privilege to gather with the saints to worship him, despite my previous acknowledgement of the government’s counsels or commands in another context.

And liberty is important. It is worth taking into account the principle of Christian liberty. Not everyone will make all the same judgements at all the same points at all the same places. Some of our hypochondriac brethren may well already be living in a sealed unit with a lifetime supply of tinned goods and toilet paper, and have decided that the gathering of the saints is simply too dangerous for them and their families. I might not agree, but—as long as this is not taken to foolish extremes—I am unlikely to rebuke them for non-attendance under the circumstances, though I might counsel a little more robustness, in dependence on God. We do not honour God by blind panic, though we should by a loving caution. On the other hand, some who boast in God’s sovereignty might choose to display their confidence with a sort of bravado or abandon, turning convictions about providence into a sort of carefree or miserable fatalism. I might encourage them to use the means God has provided for their wellbeing, and that of others, and need to rebuke them if they are risking the sixth commandment. There may be many times when we simply give people the option and the opportunity, and leave them to judge in accordance with the light that they have, remembering that we are, in a real sense, a voluntary gathering. Liberty is also corporate. Some churches will take a different line to the one which you might take; they are free to do so, under God, so long as they do not violate clear principles of scriptural conduct.

Bear in mind, too, that current indications suggest that this will be a temporary measure. If the figures we know are to be believed, such restrictions might only last for a few weeks, perhaps a month or a little more. If the restrictions were maintained for longer with good reason, then we might need to consider again how we respond. If they were maintained without good reason, then we might more readily return to our more default positions.

In all this we do need to remember that there is a God in heaven, who does whatever he pleases, in accordance with his goodness, mercy, wisdom, and love. Bear in mind that you could take all precautions, and still fall sick, or even fall asleep in Jesus. You might take no precautions, and remain well. Believing in the sovereignty of God should not make us careless of the use of the means that God has appointed to accomplish certain ends. Even Hezekiah, promised a recovery from his deadly sickness, applied the poultice of figs which the Lord appointed the means to the ends of his recovery (Is 38:21). Neither mindless panic nor thoughtless bravado will honour the Lord. Stability and even serenity belong to those who trust in the Lord.

So, commit to doing all you can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. Plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. As and when the wisdom either or the elders (in the ecclesiastic sphere) or the government (in the civil sphere) dictates, you may need, temporarily, to make the kinds of adjustments outlined above, seeking in all this to “honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1Pt 2:17).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 12 March 2020 at 09:19

The deal

with 7 comments

“I’m just not being fed,” s/he said. “This is not a very friendly church. No one really speaks to me. I am not the only one who feels this way. There are lots of people who are struggling. I’m just not sure that this is the right place for me. Why can’t we be more like Broadstreet Evangelical? I really think that I would be better off there.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” said the pastor. “Might I suggest a deal? I recommend that you go to Broadstreet Evangelical for six months, but on the following conditions:

  • You must not arrive more than two minutes before any service begins. If possible, slip in just afterwards. You should leave as soon as it is over, or – ideally – just before it is properly finished.
  • Please do not attend more than one service a week, certainly not more than once on any given day. When you are able, miss occasional days altogether.
  • Please minimise all contact with others who attend the church. Avoid face-to-face communication at all costs, but – if possible – filter out any notes, cards, texts, emails, or any other such interaction. Cut right down on meaningful conversation.
  • You should not go to anyone’s home, nor invite anyone to yours.
  • Under no circumstances must you engage with the elders. Don’t call them or answer the phone if they call. If you can, wait until they are looking the other way or engaged with someone else before you leave. If necessary, find an alternative exit. Make all conversation as perfunctory as possible. Do not come to them for counsel, consult with them in difficulty, seek them out when distressed, or listen to their advice.
  • Cultivate a healthy sense of resentment (passive-aggressive behaviour is fine) toward anyone who might even begin to suggest that you could make some sort of contribution to the life of the church. Maintain the stance that your occasional presence is quite sacrifice enough.
  • If you must engage with others, seek out the least spiritually healthy in the church. As soon as possible, steer the conversation round to the faults of the church, her members, and her elders.
  • Maintain a healthy circle of worldly friends. Spend as much time with them as possible, going to all the places they attend, engaging in all the chatter they pursue, indulging in all the activities they embrace. Keep up a lively social media engagement with such.
  • Put the advice of friends, family, doctors, self-help books, and anything else really, above and before the advice of any spiritually mature Christian.
  • Should anyone seek to reach out to you to minister to you, cultivate unreliability: assure them of your best intentions, but evade, postpone, or cancel all such interaction with varying degrees of notice. Train them to expect you to seem vaguely positive but never actually available.
  • Sleep through some sermons.
  • Don’t read. Just don’t.
  • Don’t push yourself. You’re worth it!
  • Minimise private devotion, especially private prayer. Make sure that you are at least as busy with other significant demands as you have been for the last couple of years. Don’t read any ‘tricky bits’ from the Bible, and don’t overdose on the obvious stuff.
  • Take long holidays, and give yourself plenty of time on your return to ‘get back into the swing of things.’
  • Never volunteer. Avoid being nominated.
  • Under no circumstances make meaningful eye contact.
  • Look out for others now at Broadstreet who left this congregation for the same reasons as you are giving. If they are speaking, you might want to listen.
  • Also, if anyone at Broadstreet tries to pin you down, I would recommend an occasional visit to Gaping Lane Community Church. By all means be subtle, but make clear that if Broadstreet is becoming a little narrow, the open-minded congregation over at Gaping Lane might be the place for you.

“There’s some other stuff,” said the pastor, “but that should do for starters. It should not take a great deal of investment – no new skills to learn, no additional duties to embrace. Perhaps if you would be willing to give it a go for six months, and then come back and let me know how your soul has prospered and your walk with the Lord has developed? Then we can chat again. Deal?”

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 25 January 2018 at 17:21

The appeal

with 3 comments

Image result for image offering boxIf you have not heard it yet, you have probably not been online for a few weeks. If you have heard it once, you have probably heard it many times. For many organisations, institutions and associations, it is the time of year for the appeal. You know how it goes – something like this:

“The end of the year is fast approaching. The beginning of the next one is going to arrive a second later. For us, it is also the end of the financial year. And this is all the good we have done or tried to do, and this is all the good we plan or intend to accomplish. And yet … money is tight. With just a few pounds or dollars from many of you, or a good bundle of them from even a few of you, Ministry X can keep moving forward and can accomplish so much more in the coming months. Might I suggest a concrete sum or a specific goal to give you a sense of definition and accomplishment? Thank you! So, please, consider whether or not this is a cause to which you can donate. And, by the way, this is your last chance … for now!”

Before you respond to such appeals, I would also like to draw attention to an institution very much in need of your financial support. It is a longstanding institution in which you should have a personal investment on multiple levels, if you do not already do so. It generally stands in need of support, and does untold good, with the capacity for yet more good than can be imagined. It ought to have the first claim on your money.

I hope you know that I am speaking of the local church. This, my friends, is the one institution with direct divine sanction. It is the the one missionary organisation with a heavenly mandate. It is the one establishment with a celestial constitution. Its work is defined by divine fiat. It is the one body with a guarantee of perpetual existence and unending profitable service. And it is the one organisation which has the legitimate and primary claim on our financial contributions to the kingdom of God.

Please do not misunderstand me. There are many institutions and organisations which are doing fine work. Many of them are doing work that lies outside the remit of the church, and they deserve your time, attention and support. Some of them do not have the capacity or desire to clamour for your probably hard-earned cash. Some of them are known to thousands, some to few. Some of them are eminently worthy, others debatably so. You should consider supporting them financially, if you are able. I also understand that there are some avenues of service that are difficult to define in terms of the role of the church either as the direct instigator or overseer.

But that is not the point. The point is that the first call on your financial investment ought to be the church to which you belong for the work which the church is called to do. Beyond that, I would suggest that the second call ought to be the local church to which you belong for the work which that church is called to do. If you trust the elders and the deacons (one presumes that you do, if you belong to the church), and if they have a sincere and wise desire for kingdom investment (and I hope that they do), and if you have a little more that you wish to do (and most of us do), why not give a little more to that church of which you are a part? Most church officers and the congregations they serve already know where and how and why they might invest any further funds made available.

It is clear from the Scriptures that Christians should support the work of the Lord by systematic and proportionate giving made through the local church (Mal 3.8-10; 1Cor 16.1-2; 2Cor 8 and 9). Whether or not you take tithing as helpful principle, it is certainly indicative of the attitude of God’s people concerning giving to God’s kingdom. And what of gifts and offerings made according to one’s ability and willingness of heart (Gen 14.18-20; 2Cor 8.1-5; Ex 36.2-7)? Has there been no blessing from God, perhaps directly through the church and its ministry, for which a thank offering might not form part of an appropriate response?

And what of other churches? Do you know of congregations that are seeking to support missionaries or plant churches or erect or purchase buildings? Are there churches that struggle to support their pastors? If you have given all that you might and all that you could to your own congregation, might you suggest to the deacons that this could be a worthwhile investment? If your church is already involved in such support, and you have more in your pocket, why not pass it along independently and anonymously?

If, after that, you have discretionary funds or wish to make further sacrifices, then by all means go ahead. Might I suggest that you save those shekels for work that lies outside the remit of the church, rather than investing it in something that is replicating or replacing that work without a divine mandate? And, unless and until you find such a need, then look nearer at hand and, I hope, nearer at heart. Christ loves his church. It was to a church that Paul wrote concerning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich (2Cor 8.9). It is in and through the local church that the first response to this example ought to be made.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 30 December 2016 at 16:25

Posted in Ecclesiology

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“Grace Alone” – a Sicilian report

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People gathered from all over Sicily, Italy, and beyond for the opening of the new church premises of Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta, in the heart of Sicily. The building itself is beautiful, though it remains – in some of its details – a work in progress. Every major part of the whole is intended to communicate something of the truth of the church and its biblical convictions.

You enter the building as you reach the seventh step – hints of a Sabbath rest. The visitor walks through four ‘Gospel’ pillars into an octagonal meeting room, reminding us that the Lord Jesus met with his people on the day of resurrection, and eight days afterward. You come in from the west, leaving the darkness behind you. On the eastern side of the church, the pulpit is the focal point, and there the light of God’s Word is shining. Behind the pulpit are two windows, suggesting the Old and the New Testaments. Opposite the pulpit are three windows in front of one window. The light shining through the one also beams through the three, giving at least an inkling of the God whom we worship. On each side of the main hall are a further twelve windows, a nod to the patriarchs and the apostles reminding us of the church of all the ages, and the great cloud of witnesses about the church militant. All the light coming in shines from above. Simple decor and wise use of space indicate that the light of nature has also taught the people one or two things.

The grand opening began on the evening of Friday 2nd December 2016. The particular focus of this night was the immediate community, a good number of whom were represented in the crowd who filled the building, along with several local dignitaries. The first act of the evening was to go back outside for the unveiling of the stone plaque bearing the church’s name and the five key Reformation solas. Underneath, a bronze plate records thanks to the God of all grace, and to his people – known to himself – whose generosity has contributed to the erection of the building. Pastor Reno Ulfo spoke simply as the green cloth dropped from the plaque, and we all filed back inside.

The strains of “Amazing Grace” in Italian filled the building before Pastor Leonardo de Chirico (Chiesa Evangelica Breccia di Roma) opened proceedings. He spoke briefly and pungently of the purpose of the church, addressing the local authorities plainly, and broadening his gospel applications to all those gathered. It was both instruction in and an example of the priorities of the people of God. The local mayor responded, followed by one of his predecessors. Both spoke as politicians, but I thought that in both a note of personal respect and some interest could be detected. Certainly, this opens up a door of opportunity for the church. The fact that the building has been constructed without draining local civil funds – unusual for this part of the world – is a testimony in itself. Already this is established as a congregation that gives more than it takes.

Professor Bolognesi of Padova then briefly outlined the theological implications of the architecture. Pastor Reno went on to identify several people and groups who had made particular contributions to the building project. After this, a video history of the church was shown. Minor technical problems, typical of life in new premises, somewhat curtailed that exercise. I don’t believe anyone was too bothered, though, as it ushered in refreshments. Light and sweet Sicilian snacks paved the way for the heavy stuff – rice balls and varieties of pizza providing enough carbohydrates for the most demanding athletes, and with enough leftovers to keep many small armies on their feet for a week or two. One is tempted to suggest that a good twelve baskets of hefty fragments could have been gathered.

Notable on this first evening and over the whole weekend – and highlighted in Pastor Reno’s thanksgiving – was the investment of the whole church, both local and beyond. The tireless and generous contributions of God’s people were evident even before attention was drawn to them. The fruits of the work were often more evident than the workers themselves, but it was clear how much had been given by so many, in terms of time, energy, and expertise. The living stones have not been neglected for the sake of the concrete blocks. Particularly moving was Pastor Ulfo’s brief tribute to his family. Few will appreciate that, for all the pastor’s sacrifices, those made by his wife and children can often be greater. In some measure, they sacrifice him as well as for him and for the Lord. Giovanna Ulfo and the children deserve credit for the work that Reno Ulfo does, and it was good to see that publicly recorded. We pray that the fruit of Reno’s gospel labours might shine as brightly in his family as it does anywhere else.

As the night wound down, we drifted back to our various rooms and guesthouses. The Saturday began fairly slowly. The overseas preachers gathered again: Pastor Alan Dunn (Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, who was travelling with his wife, Patricia), Pastor Gordon Cook (Grace Baptist Church, Canton, Michigan), and myself. We met with a number of the key men at Caltanissetta, including all those involved in various church planting endeavours. We also chatted with our translator, Damion Wallace, to prepare for the next couple of days’ work. After the usual generous hospitality, we went back to our lodgings and prepared for the evening.

As we gathered, we discovered that some of our preparations had been less helpful than others. Damion was losing his voice. Alan Dunn had adopted a non-traditional way of arresting an unpremeditated act of violent genuflection he had undertaken in Reno’s home, viz. bringing his forehead into vigorous contact with a very hard object. Butterfly stitches and plasters had somewhat repaired the damage. Add in Gordon Cook’s travails in travel, and our fighting capacity was sliding badly. We forged ahead.

The focus of the ministry that night turned to the broader church, represented among us by various believers from around the island and further afield. With that in mind, we began to address the solas of the Reformation. I began with sola Scriptura, followed by Gordon Cook on solus Christus and Leonardo de Chirico on sola fide, before Alan Dunn closed the evening dealing with sola gratia. All the ministry seemed warmly appreciated, and fellowship over further piles of food was very profitable. There was clearly much intelligent and heartfelt engagement with the truth, and several men and women spoke thoughtfully and earnestly about what they were hearing.

The Lord’s day started early, and added to our catalogue of outward woes. Reno’s voice started to get croaky, and I had a blithe journey with a man who was late even before he casually announced that he did not know the way to the church building.

Despite all this, we started at a reasonable time. I completed the series on the solas with a study of soli Deo gloria. A brother called Jose was stepping in to assist with the translation, and did a cracking job. This day we were speaking more to the local church, and so I tried to make this a particular emphasis. From there we moved straight into the formal dedication of the building to the worship of the true and living God, and Pastor Reno preached the Word of God, giving us a wonderful survey of the concept of God’s temple throughout the Scriptures. He ensured we got and kept our eyes fixed on God’s presence among his people, rather than mere buildings. God also strengthened Damion’s voice and restored him to his duties, further assisted by Jose and Giovanni Marino, one of the faithful and gifted deacons in Caltanissetta. Several brothers – local pastors – stood and pleaded earnestly with God for a blessing on the church and its work in the new premises. Gordon Cook represented the visitors in this season of intercession.

Lunch followed before we turned, for the balance of the day, to the doctrines of grace. I opened on the depravity of fallen man, and was able to finish before the effects of our latest abundant feeding were too well-advanced. Pastor Dunn followed with redemptive-historical studies on the election of God and the redemption that Christ accomplished. The weight of these sessions was, for me, relieved by a delightful older lady doubtless using headphones for the first time. This meant that she regularly bellowed at her husband at a volume which ensured that she could hear her own voice. She also cackled loudly at anything humorous about fifteen seconds after it was spoken, as the translation caught up.

Given Reno’s other duties and to preserve his voice, I had the unexpected opportunity to address the irresistible grace of the Spirit’s work in the heart. By this stage, the folks were flagging, and several had been obliged to leave, so I kept it to about thirty minutes. Pastor Cook finished the public ministry by highlighting the perseverance and preservation of the saints, admirably demonstrated on one level by the fact that most of them were still listening to us after three days of intense teaching and preaching. Gordon’s focus on the double grip of divine power and love from John 10 was a fitting end. As Pastor Ulfo said, “dulcis in fundo” – “the sweet stuff is at the bottom.”

There seems little doubt that God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness on this occasion. Weariness, illness and injury in us was outmatched by grace and goodness in him and in the patience and earnestness of those hearing.

Monday morning saw Reno and I have a brief opportunity to explain the gospel to a couple of people at my lodging house. Attempts at trilingual (English, Italian, French) evangelising leave me half-wishing that the gift of tongues remained extant. Would it not be wonderful if these brief contacts bore gospel fruit?

We drifted toward Catania for Pastor Cook’s last preaching engagement and my flight home. Along the way, we stopped at a city set on a hill, Calascibetta. Unfortunately, far from being an enlightened and enlightening place, it was wrapped in fog and sunk in spiritual darkness. A visit to the Roman Catholic church building confirmed the vacuity of the question driving one hundred conferences in the next year: Is the Reformation over? That so much genuine spiritual ugliness could be communicated in a place of undeniable architectural beauty answered that question, for these falsehoods if not for many more. Flagrant Mariolatry vied for the laurel of ungodliness with statues of the church ‘patron’, Peter, decked out in all the regalia and symbolic power of the pope. From the position of the building to the message of the decor to the arrogance of the priest (it became clear as we spoke that he was an old-school Catholic and personally godless), it all shouts a message of carnal dominion that Islam itself can only rival.

Walking back down the damp streets, we paused at the prison from which a man called Francesco Giovanni Porcaro was taken by the Spanish Inquisition to his death by burning. His crimes? Denying Christ in the sacrament, indulgences, and the pope, as well as propagating the doctrines of Luther and other errors, and continuing in the above with all obstinacy. It is good to know that the light once shone in this now-gloomy city. We should pray that it would prove true once more – post tenebras, lux! Reno’s promise that there would be open-air gospel preaching on this spot in the coming year was some consolation that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ would again beam forth. But who knows what price this and coming generations must pay for such faithfulness?

Sobered, we entered Catania and found some food at Fud, a delightful restaurant where options included horse and donkey. I opted for a more than bearable and not too risky buffalo, joined by Reno. Patricia Dunn, afflicted throughout the weekend by the presence of all the men, and having worked like a Trojan alongside the friends at Sola Grazia, opted for a ladylike salad. Alan had something fittingly but reliably cheesy, and Gordon got himself outside of a sandwich that may have involved a fairly safe chicken.

Our conversation over lunch centred on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the churches we love and serve. As ever, hard questions rarely produce easy answers. Still, they are better than empty questions carelessly shrugged off.

It was with joy and sorrow that we arrived at the airport. It had been sweet fellowship in Christ and his service, and there was more work for us all to do already looming. With mutually renewed promises of communication and prayer, information to exchange and promises to keep, I strolled through security. They drove off into the sunset, and I flew off into the darkness.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 12 December 2016 at 14:38

Dispensability

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It would be unfair to say that I am plotting my own demise. It may be that there are plenty of people more than willing to plot that on my behalf. However, I do think it makes sense to take full account of my own expected and intended dispensability. The fable of indispensability afflicts most of us almost naturally. We come to see ourselves at the centre of a particular web, the one without whom some sparkling edifice will most assuredly collapse. If God gifts one or another with an unusual measure of gift or degree of grace, paradoxically, that one can be all the more inclined to imagine themselves irreplaceable. Some learn it a hard way: try falling sick for a couple of months, and watch the kingdom of God stutter and stumble along without you … or not. Even Paul, lest he be exalted above measure, was blessed with a thorn in the flesh.

To be sure, we must take account of certain realities. By the grace of God, each of us is what we are, formed, forged, fashioned by a sovereign God for his wise and perfect purposes. We must not deny that it is for the Lord to appoint those formed, forged and fashioned instruments for particular purposes in particular times under particular circumstances, to raise up men to meet the needs of the hour. At no point can we or need we trespass upon the divine prerogative. God employs us in his kingdom for his glory; he does not rely on us.

oak and acornAnd yet, this confident humility and humble confidence should not prevent us using the means that God has provided to do and to continue the work he has appointed for us and others to do. Paul might have been considered indispensable in a robust sense of the word, and yet, with confidence in God’s means to accomplish God’s ends, Paul began to invest in men who would follow after him. We see him taking the Marks, Timothys, Tituses, Demases, and others, under his wing. Some of them disappoint him rapidly or eventually. Some of them are subsequently rehabilitated. Some of them depart, having loved this present world. Others always were and remained like sons to him. Some went on to break new ground. Some cultivated what had been planted. In his relationship with them, he models the principle that he impresses upon Timothy: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2Tim 2:2).

We know that there are always those who will hang upon a personality, and cultures and circumstances in which that disposition seems more ingrained. When the personality fades, so does the commitment and attachment of the mere hanger-on. This can happen in a church or in any other institution. Someone or someones build the momentum around himself or themselves, or allow that to happen. There is no investment in those immediately behind, and a yawning gap begins to develop. When the figurehead droops, the work drops into the chasm, or is barely rescued from it. In such a way begins a dreadful cycle of progress, collapse and recovery, the whole stilted and staggering. In a church, it can happen when one man is seen as the key figure. Sometimes he preaches the place full and then empty again, or builds the behemoth, only to see it begin to wane. Sometimes the work continues to advance, but everyone is fearful of the moment when the leader is taken away. Wittingly or unwittingly, the leader and those around him buy into the myth that it hinges upon him; structures are put in place to keep the figurehead propped up, postponing the inevitable. Acolytes rally round to try to maintain the progress that the Great One had when his energy levels were higher and his gifts not quite so worn. Churches that should be and in many ways are healthy roll on until the inevitable rolls in. Then there is almost of necessity a painful period in which a variety of men prove that they are not up to scratch. They cannot match the great personality, and too often there is despondency, despair and desertion before enough time passes and enough people leave to pick up the threads once more and to build again from the ground up.

But where is the investment in succession? I happen to be persuaded that the scriptural model for church rule involves a plurality of elders, under Christ exercising an equal authority while manifesting a diversity of gifts. Ideally, even where that diversity of gifts allows for greater public prominence or usefulness for one or some, or the guidance of God’s Word and Spirit directs the church into certain avenues of service which puts a greater onus on certain men, this provides for a measure of real stability and continuity. Of course, sinful men can and do conspire to muck up the best system, but the principle is sound. When the church in Antioch sent out Barnabas and Saul, they sent away two of the five prophets and teachers that the Lord had gifted to the church there. Paul himself took pains to invest in those who followed him, taking Timothy and Titus and others with him, discipling them, acting as a mentor in word (spoken and written) and deed (seen and reported). When Paul was directing Titus in his work in Crete, he directed him to appoint elders in every city, men who would take up and pass on the baton of apostolic truth and labour: “Titus, make yourself effectively redundant; prove you are ultimately dispensable.” When you pass from the scene, moved on, sent on, pulled on, taken away, make sure that – under God – you have invested in those equipped to follow you. This does not sap the energy. It need not encourage armchair Christianity. It is not building for retirement, but providing for future investment. We should wish to be part of a line, not the end of one. Even once-in-a-lifetime men (and who, at best, is not that?) can make sure that when the curtain falls on a particular scene, or on the whole play of life, there are other players already stepping into the roles that they have played. Even the inimitable do not have to be irreplaceable. They still play Hamlet though Gielgud is no more.

And so we should plot our own demise, plan for our obsolescence. Our inimitability is, for most if not all of us, a mercy of God. Really, does the world need anyone else like you? But we should never plan or hope to be irreplaceable. In fact, we should cultivate and establish our own dispensability. I think I can genuinely say that it would be a moment of profound pastoral thankfulness for me to say, “I hope these saints still want me, but I do not believe that they need me in any pressing sense.” I hope that before then we have already sent the painfully but joyfully dispensable out as investments into other work in other places. That is likely to involve real sacrifice, but be a mark of real progress. Perhaps there will come a moment when they will send me on to other things? In this way the church of Christ can send out its ones and twos and threes, and see other disciples made, other churches established, other efforts undertaken, without the compromise or collapse of those who began that work.

Are you planning your demise? Have you learned and embraced the lesson of your own dispensability? By God’s grace, you might even at some point become properly superfluous where you are, and be the one who gets sent away to do something else, where you may seem briefly and uncomfortably indispensable until you are able once more to establish afresh your own dispensability.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 25 September 2015 at 07:11

Posted in Ecclesiology

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Baptist covenant theology

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1689 covenant theologySome readers of the blog might be interested to know of an upcoming study day at London Theological Seminary on Baptist covenant theology. The day is planned for Monday 23 November, to run from 10am to 4pm. If you are interested in coming, please book by emailing registrar@ltslondon.org and registering your name for the day. There is a fee of £5, payable on the day itself if you wish. Lunch is not included in that fee, but tea and coffee will be available.

If you need a little more information, here’s a taster from the blurb:

Who or what are Reformed Baptists? Are they the same as Particular Baptists? Confessional Baptists? Calvinistic Baptists? Independent Baptists? Grace Baptists? Covenantal Baptists? Can Baptists even be Reformed?

More importantly, perhaps, who am I and what do I believe? What does it mean for me to be a Reformed Baptist, or whichever one of these other labels is used? Is that what I am? What about the church to which I belong? Does it make a difference? Ought it to make a difference?

The purpose of this study day is to introduce the topic of covenant theology in a Baptist context. We need to consider the matter historically and practically, but primarily biblically and theologically. Seeking to ground our studies in the Word of God, we will consider the various expressions of covenantal thought of Reformed or Particular Baptists as it began to find particular expression in the 17th century in the writings and confessions of our spiritual forefathers. From there, and taking account of how other Baptists addressed these issues, we will look at how modern Reformed Baptists of various stripes have wrestled and continue to wrestle with these issues. Along the way, we will, in some measure, be interacting with our paedobaptist brothers (Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others), as well as taking some account of Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology (all of whom and which, in some measure, stand apart from the mainstream of Reformed Baptist thought, which is itself not monolithic).
Our goal is a positive declaration and discussion, grounded in the Scriptures. We will be less interested in figuring out which camp one ought to belong to, more interested in identifying and clarifying the issues that need to be addressed, and the lines along which our thoughts should run. The pastoral and practical implications of the principles and patterns understood and embraced will be at the forefront of our thought.

So, if you’re interested, please sign up and I shall look forward to seeing you there, God willing.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 10 September 2015 at 15:20

“Untill faith appears”

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Jonathan Leeman can take care of himself. I will not pretend or imply that I know well enough to agree with everything, more plain or more nuanced, in Brother Leeman’s ecclesiology, though I know we have much in common. However, it is still worth reading his initial piece on the baptism of disciples in full in order to understand what he said and did not say. Not all of that comes across in Mark Jones’ response.

Indeed, Jonathan has himself responded to Mark’s critique (as have others), and readers can look at those matters for themselves.

I have been digging around in the 17th century recently, and have – not deliberately, but of necessity – found a number of treatments of the issue among the early Particular Baptists. In particular, there’s a lovely little piece by Edward Harrison called Paedo-baptisme Oppugned that I had the pleasure of reading. We’re also working in our adult Bible class through the Appendix to the 1677/1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, which raises and answers very similar questions. It really is refreshing how crisply and scripturally these Baptists worked through and addressed the issues.

However, in connection with this altercation, I came across the following in John Spilsbery’s Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptism, which I thought helped the discussion forward quite neatly. Spilsbery declares that

all that I intend by opposing Infants Baptism, is but onely to forbear and wait upon God in the use of means, untill faith appears to meet with God in his holy Ordinance, without which the same is voyd and of no effect; but prophaned, God provoked, and the party indangered.

Of course, Splisbery’s little “only” is quite weighty and far-reaching, but it does clarify the question.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 4 July 2015 at 21:00

Of deacons

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In the course of a certain recent train of thought set off by a certain portion of preparation, I struggled to identify a particular set of resources.

Specifically, I was thinking of the power of example, and applying it especially to church officers. As I considered the available resources, I found myself reasonably well-stocked with pastoral theologies, and with plenty of historical studies and (auto)biographies to adorn those pages. What I do not have, in anything like the same measure, is a treasury of diaconal theology, adorned with the same wealth of biographies and other studies to show as well as to tell.

Knowing that both of my readers are well-stocked with this kind of knowledge, I am writing to ask if either of you have any suggestions for anything that falls into this category (either direct treatments of the office and/or descriptions of it, biographical or otherwise), whether more ancient or more modern, and (ideally) robustly orthodox. Authors and titles would be appreciated; links to online documents would be a special blessing! Even if you think something is obvious, please let me know – if a suggestion duplicates something I already have or know, I shall simply take it as a helpful endorsement. Thanks in advance for any help rendered, and I look forward to reading your comments and suggestions.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 23 July 2014 at 14:26

Church planting and the London Baptist Confessions of Faith

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Almost as soon as Calvinistic Baptists appeared on the scene in 1640s England, they demonstrated a whole-hearted commitment to evangelism and church planting. They were not alone, for many of the Puritans expressed concern for the regions of their country not yet blossoming with Gospel assemblies.[2] None of these men could be content enjoying their own privileges, but actively engaged in seeking to bring the message of Christ to others.

Good stuff from Jim Renihan in full here. It sets a standard for us today that we need more readily to embrace. In particular, we need to see our ecclesiology and our missiology more closely intertwined.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 22 July 2014 at 08:54

Spurgeon’s standards for conversion and membership

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Perhaps, in our day, we are not always sure what we should be looking for in the heart and life of men and women who profess faith in the Lord Jesus. Far too many churches, perhaps feeling the pressure of numbers or some other force, are inclined to drop their standards or blur their distinctions, if they have them in the first place. In the face of that, these standards seem to me to be thoroughly biblical, genuinely gracious, and appropriately robust. They combine doctrinal understanding, experimental religion, and principled obedience – a religion of head, heart and hand, if you will. If more congregations embraced a righteous assessment of this sort with regard to professing converts and applicants for membership, I am persuaded that they would be spiritually healthier places than they too often are.

See what those standards were at Reformation21.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 27 January 2014 at 08:00

Together?

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Stephen Rees of Grace Baptist Church in Stockport was asked this question by a correspondent:

We are thinking through the matter of whether or not to join a formal association of churches. We left the Baptist Union about fifteen years ago and have been formally independent, although we have enjoyed a warm informal relationship with other churches. We are now considering if it would be good to affiliate with the FIEC (Fellowship of Evangelical Churches) or the regional association of Grace Baptist Churches, or both. However, some friends have said to me that in their view linking formally with such organisations can be detrimental to church life. I am wondering if you are aware of any resources, or if you have written any yourself, on this subject …

Read his answer.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 6 November 2013 at 15:49

Posted in Ecclesiology

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Converted to Christ and his church

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Brief, wise words from Joe Thorn:

Of course it’s possible to be converted and not be a part of the local church. Possible. And dangerous. You see, the goal–the mission of the church–is not to see converts, but to make disciples. Conversion is but a part of that process. The making of spiritually mature disciples who obey Jesus Christ can only fully happen inside the church. It is in the church where we discover and exercise our spiritual gifts; where we bear one another’s burdens, exhort, encourage, and rebuke one another; where we share in one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Father.

Preach the gospel. Preach the hope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for sinners. Preach it with the aim of reconciling people to God and receiving them into the fellowship. The local church (in all it’s ministries and meetings) is “where it’s at,” not because it’s cool, entertaining, or perfect, but because that it is where Christ stands with his people, fellowshipping with them, and leading them through this life into the life to come.

Read a little more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 23 August 2013 at 07:49

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Independence and integration

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Two interesting articles by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks on the local church, focusing on its independence and integration. There’s a lot here I would agree with.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 24 April 2013 at 07:50

“The Great God Entertainment”

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 3 September 2012 at 09:12

Spiritual conflict resolution

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The New Testament does not hide the fact that nearly every church in the Apostolic age experienced conflict. As the New Testament writers addressed these matters, they provided invaluable instruction on how believers are to think, act, and treat one another when conflict arises. By studying the churches in the New Testament and the instructions given to them regarding conflict, we can learn biblical principles for handling conflict in a constructive, Christ-honoring way.

So writes Alexander Strauch, going on to develop very helpfully some thoughts on how conflicts and their resolution often proceed depending on whether or not the saints are being properly governed by and responsive to the Holy Spirit.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 25 August 2012 at 17:12

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From metro to retro

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I am in a different situation, but I very much appreciated some of Josh Blunt’s insights as he moved from a deliberately trendy church-planting model to actually trying to establish a faithful congregation. His four posts (the titles are mine) are as follows:

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 14 August 2012 at 09:52

Posted in Ecclesiology

Keach on the duties of church members to pastors

with 4 comments

1. It is the duty of every member to pray for his Pastor and Teachers.

2. They ought to show a reverential estimation of them, being Christ’s ambassadors, also called Rulers, Angels, etc.

3. It is their duty to submit themselves unto them, that is, in all their exhortations, good counsels, and reproofs.

4. It is their duty to take care to vindicate them from the unjust charges of evil men, or tongue of infamy, and not to take up a reproach against them by report, nor to grieve their spirits, or to weaken their hands (Jer 20:10; Zeph 2:8; 2 Cor 11:21, 23).

5. It is the duty of members to go to them when under trouble or temptations.

6. It is their duty to provide a comfortable maintenance for them and their families, suitable to their state and condition.

7. It is their duty to adhere to them and abide by them in all their trials and persecutions for the Word.

8. Dr. Owen adds another duty of the members to their Pastor, viz., to agree to come together upon his appointment.

These highlights were found and are slightly filled out here. You can read all of Benjamin Keach’s excellent stuff on The Glory of a True Church and its Discipline Displayed here.

Note that it is easy to profess all this, much harder to do it. Sometimes you find that the people most profuse in their praise of you are actually the ones who listen least to you.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 14 August 2012 at 09:26

What is the church for?

with 3 comments

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the main task of the church, via the Old Guys:

There are other agencies in the world which can deal with many of the problems of man kind. I mean by that, things like medicine, the State, even other religions, and cults, and psychology and various other teachings and political agencies. These are all designed to help, and to relieve somewhat, the human condition, to ease the pain and the problem of life and to enable men to live more harmoniously and to enjoy life in a greater measure. They set out to do that, and it is no part of our case to say that they are of no value. We must observe the facts and grant that they can do good, and do much good. They are capable in a measure of dealing with these things. But none of them can deal with this fundamental, this primary trouble at which we have been looking.

Not only that, when they have done their all, or when even the Church coming down to that level and operating on that level alone, has done her all, the primary trouble still remains. So I would lay it down as a basic proposition that the primary task of the Church is not to educate man, is not to heal him physically or psychologically, it is not to make him happy. I will go further; it is not even to make him good. These are things that accompany salvation; and when the Church performs her true task she does incidentally educate men and give them knowledge and information, she does bring them happiness, she does make them good and better than they were. But my point is that those are not her primary objectives. Her primary purpose is not any of these; it is rather to put man into the right relationship with God, to reconcile man to God. This really does need to be emphasize at the present time, because this, it seems to me, is the essence of the modern fallacy. It has come into the Church and it is influencing the thinking of many in the Church– this notion that the business of the Church is to make people happy, or to integrate their lives, or to relieve their circumstances and improve their conditions. My whole case is that to do that is just to palliate the symptoms, to give temporary ease, and that it does not get beyond that.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 21 July 2012 at 09:50

Posted in Ecclesiology

Tagged with ,

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