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 #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?

God’s Ordinary Means of Grace

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation. (Westminster Larger Catechism #154)

The quote above is well worth considering. It seeks to address how the grace of God is conveyed to his people. In other words, how does God usually make his gifts in Christ stick for his people. In the first place, notice the emphasis on two things: outward and ordinary. The former indicates that, whatever is about to be described, the discussion is focused on the external workings. Faith and repentance are worked in the heart of a man, but those cannot be observed. These outward means are the tools God’s Spirit uses externally to effect the inward change only he can. The latter qualifies our observations to the vast majority of cases. God can, and at times has, used unusual ways to show his people the benefits of being in Christ, but the discussion in WLC #154 centers around the most common outward methods, or means.

In the second place, these external ways that God uses in the majority of cases to convey the benefits of Christ’s mediation to his people are his ordinances. The word “ordinances” is not commonly used in conversation today, but it simply means religious rites, ceremonies, or practices. So all the religious practices assigned by God are used by him to accomplish his purposes of making plain the benefits of our salvation. However, there are three particular ones that are singled out for emphasis. The reason this is done is based on Acts 2:42 which describes the religious practice of the apostolic church in its earliest formation: the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. In other words, the apostles focussed on the Word, sacraments, and prayer.

In the third place, that early practice should not lead anyone to suppose there is some superstitious benefit given by simply listening to sermons, participating in the sacraments, and saying rote prayers. These are only the outward means God uses to impart the benefits of Christ’s work. The emphasis must be on God and his internal work. He is the One who makes these external practices effectual, or causes them to have an effect in the heart of man. God regenerates his elect, chosen people giving them a new heart. He converts them giving faith in Christ and repentance over sin. And these changes and gifts make the proper receipt of these ordinances possible. God uses Word, sacrament and prayer with real effect…for those in whom he works faith.

To think preaching, the discipline of prayer, or the administration of the sacraments will effect change on their own is superstitious. However, to fail to recognize God’s work through these external means is to minimize the significance Scripture assigns to them.

Questions to consider:

  1. In your own words define the following terms: outward means, ordinary means, and ordinances.
  2. How is God’s internal work necessary for the effectualness of the outward means?
  3. Do you hold the ordinary means of grace (the Word, sacraments and prayer) in high esteem?

The Worship of God’s People

bell tower

Having considered worship through our work and family worship, I want to conclude with some brief thoughts about corporate worship. In our worship at work we, as individual members of Christ’s body, live out our faith before a watching world. In our worship at home we, as parents, are responsible to lead our families in worshiping God. Yet when we worship corporately, in church, we are called to gather by God as his body to express our joyful praise and be fed spiritually.

Now some may expect a presbyterian pastor to begin a discussion about the Regulative Principle of Worship at this time. This doctrine teaches that God’s specific commands regarding worship forms our understanding of what should be included in corporate worship. I certainly agree with that theological statement, but I should prefer to take another angle in discussing corporate worship today. I want to consider several reasons corporate worship is significant.

  1. God commands it. In a day where individualistic worship on a deer stand is seen as a viable alternative to church, it is important to reiterate that God’s people gather for worship. Hebrews 10:25 commands us not to neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some”. The book of Acts is replete with examples of believers coming together for worship (Cf. Acts 2:42; 20:7). This pattern serves as a stark contrast to today’s view where church attendance is one of the optional activities of our week, rather than that around which we build our week.
  2. It is the delight of God’s people. The believer’s relationship with God flows from God’s pre-existing relationship with them. The Christian knows of God’s love for him and is therefore glad to come together with his new family, filled with adopted sons and daughters of the Lord, in order to praise and thank him for his precious gift to them. That is why David sings, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Ps. 122:1). But what do our children see in us? Is corporate worship a joyful event for you, or is it something we simply do, or even worse, endure? The gathered worship of God’s people should be a joyful time when we come to delight ourselves in drawing near to God with the rest of the body of Christ.
  3. It is for our good. In corporate worship the ways that God shares his gracious gifts with his people are all present. Romans 10:14 stresses the importance of preaching, the central element of the worship service of any church worth its salt. Hebrews 10:24 describes links corporate assembly as one of the ways we stir each other up “to love and good works”.

With the Bible’s emphasis on corporate worship grounded in God’s command and the joy and upbuilding of his people, I would like to humbly suggest a change in our view of church. First, recognize corporate worship as the gift it is. God has given you a time to express your thanks to him and will feed your soul in the process. Second, if your church has morning and evening worship services, attend both. Do not satisfy yourself with worshiping God in his church 50% of the time. If you knew there was an ATM that dispensed $10,000 two times per day I am guessing you would make sure you were there on time each time.

To neglect the attendance of corporate worship makes a statement about how much you value it. So as God’s people, let us join with David’s joyful procession to the Lord’s house and take our families with us.