Archive for December, 2010

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) records the following about an invitation he had accepted to preach.  In the passage, he relates his growing revulsion as he learned of the details planned for the event.  It’s amusing, yet sobering – especially since it’s so contemporary!

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“They have got the sermon into the newspaper, and on reading the advertisement I was well-nigh overset by the style of it. They are going to have a grand musical concert along with the sermon, to which the best amateurs and performers of the neighborhood are to lend their services. This is all put down in their gaudy manifesto, and to me it is most ineffably disgusting. You know that I am to be very guarded; but I could not perfectly disguise my antipathies to this part of the arrangement. I asked Mr. Grant if I might take the paper with me for the amusement of my Scottish friends. He asked if I disliked music. I said that I liked music, but disliked all charlatanry. Thus far I went; and it was perhaps too far, but this is really making it a theatrical performance, and me one of the performers. But let me be patient; I am jaded and overdone, and reserve my further writing till Monday. . .

When I went to the great preaching hall, I found that there was just this practicing before an immense assemblage, on which I called out, in the distinct hearing of those about me, that there was an air of charlatanry about the whole affair, and that I did not like it at all. I would stay no longer in that place, and went along with them to the committee-room, where there were about twenty managers and others. I said that I had come from a great distance on their account, and had therefore purchased the privilege of telling them plain things; that they should have consulted me ere they had made their arrangements—that I was quite revolted by the quackery of their advertisement—that they had made me feel myself to be one of the performers in a theatrical exhibition—that what they had done stood in the same relation to what they ought to have done, that an advertisement of Dr. Solomon’s did to the respectable doings of the regular faculty, &c., &c. I was firm and mild withal—they confused, and awkward, and in difficulties. I said, that still I would preach, but that I thought it right to state what I felt” (Memoirs 2:41).

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Small groups are immensely popular in evangelical circles these days, and increasingly commonplace in Reformed communions.  I’m not sure how much of this is due to the influence of New Calvinism or whether it’s due to old-guard Reformed folk warming up to broader evangelicalism.  Maybe both.  Regardless of the source, it’s definitely a popular construct.   Some would even argue that it’s a staple for ordinary church life.

I’ve been back and forth on small groups for some time.  In my more skeptical moments, the following concerns have come to mind.

First, in classic Reformed ecclesiology – which in my judgment is radically biblical – where do small groups fit?   They are not the public assembly, where the believers of a local communion “come together” to observe the corporate worship of God (Acts 14:27, 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:23, 26).   And you can’t assign them to the private (Mat. 6:6, 14:23) or family devotion categories (Gen. 18:19, Deut. 6:4-9), since you can’t have a small group with one person or just one family.   So if they are not in the three, traditional categories of worship/means of grace ministry (WCF 21.6), what place should they have?

I suppose an argument could be made that we can get them in the door by the body life argument.  Small groups could be seen as a manifestation of koinonia, our sharing in the common life of the Spirit.  Isn’t that Reformed?  “Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification” (WCF 26.2).   Well, I admit coming together for the Lord’s day services is not all there is to church fellowship.  There is much to be done on a smaller scale and with more intimacy.  Fine and good.  “They that feared the Lord spoke often one with another, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name” (Mal. 3:16).  But when informal, spiritual conversations transition into small groups, something changes.  It is formalized, it requires organization, structure, and facilitation if not leadership.  In short, it becomes programmatic.   So if it is programmatic, where does it fit in the apostolic program?   Is it a component of the ‘ordinary means?’

Second, there is the collective wisdom of our Reformed forbears.  While I’m no expert in 16th and 17th century church history, it does appear that the Westminster Divines discouraged small groups from having a normative place in the life of God’s people.  In fact, they appear to have been suspicious of them.  “Whatsoever have been the effects and fruits of meetings of persons of divers families in the times of corruption or trouble, (in which cases many things are commendable, which otherwise are not tolerable,) yet, when God hath blessed us with peace and purity of the gospel, such meetings of persons of divers families (except in cases mentioned in these Directions) are to be disapproved, as tending to the hinderance of the religious exercise of each family by itself, to the prejudice of the publick ministry, to the rending of the families of particular congregations, and (in progress of time) of the whole kirk. Besides many offences which may come thereby, to the hardening of the hearts of carnal men, and grief of the godly” (Directory for Family Worship, Section 7).

Third, there is the obvious susceptibility of small groups to the influence of egalitarianism, feminism, and a host of other -isms.  Clearly they are more vulnerable; and what is more, I have to wonder whether they are not in some ways the product of these extra-biblical spirits of the age.

So I ask the question – or to be more frank, I raise the doubt.   For now, at least.

See also “More on My Allergy to Small Groups

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John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer, was definitely no adept in worldly-wisdom.  His positions were always unbending and uncompromising.  He despised subtlety, and spoke always with the greatest of candor.  He obviously had little interested in making friends and influencing people; that is, unless by influence one means shameless, hard-hitting argument!

When Queen Mary came to Scotland in 1561 to take the throne, she was of a mind to assert her royal prerogatives in everything – religion included.  An ardent Romanist from her youth, she decided to make a clear, bold statement at the outset.  She would have a mass celebrated in the chapel of the Holyrood house, something forbidden by the Protestant magistracy at the time.

Not surprisingly, Knox was outspoken against the celebration.  There could be no accommodation, no middle ground.  “One mass,” proclaimed Knox,  “was more fearful unto him than if ten thousand armed enemies were landed in any part of the realm, of purpose to suppress the whole religion.”

One mass, Master Knox?  One private mass, as a concession to the rightful heir of the throne?  And that one mass should be of more dire consequence than a foreign invasion?  Not only is this intolerant, but it’s unreasonable!  Don’t you realize that to get what you want, you’ve got to give?

Knox responds to the naysayers.  The mass issue is a non-negotiable, for “in our God there is strength to resist and confound multitudes, if we unfeignedly depend upon Him, of which we have had experience; but when we join hands with idolatry, it is no doubt but both God’s presence and defence will leave us; and what shall then become of us?”

What the calculators of this world can’t grasp is that he was more practical than them all!  His explanation here reveals the deepest sagacic insight.  Why?  Because, thought Knox, you must factor God into every equation.  Giving in to Queen Mary on one little point may have been expedient on the earthly plane in the short-run, but by doing so it would alienate the One whose favor is absolutely indispensable.  You don’t want to mess with the ‘wrong man’ (or woman, in Mary’s case), but it’s far worse to mess with the ‘wrong God!’

Knox had learned his other-worldly wisdom at the feet of Wisdom incarnate.  He, the Logos, the Light that lightens every man entering the world had said, “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Lu. 17:33).  To make it in this world and in the next, you must think counter-culturally, counter-intuitively.  But be assured, this is the best way!

In deference to the One who “knows all things,” Knox shunned statescraft.  But in doing so, he became the true patron and friend of the nation.  If only we had eyes to see what Master Knox saw!  If we would close our eyes and heed true Wisdom, we would walk the safest and most expedient course.  And we would assign much less weight to earthly factors, which to the eye of the flesh loom so large.

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