Archive for the ‘The Social Status of the Church’ Category

“Our Reformers were men of great wisdom, undaunted courage, irrepressible zeal and strong faith. They relied not on human expediency, vain traditions, or worldly wisdom, but on God’s promised blessing on His own means. They went direct to the Bible for all their plans, and the result was that every rag of rotten Popery, and every relic of the Amorite was purged away, and cast forth as things accursed into the region of eternal detestation, and the pure evangel set up instead. In the language of George Gillespie:

‘The Church of Scotland was blessed with a more glorious and perfect reformation than any of our neighbor Churches. The doctrine, discipline, regiment, and policy established here by ecclesiastical and civil laws, and sworn and subscribed unto by the king’s majesty and [the] several presbyteries and parish churches of the land, as it had the applause of foreign divines; so was it in all points agreeable unto the word; neither could the most rigid Aristarchus of these times challenge any irregularity of the same.'”

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These words are drawn from the opening of David Hay Fleming’s four-part series of articles in the Original Secession Magazine in 1878 entitled, “The Discipline of the Reformation.” I’ve just finished recording the fourth today. Listen to them here. The PDF is below. And check out more titles in my expanding amateur audio library.

I do not suggest that everything our fathers in the Reformation and Second Reformation did or said regarding discipline should be carried over in toto today. Nor do I think Fleming himself thought this. But before we too quickly dismiss what we may judge austere or harsh, let us consider that we are just as much creatures of our time as they were. And if we shouldn’t be slaves to their judgments, yet we still ought to honor father and mother. And listen to them in the first case!

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​”The rise of sectarianism that has accompanied the Protestant movement is a dark and negative phenomenon. It manifested itself already at the beginning of the Reformation, but it has never flourished as it has in our age. New church after new church is established. In England there are already more than two hundred sects. In America they are innumerable. The differences have become so many and so insignificant that one cannot keep track of them. There are even voices arguing for a new discipline in theology itself devoted to the comparative history of church confessions. What is even more serious is that this sectarianism leads to the erosion and disappearance of church consciousness. There is no longer an awareness of the difference between the church and a voluntary association. The sense that separation from the church is a sin has all but disappeared. One leaves a church or joins it rather casually. When something or other in a church no longer satisfies us, we look for another without any pangs of conscience. The decisive factor turns out to be our taste. Exercise of discipline thus becomes virtually impossible; it loses its very character. What preacher is left who dares, in good conscience, except perhaps in extremely rare instances, to use the form for excommunication? The worst result of all this is that by breaking the unity of doctrine and the church, Christians do violence to the communion of saints, deprive themselves of the Spirit’s gifts of grace, by which  other believers labor to build up the saints, shut themselves up in their own circle, promote spiritual pride, strengthen Rome, and give the world occasion for scorn and mockery.”

-Herman Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church”

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There we were in the manse on Saturday night, in that sleepy little Canadian town. The minister’s wife was giving him a haircut before his Sabbath labors the next day. He was, well, idiosyncratic. The thin-framed parson had quite the shock of unmanageable white hair, much like Doc Brown. He sat there with some smock-like cloth draped around him, his helpmate-hairdresser poised with bowl of water and comb. Soon she set to taming the wild mane with the moistened comb. Water applied, it seemed as though his head had shrunk by half.

As she went to work with her clippers, the old minister told me about The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire, an old classic of the glory days of 18th and 19th century Highlands-Islands Presbyterianism. His eyes beamed, and he cackled with boyish delight as he retold his favorite story about Samsonesque Aeneas Sage and his rather unconventional missionary exploits. There was something about this all that strongly impressed me. There was something of greatness, a romance and even a mystique about that legacy that lingered about the place. The old Scots-Irish town, its church, manse, and, of course, this amusing old minister still retained something of the glow of the “years of the right hand of the Most High.”

Suffice it to say, this green goyim just had to find and read the book. And I did, again and again. And having been ‘bit,’ I’ve retold the story of Rev. Sage over and over to anyone who would listen. My children can probably repeat it verbatim … with a few eye rolls thrown in for good measure! And as an old bookish minister friend of mine would sometimes say, “And if it isn’t true, it should be!

Just finished reading and recording it. You can access it here. I also post a wide variety of classical Reformed, Puritan, and Scottish Presbyterian sermons, articles, and books. I aim to fill gaps with relatively quality audio recordings, especially for the benefit of pastors and elders who work with thinner margins of time.

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Lincoln_Proclamation_1863While listening to an excellent sermon by Rev. Bill Shishko of the OPC on days of prayer and fasting, I was struck by his final quote of the presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln for a national day of humiliation and fasting.  One can read it here.

I am hardly endorsing Abraham Lincoln’s personal theology and practice, much less making commentary on the merits and demerits of each side during the Civil War (or War Between the States, if you prefer).  But I cannot help but ask the modern (contra Melvillian) Two Kingdom advocates (1) whether this was, in the main, a good thing and not inherently a violation of Reformed principles and (2) whether it is ever commendable for a state or its elected officials to call for national days of fasting and humiliation.

I think that any simple Christian will read this and be impressed with how appropriate such a call was and earnestly sigh and cry that God might give us such magistrates again.  And more, for even better and more consistently Christian ones – who explicitly avow Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords.

At the same time, I would hope that it would give pause to the more thoughtful modern 2K advocates to ask whether their outlook may at least be somewhat misguided.   Are such national fasts, following Westminster and Dort, inherently flawed?  Is this not a fast that the Lord “has chosen” (Isa. 58)?  But sadly, I fear it will make no dent with the more trenchant ones.

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1629_seal_Massachusetts_Bay_Colony_MassachusettsArchivesThe following is an excerpt from The Charter of Massachusetts Bay, 1629.  The royal charter, in the name of “CHARLES, BY THE, GRACE, OF GOD, Kinge of England, Scotland, Fraunce, and Ireland, Defendor of the Fayth, &c.” was drafted with the view that the “said People, Inhabitants there, may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of Country, to the KnowIedg and Obedience of the onlie true God and Sauior of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth, which in our Royall Intencon, and the Adventurers free Profession, is the principall Ende of this Plantacion.”

Alas, “from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed” (Lam. 1:6).

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The labor of the man of God, in the congregation or the community, ought to be paternal through and through. “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15; cf. Larger Catechism 124). He must be strong and steady, a visionary, yet eminently practical. He must patient, but ever pushing and pulling. He must be sensitive to the true needs and worthy feelings of the people, yet not obsequiously over-indulgent to their every whim.

Tragically, too much of modern ministry fails to live up to this ideal. While the clergy have in the past sometimes been too harsh and overbearing, the pendulum has swung quite the opposite direction. The modern pastor-coach is in the worst case an effeminate nothing. He cannot command true respect. Only fleeting popularity from the herd.

The following passage from Thomas Chalmers reveals just how timeless the unfatherly pastor is – and how dignified the ideal. O Lord, make us those men.  Our Father, make us fathers!

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“And here one reason at least becomes manifest, why, on the part of clergymen, the mere whimsies of popular feeling ought not to be complied with; and that between favourite preachers and their doting admirers such a spectacle should never be held out, as that of servile indulgence upon the one side, and weak, trifling, senseless conceits of taste and partiality, on the other.  It is this which, more perhaps than any other cause, has degraded the popular opinion into a thing of no estimation; and has thrown circumstances of ridicule around it, which have given, an edge to satire, and furnished a plea of extenuation for the policy that holds it at nought. If it be grievous to observe the demand of the people about frivolities of no moment, it is still more grievous to behold the deference which is rendered thereto by the fearful worshippers at the shrine of popularity. It is a fund of infinite amusement to lookers on, when they see, in this interchange of little minds, how small matters can become great, and each caprice of the popular fancy can be raised into a topic of gravest deliberation. It were surely better that Christian people reserved their zeal for essentials; and that Christian teachers, instead of pampering the popular taste into utter childishness, disciplined it, by a little wholesome resistance, into an appetite, at once manly, and rational, and commanding. Everything that can disarm the popular voice of its energy will be lamented by those who think as we do, that it is a voice which, in the matters of Christianity, is mainly directed to what is practically and substantially good; and that it is just the despite which has been done to it that has so paralyzed the ministrations of our Establishment. And, therefore, do we hold it so desirable that the popular taste were chastened out of all those vagaries which have just had the effect of chasing away the homage that else would have been rendered to it. We know that it has its occasional weaknesses and extravagances; but we believe that these are in no way essential to it; and that, by the control of the ministers of religion, acting wisely, and honestly, and independently, they could all be done away. Though these were lopped off from the affection, it would still subsist with undiminished vigour, and it would then be seen what it nakedly and characteristically is—not that mere fantastic relish which it is often conceived to be, but the deep and strong aspiration of conscious humanity, feeling, and most intelligently feeling, what the truths, and who the teachers are, that are most fitted to exalt and to moralize her.

“In proof of this we may, with all safety, allege that let there be a teacher of religion, with a conscience alive to duty, and an understanding soundly and strongly convinced of the truths of the gospel; let him, with these as his only recommendations, go forth among a people, alive at every pore to offence from the paltry conceits and crotchets in which they have drivelled and been indulged for several generations; let them be prepared with all the senseless exactions which a dark and narrow bigotry would often bring upon a minister; and let him, disdainful of absurdity in all its forms, whilst zealous and determined in acquitting himself of every cardinal obligation, only labour amongst them in the spirit of devotedness: and it will soon be seen that the general good-will of a neighbourhood is far more deeply and solidly founded, than on the basis of such petty compliances as have made popularity ridiculous in the eye of many a superficial observer. The truth is, that there is not one irrational prejudice among his hearers, which such a teacher would not be at liberty to thwart and to traverse, till he had dislodged it altogether. Grant him the pure doctrine of the Bible for his pulpit, with an overflowing charity in his heart for household ministrations— and the simple exhibition of such worth and such affection on the week, from one who preaches the truths of Scripture on the Sabbath, will, without one ingredient of folly, gain, for him, from the bosoms of all, just such a popularity as is ever awarded to moral worth and to moral wisdom. This, indeed, we believe to be the main staple of that popularity which is so much derided by the careless, and often so unfeelingly trampled upon by the holders of patronage. And thus it is fearful to think that, in the systematic opposition which has been raised upon this subject against the vox populi, Government may, unknowing of the mischief, have been checking, all the while, the best aspiration that am arise from the bosom of a country—may have been combating, in its first elements, the growth of virtue in our land —and, in wanton variance with its own subjects about the principle of religion, may have been withering up all those graces of religion, which would else have blessed and beautified our population” (Works 14:192-195).

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The Church frequently gets its axiology – its theory of value – dead wrong.  To value is fundamentally human.  It is instinctive and inescapable, a testament to the fact that man is the offspring of God.  But when the Church fails to discern between the values of  “the present evil world” and her Lord, it has just plain sold the farm.  A Church that doesn’t defend its axiological borders (God’s rather) has in effect seceded to the enemy.  And so she comes under Christ’s condemnation, “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

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By the 1830s, the Church of Scotland was in the midst of a true evangelical revival.  Yet with the revival came conflict.  Increasingly, the State transgressed into the sphere of the established Church.  Its interference called into question the very spiritual independence of the institution that John Knox and others had helped consolidate under Christ’s ultimate authority. 

Thomas Chalmers, the premier Scottish preacher of the day, threw his full weight on the side of the evangelicals.  In temporal matters, the Church was to be subject to the State.  But not one inch of ground should be given on matters spiritual.  Christ is Head of the Church, and His law is higher than the law of the land.  His servants must at the end of the day obey God rather than man.

In Chalmers’ Memoirs, we read the following words about the dire consequences for compromise.  Speaking of the State’s intrusion in spiritual things, he writes, “Why, this would be lording it over us with a vengeance!  It would be making us swallow the whole principle; and the Church of Scotland, bereft of all moral weight, might henceforth be cast a useless and degraded thing into the bottom of the sea” (Memoirs 4:139).  In short, pragmatism leads to cultural irrelevance.

Though writing in a very different context, his words ring true today.  If the Church should indulge in pragmatism, then it not only breaks allegiance to Christ, but so debases itself as to be contemptible even to the wicked.   “If the salt loses its saltiness, how shall it be made flavorful?  Is it then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trampled under men’s feet.”

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