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Patience with the Next Generation: passing on a tradition without bitterness

When I was a boy, my father, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), consistently taught my siblings and me always to ask why we do what we do in church. Never accept as a reason for doing something that “this is the way we’ve always done it.” To be Reformed was not to be traditional or conservative. It was to be biblical. To be sure, we were taught that our Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort are faithful expositions of Scripture. But we were never told we could not question those confessions, or probe whether or not they were truly biblical. We were allowed to argue, to debate, and to claim the confessions not on the basis of the authority of our parents or our church, but because we were convinced that they were biblical.

In contrast to my father, I have known many people who grew up in homes were questioning and argumentation were not tolerated. Signs of push-back from the young people were interpreted as rebellion. Changes of conviction on practical or controversial issues were viewed as betrayal. The CRC of the mid-twentieth century was a bastion of conservative Reformed Christianity, and it was all too easy for the conservatives to look with anger and frustration on the rising generation that questioned old traditions. Trust and dialog gave way to bitterness and politics. The very dogmatism and rigidity that made the CRC look so Reformed made its rapid slide into liberal evangelicalism utterly breathtaking. In many instances, the younger generation simply threw off the conservatism of the older. They could see that being conservative was not the same thing as being Christian.

This overgeneralizing account of what went on in the CRC is not historical and it is not the only factor in what happened. I’m not trying to offer any sort of definitive interpretation. I’m simply pointing out one part of the story, a part that Reformed Christians need to think about and to think about deeply.

I have now been living in PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) circles for 11 years (my whole adult life) and I have attended PCA churches for the balance of that time. My first and most formative pastoral internship was at a historic, rural PCA church that was being wisely and carefully transformed through the ministry of Don Clements. There I met many people who had grown up in the Presbyterian Church, or married into it, but had no clue what it meant to be Reformed. They had never been taught, and they had never been exposed to consistent biblical preaching. When they were taught Reformed theology from Scripture (rather than from tradition or simply from a confession) they ate it up eagerly. Thanks in large part to Don’s hard work, the church is now a thriving Reformed church.

During my time in the PCA, however, I have grown concerned about two dangerous trends. On the one hand, it has become far too ordinary of an experience for me to visit a PCA church – whether traditional or contemporary in style – and be disappointed by the quality (and quantity) of the preaching. The emphasis in worship, in many of these cases, has shifted to congregational singing or choral presentations, much of which is as thin in Scriptural content as is the preaching. In one instance (in a traditional church) a pastor even decided to preach on Pilgrim’s Progress rather than Scripture.

On the other hand, I have been very disappointed with the quality of teaching on worship itself. Far too often, it seems, “traditionalists” merely complain (or vent) about the trends in the church away from the confessions, or from the Directory of Public Worship. Rather than lovingly and laboriously returning to Scripture and making a clear New Testament case for what Christian worship should look like, we have to listen to complaints about “rebellious” trends such as support for women deaconesses, social outreach by the church, or things like “intinction.” Indeed, we are told, those who push these causes are not concerned about Scripture at all. They are simply rebels wanting to parrot our culture. They should just leave the PCA.

This is terribly unhealthy for any denomination. Trust and solidarity seems to be breaking down. Progressives view traditionalists as committed to a tradition rather than to Scripture, and traditionalists view progressives as informed by the culture rather than the Bible. Neither side seems willing to do the hard exegetical and biblical-theological work of lovingly persuading the other (or of taking the arguments of the other seriously).

It is not that the Scriptural case for Reformed worship is difficult to make. In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul points out that the problem with the worship of the world (and much of the worship of the church) is that it is shaped by worldly or fleshly instincts about how to please God. In other words, it focuses on the use of external or physical practices and circumstances that pander to human desires rather than on Jesus Christ. Why, Paul argues, if you have died to this world in Christ, do you still pander to its thinking about worship? Why do you still follow Old Testament instructions? Instead you should hold fast to Christ, and let him grow you. What are the means by which he grows you? As Ephesians 4 clearly tells us, they are those associated with the ministry of the gospel, that is, the preaching and teaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments. Everything else that we do in worship is simply our testimony to God’s work of growing us by taking his own word upon our lips (in prayer or song) or sharing his gifts with one another.

There are some voices out there pointing us back to this sort of ministry. At his thoughtful and helpful blog The Reformed ReaderShane Lems points us to letters by the 18th Century English pastor John Newton demonstrating just how concerned Newton was to get his parishioners to hear his preaching, and how hard he tried to communicate to them nothing but the clarity of Christ’s word.

I have done my best to avoid whatever might give you needless offense.  I knew that if I would be faithful to Scripture and my conscience, that some of my hearers would be displeased.  But, though I was constrained to risk your displeasure, I have been careful not to needlessly provoke you, or to lay any unnecessary difficulties in your way.

I am not a polished orator nor do I wish to capture your attention by the elegance of my words.  If I had the ability to use elegant words and capture your attention with them, I would not do it.  I speak to the unlearned and the wise, so my principal aim is to be understood.  Yet I hope that I am not wrongly charged with speaking nonsense, with flippancy, carelessness, or disrespect.  But alas! There are too many hearers who seem more desirous of entertainment than of real benefit from a Christian sermon!

If the vocal traditionalists who so often complain about those ruining the PCA would display this spirit and devotion to faithfully and lovingly explaining Scripture it would do a world of good for the conversation. Derek Thomas offers a helpful example in a recent piece on worship. I wish that Thomas would be more clear about the unique authority of the New Testament as opposed to the Old, but that aside Thomas’s emphasis is refreshing.

Of particular significance are Paul’s responses to errant public worship at Colossae and Corinth. At one point, Paul characterizes the public worship in Colossae as ethelothreskia (Col. 2:23), variously translated as “will worship” (KJV) or “self-made religion” (ESV). The Colossians had introduced elements that were clearly unacceptable (even if they were claiming an angelic source for their actions — one possible interpretation of Col. 2:18, the “worship of angels”). Perhaps it is in the Corinthian use (abuse) of tongues and prophecy that we find the clearest indication of the apostle’s willingness to “regulate” corporate worship. He regulates both the number and order of the use of spiritual gifts in a way that does not apply to “all of life”: no tongue is to be employed without an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27–28) and only two or three prophets may speak, in turn (vv. 29–32). At the very least, Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians underlines that corporate worship is to be regulated and in a manner that applies differently from that which is to be true for all of life.

The health of any church depends on both the authority and teaching of Scripture and on a spirit of loving patience and careful communication. No part of the church can say to another, “I have no need of you.” We need the next generation with all its questions and challenges, even if it sometimes strikes us as rebellious. After all, you cannot pass on a tradition with bitterness. Loving patience, the hard work of persuasion based on Scripture, and a willingness even to see the tradition itself corrected is the only way forward.

Why Christian Worship is Different: the body of Christ

Today I have the privilege of preaching at two different churches. In the morning I will be preaching on Romans 6:1-11 at Brookwood Presbyterian Church in Snellville, Georiga. In the evening I’ll be at Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, Georgia, preaching on Colossians 2:16-23.

Colossians is a remarkable book. Paul keeps pounding the same theme over and over, that everything that could possibly matter to human beings is caught up with Christ, that he is the fullness of God in whom is found all wisdom and knowledge. There is no reason to look anywhere else for anything else, because all things in heaven and on earth exist in him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out in his Ethics, to view anything in creation apart from its relation to Christ is to view an abstraction. Apart from Christ, it has no real existence.

The problem with human religion – wherever it is found in the world – is that it always tries to transcend the human and the worldly by means of the human and the worldly. Human beings practice asceticism or mystical contemplation, they fix their minds on imagery or symbolism, and they play musical instruments or burn incense to somehow conjure up an experience of the divine. Yet none of this has any effect because what is from this world cannot transcend this world. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor can what is perishable inherit what is imperishable. You cannot get to what is substantial from what is abstract. The worship experiences conjured up by those whose worship does not transcend flesh and blood are nothing more than abstractions. They are not real. They have no future.

Why is Christianity different? It is not the abstraction of a human invention. The object of Christian worship is the body of Jesus, in whom all things exist (Col 2:7; 1:17). In his body Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly, by giving up his body he paid the ultimate sacrifice, and with his body he arose from the dead, having conquered and transcended this world of sin and death. In short, he accomplished what no human worship can accomplish and in so doing he inaugurated the new heavens and the new earth. Christian worship is different because it consists of holding fast to this Jesus, and so following him in all that he did.

What does this look like in practice? Our only distinctive ceremonies are the Lord’s Supper and baptism, in both of which we testify to our union with the body of Christ. The focus of what we do is to hear and accept our Lord’s word to us, conveyed by the ministers he has appointed. Our only necessary response is to call upon his name by taking the word of Christ upon our own lips, in song and in prayer, and to share the gifts he has given us with one another. Nothing else really matters. Theologians have called this the Regulative Principle of Worship. Paul calls it holding fast to Christ.

Christian worship is different because whereas human beings rely on all sorts of fleshly practices to transcend this fleshly world, you cannot transcend flesh with flesh. You cannot get from death to life by means of things that die. Only by holding fast to the one who has gone before us and died to this world can we be raised up to life everlasting.

The New Testament as our authority for worship: Destroying the worship wars

Here’s my response to a request for evidence in my claim regarding Calvin and the New Testament as the authority for our worship:

In his criticism of Roman worship, with all of its pomp and ceremony, Calvin writes in the Institutesas follows:

For they have partly taken their patterns from the ravings of the Gentiles, partly, like apes, have rashly imitated the ancient rites of the Mosaic law, which apply to us no more than do animal sacrifices and other like things.” (Institutes 4.10.12)

This is a striking sentence. When he accuses them of rashly imitating the ancient Mosaic Laws, he is not talking about the sacrificial system, which all Christians agree is abrogated. He is talking about the rites in addition to that system (“which apply to us no more than do animal sacrifices), including “other like things.” For Calvin, I it is quite clear, that included things like vestments, instruments, etc.

He goes on to say that these things serve “benumb the people rather than to teach them.” In their place Calvin emphasized preaching and the sacraments, because these are God’s divinely appointed means of teaching. Note that when Calvin discusses “ceremonies” or “constitutions” in this part of the Institutes he is referring essentially to liturgy and worship practices. Calvin does not want us to return to “ceremonies which, with Christ half buried, cause us to return to Jewish symbols.” (4.10.14)

He then points out that his Roman Catholic opponents are defending their practices based on the Old Testament model: “They say that among us are very many as untutored as there were among the people of Israel; that for the sake of these this sort of elementary discipline was provided …” Then he goes on, “It was not in vain that God set this difference between us and the ancient folk, that he willed to teach them as children by signs and figures, but to teach us more simply, without such outward trappings.”(4.10.14)

And later, commenting on John 4:23, “But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured, and so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply. Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted by Christ.” Read the whole section in the Institutes; this is just a selection of quotes to give you the thrust of argument. (4.10.14)

Evidence that I am interpreting Calvin right here, and that he extended this argument beyond just the Torah and to the whole system of Temple worship as found in the psalms and elsewhere, comes from the way he discusses instruments:

To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures, but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue (commentary on Psalm 71:22).

What would that approach do to the contemporary worship wars! But here’s more:

With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and will find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been his will to train his people, while they were yet tender and like children, by such rudiments until the coming of Christ. But now, when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time. (commentary on Psalm 81:3).

Notice here the contrast between the time of the law and the time of the coming of Christ. This clearly explains Calvin’s comments in the Instruments. The New Testament is the authority for worship. Finally, one more:

We are to remember that the worship of God was never understood to consist in such outward services, which were only necessary to help forward a people as yet weak and rude in knowledge in the spiritual worship of God. A difference is to be observed in this respect between his people under the Old and under the New Testament; for now that Christ has appeared, and the church has reached full age, it were only to bury the light of the gospel should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation. From this it appears that the Papists, as I shall have occasion to show elsewhere, in employing instrumental music cannot be said so much to imitate the practice of God’s ancient people as to ape it in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative and terminated with the gospel (commentary on Psalm 92:1-4).

Here he is explicit: the New Testament alone is the authority for our worship.

The real crisis of Reformed worship: forgetting which testament we’re under

Arguments are constantly being thrown around in the “worship wars.” Some are far better quality than others. Those that tend to be more helpful, regardless of what position they take, are those that get to the foundational issues: what is the nature of Scriptural authority over our worship, how should we apply it, how is Scripture’s authority at stake in our current debates? Those that are less helpful are those that appeal largely to some standard not generally accepted (such as historical tradition, or contemporary popularity and effectiveness), or those that fail to address the foundational issues.

The Aquila Report has posted an article on worship written by John Payne, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, where these debates are particularly poignant and where a lot is currently at stake. In many ways I appreciate Payne’s argument. I would probably share his views on almost every practical question at stake, and most of what I am about to say is consistent with one of Payne’s basic complaints:

Isn’t it true that in many cases the reading and preaching of Scripture, the careful administration of the sacraments and substantial seasons of prayer have been crowded out by lengthy announcements, personal testimonies, and extended segments of music and praise?

However, I am concerned that Payne provides insufficient attention to the real “crisis” underlying the worship wars in the PCA, and that is the nature of Scriptural authority regarding worship. In short, there is a lack of consensus within the PCA on the nature of biblical authority in worship. The result is that traditionalists appeal to tradition and progressives appeal to contemporary effectiveness and there is no basis of common ground for any sort of agreement.

Let me try to illustrate my argument briefly. I will be sure to return to various aspects of it in future posts, to flesh it out more fully.

It is commonly noted that the fundamental Reformed contribution to the doctrine of worship, represented by figures such as John Calvin, was the argument that our worship is to be regulated entirely by Scripture. This is generally viewed as meaning that we must find warrant for everything we want to do, somewhere in the Bible (i.e., see John Frame’s influential book). But in fact, Calvin’s (and most of the Reformed tradition’s) point was much more specific than that. Calvin (like the church fathers) believed our worship is to be regulated by the New Testament. We are not to look at the Old Testament’s temple worship, illustrated in the historical books and in the psalms, for worship ideas for the new covenant church. Our authority for the new covenant church is the New Testament. In our worship we are to commit ourselves to practicing what the Lord commands, and nothing else.

In reality, many today who think they are Reformed in their views of worship really hold views that in the 16th and 17th Centuries would have been viewed as Lutheran or Anglican. It is not that the Lutherans and Anglicans said we can do whatever we want in worship, as is commonly thought. It is simply that they had a less strict understanding of what sort of Scriptural warrant was necessary, appealing freely to the Old Testament or to biblical principles of edification. In contrast, the Reformed usually threw out the instruments of the medieval church and limited their singing to psalms and other Scriptural texts.

Why does the difference matter? So many aspects of worship under such heated dispute today – musical instruments, choirs, liturgical dancing, etc. – are entirely based on Old Testament texts. They are not even mentioned in the New Testament. What does that suggest? These matters are entirely irrelevant to New Testament worship. They are not commanded by God. They are part of the Old Testament ceremonial law that has been abrogated by Christ.

What we should really be focusing on is those things highlighted in the New Testament as the focus of the early church: preaching, the sacraments, fellowship (including of material possessions), and prayer, according to the classic list in Acts 2:42. Note how little singing is spoken of in New Testament discussions of worship. It is clearly commanded (Colossians 3:16-17; Ephesians 5:18-21), but it does not make the list of basic things the church was doing. Singing seems to have been a means of doing other things; it was not its own element.

In fact, singing (and music generally) is a classic example of how by losing the focus of Scripture our worship debates have gotten entirely off track. We argue over what music instruments to use and how they should be played, even though the significance of instruments is entirely a function of the Old Testament. Instruments don’t matter. We argue over what kinds of songs to sing, failing to make use of Paul’s clear guidance that the content of our songs should be the Word of Christ (Scripture!) and that they should serve as a means of teaching and encouragement. We dominate our services with singing, forcing pastors to keep their sermons down to 20 minutes (a week!), and to keep their prayers short. We hold the Lord’s Supper once a month at best, even though unlike singing the Lord’s Supper is a basic element of worship.

What should Reformed worship be all about? We should gather each week to hear the preaching of the Word, to pray to our God, to break bread, and to fellowship together in song and in the sharing of our possessions. Nothing else really matters. Just like the medieval church, with which the reformers broke, we can fill our worship with all kinds of things based on human wisdom. Instruments, images, art, architecture, vestments, candles, on and on. These things are merely distractions to the real drama of worship as outlined in the New Testament. Returning to that standard would go a long way in restoring our worship to Scriptural integrity.

Keeping the Gospel Central – my Sunday perspective

Sunday is the day that Christians around the world gather for worship and fellowship in remembrance of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. For me, Sunday is a day in which my ordinary work stops and I don’t bother reading much of the news. As a result, blogging on Sundays will be a little bit different.

Each Sunday morning (with few exceptions, I hope) I will write a brief comment on the Gospel. These comments will vary in scope and content, at times dealing with the Gospel itself, at times the relation of the Gospel to some part of the Church’s life and witness. But their broader purpose will be keep reminding myself, and my readers, of what should always be front and center in our thoughts and actions.

There is a very good reason for this. Inevitably as I write about various controversies, delve into politics or evaluate events, the Gospel itself can recede from view, even if my whole purpose is to think about these matters in its light. No doubt those of you who graciously yet faithfully read my blog will disagree with me from time to time, sometimes strongly. I will be wrong sometimes, though obviously I will never try to be. Stepping back once a week and looking at the big picture will help remind us why we listen to each other, and why we need to keep humility. We are all the sinners, saved by Christ, seeking to do our best to reflect and act on what that means in our lives.

Today, the first Sunday in the history of this blog, Christian in America, I simply want to step back and remember the history and the calling that has made us Christians in America in the first place. The word Gospel means good news, and in our minds we should think of it as just that: an almost “too good to be true” report about real events that have changed the course of history. We find our identity in those events, and thus we think of ourselves first and foremost as Christians. Our highest loyalty is to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and our most basic calling is to testify in our lives and words to who he is, what he has done, and what it means for the world. This we do whether we tell others about the Gospel or whether we seek to promote our neighbors welfare in our common secular affairs.

What is the basic Gospel? It is that in love God sent his own son into this world as a human being. Though he was the final king in the dynasty of David, he came not in triumph and judgment on Israel’s enemies, but in mercy and compassion. As a result of God’s love, Jesus died to pay the price of sin, not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. God then raised him in proof that despite his seeming defeat Jesus had won the victory. All that Jesus said about the kingdom of God, and all the love that he demonstrated in his life, is the future of the world, and of humanity. Those who place their faith in him, and therefore find their identity in him, become a part of that future. Those who do not will face their king when he returns to judge the world with perfect justice, holding everyone accountable for what they have done. For human beings struggling in a world of injustice, disease, disappointment, and death, it is good news indeed to know that such struggles are not our destiny. For human beings destined to face the judgment of a just God, it is good news to know that we can be forgiven.

In all that I write on this blog I try to reflect this reality. Jesus is the future of the world. The purpose of the Church is to lead men, women, and children to turn from injustice and to find their salvation in him. Whether by proclaiming the Gospel in our worship and church life, or by promoting the immediate welfare of our neighbors and communities in this life, we witness to the good that God has in store for his world.

Does architecture have anything to do with worship?

In a recent blog post at The Christian Pundit, borrowed in a further post at the Aquila Report, Rebecca Van Doodewaard makes an argument about the integral connection between church architecture and theology:

One of the (many) depressing side effects of the church growth movement has been the construction of ugly church buildings all across America. In an attempt to make going to church less intimidating for unbelievers, building committees have tried to create something that, with a few refittings, could be a fast-food restaurant, box store, or movie theater. But in creating something supposedly more approachable for the unchurched, North American churches are not only robbing church goers of doctrinal clarity in worship, but they are also exposing their unbiblically rearranged priorities.

This trend has done more than give future architects something to laugh at. It has told everyone who sees the buildings that we don’t take our church any more seriously than we take our shopping. The worshippers have tried to sever the connection between ecclesiastical architecture and theology. They can’t, of course, which is why ugly churches are so often a byproduct of ugly theology.

Believers can’t throw in the aesthetic towel and claim frugality, ignorance, or indifference when examining their buildings. We need to think theologically about every possible aspect of the building, and especially of the sanctuary. Because just like it’s not natural to have a good date with your husband in a concrete room with exposed wires, choosing to worship the God of beauty in a windowless shoebox is a theological disconnect, unless you’re in a developing country, jail, or a Chinese house church. Even if you are a church plant with no money in a store-front, your theology will effect the way you arrange what you have. Flying buttresses and wood paneling are not required. Careful, deliberate thought and use of what you have is.

Now I have no desire to defend the church growth movement, and I share Van Doodewaard’s concern about the decline in doctrinal clarity about worship. I also agree that where we worship says a lot about what we think we are doing in our worship.

But it is my agreement with her premises that leads me to disagree with some of the claims Van Doodewaard makes. Is it really the case that worshiping, for example, in a strip mall tells people that “we don’t take our church any more seriously than we take our shopping”? Why is choosing to worship God in a “windowless shoebox … a theological disconnect, unless you’re in a developing country,  jail, or a Chinese house church”? To be sure, we should think about the context for our worship and arrange it in a way most conducive to what we are doing. But I would suggest that this is a pragmatic exercise, rather than a theological one.  Of course, the practice of wisdom is informed and shaped by our theology, but to highlight architecture as a theological issue distinct in character from whether or not we worship at 9:30 or 11:00 on a Sunday morning is to confuse the theology of worship with mere circumstance.

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