All posts by Geoff Gleason

Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 21 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 10 children ranging in age from 21 to 3. He sees it as a great joy to preach and shepherd the people of God and does so by setting before them the full range of the gospel: that we are free from the guilt of our sin, and also free from its dominion.

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #8

After a week of vacation and a week of study leave, it’s time to finish up the consideration of the recommendations made by the study committee on women’s roles in the worship of the church, which were adopted at the PCA’s 45th General Assembly. All that is left to consider is the eighth recommendation which reads:

That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA.

The language of the recommendation is structured in such a way that no action is required or suggested, except for the action of considering. The courts of the church are asked to reflect on a specific issue: affirming and including underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA. The first thing to be done in order to understand this recommendation is to clarify the meaning.The recommendation does not clarify where these people suffer from underprivilege and underrepresentation. However the rationale included in the report clarifies who is in view.

When the report speaks of the underrepresented, it refers to the racial emphasis that has become part of life in the PCA. When introducing the idea of reaching the nations in the ministry of the church the report states: “Unfortunately, the PCA, though it upholds the mandate to make disciples of the nations, has yet to see the demographics in diverse communities reflected in local churches.” (2463). In other words, underrepresentation is seen by the report as a lack racial representation of certain ethnic minorities within the church. Whatever ethnic groups are underrepresented should be affirmed and included in the church courts.

The report also clarifies who is in view when it comes to being underprivileged. Again, in the rationale provided by the committee, it cites Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an example of the underprivileged. When defining her place the report does so along class lines: “To use today’s language, her family was not middle class, yet she participated in the church in a unique, yet honorable and God-glorifying manner (cf. 1 Tim. 2:15).” (2463). From Mary’s unique place as the mother of Christ, the report concludes that women should be affirmed and included no matter what their income is: “The committee affirms, therefore, that even if women are in a lower tax bracket, they are to be embraced as valuable, of equal dignity and worth, and included in various ministries of the church.” (2463). The report is calling the church courts to affirm and include people based on their income.

It is difficult to know how to respond to this rationale and recommendation because it seems to be stating the obvious. It is true that the church should embrace all tribes and tongues and nations. God is Lord of them all and has sent the church to make disciples, baptize and teach them all to live in obedience to Christ their Savior (Cf. Matt. 28:19-20). It is true that the church is living in sin if it shows favoritism to the rich (Cf. Jam 2:2-4). So, it seems the report recommends to the church something that is properly basic. However, I think the recommendation itself has an unhealthy emphasis. Part of me wants to say that if we are speaking of the church it is impossible to speak of underrepresentation and underprivilege. I know that at times the church has sought to exclude those of different races or has shown favoritism to the rich, but those are not, in my experience, the sins that characterize our denomination.

To single out people in the church based on their ethnicity or income levels does something that Scripture explicitly works against. It breaks the church into groups of people rather than unite it as the body of Christ. Take for example, Gal. 3:28. This verse denies the very categories the report seeks to exhort us to recognize. In Galatians Paul says that in Christ’s view of his justified children there is neither Jew nor Greek (racial or ethnic divide), nor slave nor free (class division). To single out a specific group to affirm and include them seems to be contrary to that view of the body. We are in Christ. We are called Christians and there is no hyphenation in the body of Christ.

Therefore if the report felt the need to exhort the church on this point, I think it would have been better said that the church should enfold, include, love, labor for, seek to serve all its members, whether male or female, wherever, and in whatever circumstance they may be found. To divide the church into male and female, and introduce the categories of underrepresentation based on race or underprivilege based on income seems to be an unhealthy distinction not found in Scripture. We are Christians, the body of Christ. All members of the body should be loved, included and affirmed.

 

 

 

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #7

This post continues a series dealing with the recommendations made and approved at the 45th General Assembly of the PCA. These recommendations were initially presented by the study committee on the role of women in the ministry of the church. The original recommendations were debated, modified and approved by the Assembly. So far I have dealt with the first six. This post deals with the 7th which reads:

That presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women.

In the rationale provided by the committee they give two basic reasons for this recommendation. The first is that they hope the establishment of this “long overdue” position will provide recognition for those who labor in the church in unordained work. They state: “While it would not represent an office, it would recognize those whose lives have been given in service to the body.” (2462) The second is an attempt to correct a compensation discrepancy especially for women serving on church staffs. The report says, “This benefit for commissioned church workers may redress an inequity in compensation that mostly affects women, who are in non- licensed and non-ordained full-time ministry.” (2462). The benefit in question would be tax exemptions, which the report supports with a link to the IRS website. In giving these reasons the committee is quick to point out these commissioned workers would not be ordained.

A couple of quick responses:

First, the committee supports its strong desire to see this category of worker established by appealing to a PCUSA digest from 1938. Leaving aside what kind of impression that might make on confessional men within the denomination, there is by contrast a noticeable lack of reference to Scripture. However kind the intention to thank others for their work in the church may be, the practice must be supported by Scripture. Our confession states Scripture is our authority for “all things necessary for his (God’s) glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF 1.6) and we must study what it says.

A survey of commissioning as it relates to the church renders only two examples in Scripture. The first, in Num. 27:18-23 describes God’s command that Joshua to be commissioned to replace Moses as leader. This ceremony is repeated in Deut. 31:14, 23. The second, in 2 Cor. 2:14-17 has Paul speaking of himself as commissioned by God for the spreading of the gospel. These are the only references to commissioning in the Bible as they relate to the ministry of the church.

If the concept of commissioning is expanded to include those who are “set apart” for specific tasks, the range of persons included becomes greater:

  • The Levites were set apart to serve the Lord in the temple (Deut. 10:8);
  • Aaron was set apart to make offerings before the Lord (1 Chron. 23:13);
  • David sets apart the sons of Asaph and others to minister in music at the temple (1 Chron. 25:1);
  • Ezra sets apart 12 priests to guard the offerings for God’s house (Ezra 8:24);
  • Barnabas and Saul are set apart for their missionary journey (Acts 13:2);
  • Paul identifies himself as one set apart for the gospel (Rom. 1:1).

All the instances of commissioning and setting apart for specific tasks in Scripture are for the ministry of the church and, at the very least, are applied to men only. Even if we should grant that “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) be considered, Scripture does not support the kind of action the committee is suggesting.

Now there is no question that all God’s people are set apart to serve and minister within the church (Ps. 4:3, 2 Tim. 2:21). However, the practice of setting apart for specific tasks within the church seems to be an exceptional circumstance where men already in office, whether as Levite, priest, apostle or teacher in the church, are given a specific assignment.

Second, commissioning is not able to address the tax exemptions the committee is hoping to provide. In the IRS code dealing with who qualifies for the ministerial tax exemptions the tax code defines ministers as “individuals who are duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed by a religious body constituting a church or church denomination. Ministers have the authority to conduct religious worship, perform sacerdotal functions, and administer ordinances or sacraments according to the prescribed tenets and practices of that church or denomination.” (https://www.irs.gov/publications/p517/ar02.html). So unless we are willing to grant our commissioned workers the authority to conduct worship services, and administer the sacraments it seems commissioning them will not give them the tax exemptions hoped for.

I would return to my thoughts on recommendation 2 which states that we should respect and tolerate the variety of views that fall within scriptural and constitutional bounds held in the PCA on the roles of women in ministry. I have already stated, the complicating factor is that there is not agreement within the PCA as to what scriptural and constitutional bounds are. I would suggest recommendation #7 is a case in point.

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #6

The study committee report on the role of women in the ministry of the church, approved by the 45th General Assembly of the PCA, asks its Sessions and presbyteries to consider nine recommendations. With the first and last of these adjudicated at the assembly itself, only the second through the eighth require any reflection now. Previous segments have dealt with recommendations two through five. This article deals with the sixth recommendation from the committee, the revised and approved version of which states:

That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate.

To arrive at its final form, this statement underwent a revision on the floor of the Assembly. Its original version read:

That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership; these godly, unordained women have often historically been referred to as deaconesses. 

The revised statement is a vast improvement over the original for several reasons. First, by removing the exclusive focus on women in the original statement, the revised version focusses instead on all unordained members. Thereby it removes any hint of the fragmentation of the church into groups.

Second, it narrows the scope of appointment of these unordained women and men to the ordained diaconate of the church, not leadership in general. Whereas the original recommendation would be introducing something new, the revised version is already reflected in the existing Book of Church Order of the PCA. In essence, the revised report asks churches to select and appoint women to be assistants to the deacons. This revision is simply a restatement of Chapter 9, Section 7 of the BCO, although its force may be a little stronger. The report moves from the “may” of the BCO to the implied “ought” of the recommendation.

Third, it removes unnecessary controversy from the recommendation. The last clause in the original recommendation inexplicably includes a reference to deaconesses. This inclusion is inexplicable because it is not a recommendation, but a statement. The Assembly deleted this clause in order to remove any potential controversy that including such a statement might produce. The revised recommendation will cause few churches in the PCA any heartburn. However, it still seems a strange recommendation to make. Here are a few observations:

First, it is impossible for any presbytery to be able to carry out this recommendation. The presbytery does not have a diaconate, and therefore cannot select and appoint anyone to it. Perhaps the inclusion of this court is simply an oversight from the floor amendment. Whatever the reason, its inclusion is not significant enough to warrant any further discussion.

Second, this recommendation states the obvious and is therefore unnecessary. I will grant that most of my associations within the PCA are with confessional, conservative men, but I have gotten to know some men whose convictions align themselves more with the progressive proponents in the PCA. Among neither group have I ever encountered any who would say that the unordained men and women of their congregations should not help the ordained diaconate, or Session for that matter. Certainly, there can be no formal appointment for those who help the Session, but the very nature of the shepherding ministry of the church is that men and women be equipped for ministry (Cf. Eph. 4:11-12). It does not seem a necessary observation to make, because it is so basic to the life and ministry of the church.

The original formulation of this recommendation does present problems through its focus on women, its desire to expand the appointment of women from helping the deacons to the leadership more generically, and through its reference to deaconesses, but with these removed very little remains against which objection can arise. Granted, due to the recommendation’s obvious statement, it has very limited value in helping the church working through this issue, but in all this recommendation is relatively benign.

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #5

This post continues the discussion on the recommendations made by the Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Ministry of the Church, approved at the PCA’s 45th General Assembly. This installment will take up recommendation #5, which reads as follows:

That sessions consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilizing the gifts God has poured out to His entire church (see exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:26 in Chapter Two).

The exegesis of the report on this point, to which the recommendation refers, notes a tension between 1 Cor. 11:5 and 1 Cor. 14:34. The former acknowledges that women prophesy, while the latter commands their silence. The report suggests two solutions to this apparent discrepancy.

The first solution views the setting in 1 Cor. 11 as informal and 1 Cor. 14 as the formal worship of the gathered church. The report suggests this view is untenable because of 1 Cor. 14:26 which says that “each one” contributes to the various aspects of worship. As a result, the report suggests a second solution, which forms the foundation for what they are put forward in recommendation #5.

The second solution suggests there is a limit on the command for silence on the part of women in 1 Cor. 14:34. The report reasons that, since all are described as partaking in all the elements of the corporate worship of the church, and since 1 Cor. 14:26-35 deals with the proper ordering of such participation, it is only in the weighing of prophecy as described in v. 29 that women are to be silent. To bolster this argument, they further state that the Greek word translated as “keep silent” in v. 34 is only a temporary silence to maintain order. This reading is of a recent vintage and leads to the fifth recommendation.

Without the background of the committee’s exegesis of 1 Cor. 14:26ff, the fifth recommendation does not necessarily present a problem. Sessions are simply called to consider how non-ordained members can be biblically used in the worship of the church. However, the committee’s exegesis of 1 Cor. 14 allows a wide interpretation of what is permissible. For example, in the rational given for the fifth recommendation, the committee gives six suggestions as to how Sessions might involve women in the church’s worship. Among these are leading the congregation in prayer and the corporate reading of Scripture. This exegesis and resulting suggestions give me great concern.

First, the position taken by the report, that 1 Cor. 14:26-35 deals with a limited command to silence, has a significant problem. The paragraphs in this chapter delineate blocks of thought. Therefore, when we see a paragraph between 14:33a and 33b, the change of topic should be noted. Verses 26-33a deal with the general order in the public worship services of the church. Verses 33b-35 deal specifically with the ordering of women in the public worship services of the church. To join these paragraphs into one thought is a mistake.

Second, the committee’s report suggests that Paul’s word for “keep silent” (sigatosan) in v. 34 is a limited and temporary silence. However, that is not the only word Paul uses during his instructions on this point. Later in verse 34 Paul states women “are not permitted to speak,” a different Greek word (lalein) to impress the need for silence. This same word is repeated in verse 35 when Paul states it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Neither instance carries with it any indication of a temporary silence. This poor exegesis in the report leads to the encouragement of a flawed practice that will ultimate harm and damage the church.

Third, the limit to simply weighing of prophecy would remove any basis for forbidding women from preaching in church. So long as men weigh whether what she says is true, women should be able to do anything else. I am not contending this is what the committee suggests, but the pathway certainly has been opened.

The committee dismissed the first solution for the apparent discrepancy between 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Cor. 14 too quickly. There are explanations as to why this supposed tension is really no tension at all. For example, it is possible that the report misses the mark regarding its assignment of “each one” to address men and women. In verse 31 when Paul says they can “all” prophesy, the “all” is limited to those who were given that spiritual gift, which not everyone had (Cf. 1 Cor. 12:29). Therefore, care should be taken not to assign Paul’s “all” to a category he did not intend to include. Another option suggested by Calvin states that in 1 Cor. 11:5 Paul is describing current practice, which he later forbids in 1 Cor. 14:34. If true, the tension suggested by the authors of the report is removed.

So what is the biblical role of women in the worship of the church? As with all God’s people, women participate in the songs of the congregation. They lift up their prayers to God Almighty by their assent to the prayers the elders lead the congregation in. They are fed through the instruction of God’s word. They declare the death of Christ through their participation in the Lord’s Supper. These are the proper and normal boundaries established in God’s word for their participation. It is not a statement of their value in the sight of God. It is simply following God’s recorded instructions for his people.

 

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #4

At the 44th General Assembly, a study committee was formed and charged with examining the role of women in the ministry of the church. Their ad-interim report was presented to the 45th General Assembly and included 9 recommendations. I have dealt with recommendations two and three in previous posts. Today I will look at the 4th recommendation. The 4th recommendation reads as follows:

“That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men.”

However, to fully understand what happened with this recommendation we have to look at how it was originally presented to the body. The recommendation approved by the Assembly was not the recommendation suggested by the committee. It read:

“That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men. Though The Book of Church Order does not specifically prohibit the practice of going without ordained deacons, it seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order.

This original statement enjoyed additional amendments prior to the final version, but since these were not implemented, we will simply deal with the original and final recommendations. Perhaps at first reading this recommendation seems obvious. However, current practice in the PCA made such a recommendation necessary. Part of the report’s section of recommendations contains the explanation for the various recommendations presented to the assembly. The committee, in this recommendation, sought to address a practice described in the report as “choosing not to establish an ordained diaconate, even with qualified candidates, because the church wishes to be free to establish a body of unordained servants, both male and female (BCO 9-7).” (page 2460) In other words, some churches in the PCA currently do not establish ordained deacons so their diaconate can be made up of men and women. The study committee, in a gracious and fairly mild way, rebuked this practice, urging people to follow the commands of Scripture in establishing both the ordained office of elder and deacon in their congregations. If followed, this practice would eliminate women from the diaconate, restoring the proper structure for this body within the church.

In explaining why this should be so, the report describes the foundation for this rebuke as based on Philippians 1:1 where deacons are addressed as part of Paul’s introduction, on 1 Timothy 3 where the description of qualifications assumes a diaconate, and Acts 6 where seven godly men are set apart for service, forming a diaconate prototype of sorts. The report points out these biblical texts all undergird the PCA’s BCO 9-4 which says that “The deacons of a particular church shall be organized as a Board.” (page 2460). The committee’s rationale is sound and biblical. However, in the debate on the floor the mild rebuke was removed and all that is left is a toothless statement that will change nothing regarding a disturbing practice that, at best, plays games with God’s word and the BCO.

By removing everything except the first sentence of this recommendation, the Assembly made it possible that exactly nothing will change in the congregations where refusing to ordain is the current practice. Basically, the churches of the PCA are urged to ordain deacons “if possible”. It is far too easy to say something is not possible, especially when gauging the possibility of an action is left to the discretion of the churches already not ordaining deacons.

I very much appreciated what the committee sought to accomplish with this fourth recommendation. If passed, it would have been helpful to the PCA and strengthened our denomination’s ecclesiology, or our theology of the structure of the church. Instead we are left with a statement that removes a necessary rebuke, and makes any corrections highly unlikely. I think the adoption of the revised recommendation was the wrong decision.

 

 

 

PCA Study Committee Report – Recommendation 3

At the 45th General Assembly of the PCA in Greensboro, NC, much attention was given to the ad-interim report of the study committee on the role of women in the church. The committee gave 7 recommendations in which it asked presbyteries and sessions to consider different aspects of women and their role in the life of the church. Last post reviewed the first of these recommendations and this one will continue by looking at recommendation 3.

Recommendation 3 states: “That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly strive to develop, recognize, and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.”

This recommendation seems to suggest considering submitting overtures to accomplish what is already happening. This General Assembly study committee, looking at the issue of the role of women in the church, was made up of nine pastors and three women, two of whom were voting members of the committee. Therefore, it seems that women are already serving on committees within the church. The question could be asked: “What forms an appropriate committee that a woman can serve on within the church?”, but unfortunately that issue is not addressed in the report. Instead we are being asked to consider overtures to allow something that is already being done.

Beyond the apparent tautology of this recommendation, it is difficult to imagine that sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly are not interested in developing, recognizing and utilizing the gifts of godly women in the church. I would grant that the way these women’s gifts are utilized will vary from congregation to congregation, but I would be shocked if there were churches which did not strive to develop the gifts of the godly sisters of their number.

There is one danger to this 3rd recommendation from the committee. It is possible that some would submit overtures allowing women to be the co-ordinators of the permanent committees and agencies of the PCA. These paid staff positions, responsible for oversight and administrating the different committees are, to this point, populated by elders of the church. However, if these positions would be opened to women, we could potentially have woman overseeing the Mission to the World or Mission to North America. The logic for allowing them to serve would be that the permanent committees and agencies of the PCA only carry out the will of the Assembly. However, the co-ordinators do have supervisory responsibilities. In the case of women serving as co-ordinators, the PCA would be forced to deal with whether a woman exercises authority over a man in the context of the church through this permanent committee. Would a woman be exercising authority over the missionaries and church planters that are organized and administered by the MTW and MNA committees? Does that fall within the range of biblical and constitutional acceptability? It would be a question that would have to be answered.

Of course, for some it is tempting to jump to conclusions and make dire predictions at this point. Instead, while thinking through how to address scenarios we imagine may arise from such a recommendation, it is wisest to adopt a wait-and-see approach. The nature of this study committee report is not one where immediate action is required. Rather, because the report urges sessions to consider, recognize, or establish different ideas, the best that can be done is to try to anticipate possible negative consequences and be ready to answer them should they arise.

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation 2

From June 13-15 the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) General Assembly met in Greensboro, NC. Part of what was discussed were the recommendations made in the report given by the study committee appointed last year. Their task was to examine the role of women in the worship of the church.

At the start I want to say that these folks had an impossible task trying to formulate a document that would be acceptable to the broad range of views within the PCA. My heart goes out to them. Their solution was to try and craft a consensus document. Though I appreciate their heart and desire for unity, I think the method is not well-advised for theological reflection. Our theology should not be done on a consensus basis. I am not saying we should not tolerate different views from our own. What I mean is, we should never allow our lips to profess something we do not believe to be right or biblical in one area of dispute, so that we can have our position reflected in another area. Be that as it may, the study committee returned with nine recommendations. Since the Assembly charged the commissioners to consider each of the recommendations, it is my intention to do so, taking each one in turn.

The first recommendation of the committee deals with a procedural appeal that would have had the effect of reversing last year’s GA’s mandate for the committee. Although I had some sympathy with the sentiments of this overture, it seems unprofitable to discuss them in this article, since the report was heard. In addition, this General Assembly took steps to ensure a similar process for forming a study committee cannot be followed in the future, so it seems a moot point.

The ninth, and last recommendation from the committee asks the assembly to dismiss the committee with thanks. This is essentially a request from the committee to let them go home. Their work was done, so there’s not much to talk about there either. Instead I will focus on recommendations 2 through 8.

Recommendation 2 states: “That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly recognize that, from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding the ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.”

This recommendation became contentious as the discussion on this report progressed, because there is not broad agreement in the PCA about what falls within scriptural and constitutional parameters. For example, recommendation 5 asks Sessions to consider how women and non-ordained men can be used in corporate worship services. In the examples cited within the report, churches are asked to consider whether women should be used to read Scripture or pray during corporate worship. If the Study Committee is setting that before the body as within the bounds of biblical, constitutional orthopraxy, I would disagree with them, as would many other confessional men. But if they are simply asking us to consider whether women participating in corporate worship is acceptable, that may be a profitable exercise for our Presbyteries, Sessions and congregations.

It is the lack of clarity in the report regarding what is biblically and confessionally acceptable for women in worship, that makes it difficult to adopt anything other than a wait-and-see attitude with regard to the 2nd recommendation. Mutual respect is not the problem. For the most part, I think progressive and conservative men in the PCA desire to live at peace with their brothers of differing opinion, as they should. The problem is the lack of a working definition of what is biblical and confessional within the study committee report. The question that this recommendation begs is: “What are the scriptural and constitutional bounds within which a woman in the PCA may operate within a worship service context?” Perhaps we will see overtures next assembly that would seek to answer this question. Until we do, the only thing is to wait or try to craft a biblical definition ourselves.

God’s Means of Grace: Prayer

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

As has been said before, albeit in different words, it is easy to lay a guilt trip on any Christian. Simply ask about their prayer life. We all recognize it should be more fervent, frequent and faithful than it is. Yes Westminster Larger Catechism #154 describes prayer as one of God’s normal ways of communicating the benefits of redemption, the other two being the word and the sacraments. Reformed believers are typically zealous about the preaching of the word, and seek to faithfully administer the sacraments. Yet the third, prayer, is at times neglected in reformed churches as it is in the broader church as well. So let’s take a quick look at prayer.

Each of the means of grace are for God’s use in sharing the benefits of redemption with his people. It is not that he is not able to do so in other ways, but just that he usually chooses to use these three means. This is clearly understood by the disciples. Not only do they ask Jesus to teach them how to pray (Cf. Luke 11:1), but it also occupies a central place in the life of the early apostolic church. For example, Acts 2:42 tells us that the saints gathered to commit themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Prayer was a central part of the life of the early church. In addition, it is the threat to time spent in prayer that leads to the creation of the proto-deacons. The apostles ask for seven men to be chosen out of the company of believers so that they might devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4). The importance of prayer in the life of the believer is clear, but it is still God’s work.

In a sense, it is true that man is praying to God, but God controls the instrument he has ordained. In the first place, in Christ God has provided the door through which man enters his throne room in prayer. Sin has removed man from God’s presence, but through the death and resurrection of Christ, his Mediator, man is reconciled to God. So he comes to God in prayer bearing the approval of Christ or, in other words, praying in his name. In the second place, where prayer fails because of weakness and dulness of heart, the Holy Spirit intercedes“with groaning too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26). That means the imperfect, faltering words of the Christian are translated and transformed by the Holy Spirit to make them conform to God’s will. In the third place, the content of prayer is constrained by the glory of God. 1 John 5:14 teaches that if prayer is for things according to God’s will, God will hear. God does not acknowledge any prayer. Prayer that is according to his will is heard. So the access point, faithfulness and content of prayer are constrained by God himself. He is the one who uses prayer to bring us to himself.

Questions to consider:

  1. How does the primacy of prayer found in the early apostolic church help us to prioritize prayer today?
  2. What are three ways in which God constrains prayer for his use in communicating the benefits of redemption to his people.
  3. What are some reasons prayer may become neglected by God’s people?

God’s Means of Grace: The Sacraments

A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the  covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without. (Westminster Larger Catechism #162)

When considering God’s ordinary means of grace, or his usual way of teaching and applying his work of redemption to his people, the sacraments can be thought more mysterious than preaching and prayer. However, by understanding sacraments a bit better we can more clearly see God’s purpose in them, which is no different than preaching or prayer.

A sacrament, by its very nature is a ritual commanded by Christ for observance in his church until he returns. Matt. 28:19-20 instructs the church to baptize and 1 Cor. 11:26 teaches the church to proclaim Christ’s death in the Lord’s Supper until he comes. Christ gives these two sacraments so, through the outward sign of what is represented, the inward reality would be taught. He did not give them for superstitious value. In other words, the Christian’s confidence is not found in baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Instead, the sacraments serve as a visible display of the gospel, to supplement and augment the benefits of Christ’s work as our mediator declared in his word.

Baptism is a membership ritual. However, it is not so in the way often understood today. Baptism is not so much a statement about the recipient as it is about the work of God in that person to himself. Baptism signifies the washing away of the filth of sin, or the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on believers. Certainly, to receive baptism as an adult does accompany a profession of faith, but it is through God’s regenerating work that this faith is possible. That is why baptism should only be offered to any person only one time. God does not regenerate us often, but only once. Remember the thing signified and it will guide how you practice the external sign.

The Lord’s Supper is more a profession of faith for the believer. The participant ostensibly adds his “Amen!” to the redeeming work of the broken body and shed blood of Christ. Because the Lord’s Supper signifies a confirmation of faith in Christ’s work, it is essential that participants are members of Christ’s church and profess faith in him. Each participant should ensure he is not despising the work of Christ through presumptuous sin. He should examine his commitment to follow Christ. He should ask God to relieve him of his spiritual weaknesses. An honest self-examination ensures the confession made through the participation in the supper is not hypocritical or flippant.

The things signified in the sacraments are mysterious. They are simply a restatement of the biblical gospel doctrines. Therefore, how God through them is no more mysterious than how he does through the word or prayer. Preaching is described as folly by the unbeliever (Cf. 1 Cor. 1:23). That is because they do not receive it with faith. Reciting rote prayers void of faith is no act of worship. However, when by faith we hear and pray, God works graciously in us. So it is with the sacraments. When we eat and drink, or water poured on our heads is met with faith, God graciously strengthens his people’s understanding of the benefits of Christ’s gracious work of redemption.

Questions to consider:

  1. What is signified in each sacrament?
  2. Look up the passages of institution for each sacrament and discuss Christ’s institution of each.
  3. How is the communication of grace through the sacraments similar to the word and/or prayer?

God’s Means of Grace: His Word

Bible Open

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him  of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear  without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,  “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)

The central concern of the Bible is God’s reconciliation of man to himself. When sin polluted all of mankind through Adam’s transgression, God immediately promised a reversal of the fall through the work of the Seed of the Woman (Cf. Gen. 3:15). Since that time God, in his grace, has been sharing that message of reconciliation with his people through his word. To that end, the early New Testament church devoted itself to the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Cf. Acts 2:42). Each of these four elements participate in God’s continuing work of communicating the benefits of redemption to his people. This post will specifically consider the continuation of the apostolic teaching within the church.

The apostolic teaching continues today through reading and preaching of God’s word. This post assumes the apostolic office ceased. To make the case for this assumption which would require a different post, which may be written another time. In this post we will simply assume it and in doing so recognize the centrality of Scripture to the church.

The reason the reading and preaching of the word is so central in the life of the church is because it is a continuation of that commitment to the apostles’ teaching. As the elders of a congregation read and/or preach this means of grace, God’s benefits of redemption are set before his people. The effect of preaching is guaranteed. In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that just as rain water the earth to grow crops, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but  it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In other words, God’s word cannot be thwarted, either in awakening a soul, or hardening it. Acts 2:37-41 demonstrates this truth by showing the reaction of the crowd to Peter’s Pentecost sermon. There is an instant turning and crying out from the crowd, and a conversion of 3,000 souls.

Therefore, when we read God’s word we should approach it with the appropriate level of respect and reverence. It is God’s instrument to bring about conversion in the unregenerate, and work spiritual maturity in those he has already called to himself. Therefore, Christian, do not read it flippantly, but prayerfully. Seek to understand it, do not manipulate it. Apply it to your life, and do not disregard it.

The apostolic teaching is God’s gift to his people. It is an essential part of the conversion of sinners and spiritual growth of God’s people.

Questions to consider:

  1. In what way is the apostolic teaching continuing today?
  2. How does Isaiah 55:11 show the certainty of the effect of God’s word? What is it based on?
  3. Are you giving God’s word the attention it deserves as one of God’s ordinary means of grace?