Archive for the 'Ecclesiology' Category


the word, and women in ministry

Women in church leadership is the church issue in the public domain in the UK at the moment, and serendipitously the focus of a short series of sermons in my local church, hence my posts on the topic. The role of women in church is not a topic about which I relish posting for by their nature such posts are polemical rather than edifying.  Also, I am not insensitive to the fact that my views find little resonance with many Christians today and none with the liberal establishment.  However, engaging in the polemic and unpalatable is often what loyalty to God involves.  Specifically, loyalty to God and his revealed will in Scripture means, in my view, defending male leadership in the church and opposing egalitarian voices (that is those who contend for both male and female leadership in the church).

I say ‘defending’ for complementarianism or patriarchy (male leadership) has been the overwhelmingly orthodox and established form of leadership in the Christian Church since post-apostolic times.  It was the basis of organized religious life in God’s OT people, whether of the patriarchs or the national Covenant Community,Israel.  And I would argue, despite egalitarian protests, it is the pattern of life in God’s New Covenant Community, the Church.  It is not simply that God’s people (OT and NT) lived in a patriarchal culture and tolerated it but that patriarchy (male-leadership) is affirmed, in both OT and NT, as God’s revealed order in this present world.  The NT (as the old) , I contend, teaches both implicitly and explicitly male leadership in the church, the new creation people of God who are one in Christ.

Now as Dylan said in the 60’s ‘the times they are a-changing’, however, that we shouldn’t criticize these changes (as Dylan insists) is simply chronological hubris.  And the C21, like every preceding century, is not free from hubris. NT Wright has written a piece criticising the notion that the church should simply ‘get with the programme’ of modern society. He writes,

‘It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops… The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.’

He points out too the chronological snobbery that assumes what society now applauds must necessarily be right and good, the ‘but surely you can’t still believe that in the C21?’ mantra.  Citing C S Lewis, he writes,

“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasps a feckless official in one of C. S. Lewis’s stories. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”

“I have seen them both in an egg,” replies the young hero. “We call it Going bad in Narnia.”

Lewis nails a lie at the heart of our culture. As long as we repeat it, we shall never understand our world, let alone the Church’s calling. And until proponents of women bishops stop using it, the biblical arguments for women’s ordination will never appear in full strength’

Wright goes on to observe,

‘If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.’

Lewis and Wright are surely correct and Wright is equally correct in asserting that for Christians, only biblical arguments can make the case for women’s ordination.  Only when these are made will the case for women’s ordination ‘appear in full strength‘.  The trouble is Wright’s ‘biblical arguments’ are far from imposing.  Granted, he is writing a blog post, however, having just asserted the need for solid biblical arguments revealing the ‘full strength’ of the egalitarian position, one assumes his sharpest and most compelling evidence will be marshalled, yet the arguments proposed are so weak they pixelate.

Wright’s case is constructed around three women.


Wright posits,

‘All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.’

Wow!  What a lot of freight this meeting with Mary is asked to bear.  I can hear it creaking ominously. Jesus inaugurates in this meeting with Mary, according to Wright, egalitarianism in the church (a point missed it would seem for some twenty centuries).

We must ask if egalitarianism is indeed established by this event?  To be sure, it is shrewd of Wright to regard egalitarianism as a post-resurrection and new creation phenomenon thus neatly dismissing any patriarchy in the creation narrative and the OT at large.  More significantly, it effectively neutralises (by placing in a past and now redundant era) the very awkward fact (for egalitarians) that Jesus chose twelve apostles, all male.  It is new creation inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection, says Wright, that introduces egalitarianism and this is signalled and symbolised by the first witness to the resurrection being a woman who is entrusted with the task announcing this momentous fact to the disciples.

Is Wright right?  Can the text bear the freight it is asked to carry?  A few questions demonstrate it cannot.

Does the text hint in any way that it is signalling and defining a new order in gender roles?  Does the subsequent NT refer to this event as the basis for an egalitarian ecclesiology?   Does the rest of the NT lead us to believe that this incident may have even implicitly signalled a game-changing egalitarianism?  The answer is uniform, self-evident and negative.

Mary’s meeting with Jesus in the garden was private not public, unofficial and not official. Interestingly when Paul cites witnesses to the resurrection to the Corinthian believers he does not include the appearance to Mary.  He says that Jesus was seen by Cephas (Peter), then by the twelve and then by over 500 brothers at the same time (1 Cor 15:1-5).    Likewise in Acts, it is the resurrection appearances to the apostles that Luke flags up as verifying the resurrection (Acts 1:1-3).  The public and official witness is exclusively male. Telling the others she had seen Jesus is likely to have been informal and certainly not something we can readily equate with authoritative teaching or leadership far less with inaugurating a new structuring of gender roles in the home, church and society. Nor is there later NT reference to this incident as signalling egalitarianism that one may expect if it were such a game-changing sociological event.

Given Wright’s premise (that new creation introduced egalitarianism) we may expect leaders in the early church to be fairly evenly balanced between male and female but this is not the case.  Indeed, when in post-resurrection the apostles choose someone who was with Jesus during his ministry to replace Judas, we may expect, if Wright is correct in his premise, a female disciple to be chosen (perhaps Mary Magdalene herself) to help ‘right’ the imbalance; a case for positive discrimination if ever one existed.  But no, the chosen replacement is male and not by accident rather masculinity is a required criterion (Acts 1:21-26). Throughout Acts the leadership of the Church continues to be male.  The deacons chosen in Acts 6 were all male.  Church elders were male (1 Tim 2).  In fact, the church, male and female, does not have a gender-neutral  name but is given the male generic title ‘brothers'(hardly an appropriate title for a new self-consciously egalitarian body in a patriarchal culture, as Wright would have us believe).  No, Wright, in his quest to find female leaders, is obliged to resort to two names that appear but once in Scripture, in Romans – an implicit confession his case is weak.

Does Mary’s witness to the resurrection signal a radically altered role for women in God’s new society?  Do the NT writers (all male) develop from this incident an egalitarian theology? Far from it. Instead we find them asserting that gender roles in the church find their origin not in new creation but in the original creation.  It is to the garden of Eden that the writers turn not to the garden where Jesus met Mary.  Far from the NT championing egalitarianism, female leadership in church is explicitly outlawed  (for some did try to introduce it) based on the creational order of Adam and Eve, an event that the NT writers do invest with sociological significance (1 Cor 11:1-16; 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15).  Wright tries to negate the force of these explicit texts by claiming that ‘serious scholars’ disagree about their meaning.  Well there’s a surprise. Scholars always disagree over that which they do not wish to obey, in this they are ‘men of like passions’ with the rest of us.  For thousands of years ‘serious scholars’ understood these texts but now, just when society embraces egalitarianism, they are found to be a morass of exegetical difficulty – forgive my skepticism.

The simple fact is that in this inaugurated stage of new creation (which happened as Wright says, at the resurrection), living as it does in the midst of the old creation, all that belongs to the Pre-Fall order of creation is honoured by it.  In fact, the order of the original creation should be upheld and revered in this world by God’s new creation most particularly; while the world may overthrow it, the church will extol it and exemplify it.  It is worth noting that many who insist on creation ethics as the basis for ecological concerns and even marriage squirm embarrassingly to extricate themselves from its patriarchal order.  There is a patent dishonesty here.

Wright is wrong, Mary does not signal a new egalitarian ethic in God’s new society, what she does demonstrate is that a heart devoted to Christ, as Mary’s was, will receive blessings that the less devoted heart will miss.  It was love for her Lord that held Mary at the cross while most fled.  It was this same love that brought her to the tomb on the first day of the week before all others and kept her there when others had gone.  Devotion is gender-free.  But the rewards of a devoted heart and the order God has placed in his new society are two different things and not to be confused.


To support his contention that Mary signals an egalitarian church order Wright offers two NT examples of women in leadership.  To all but the most jaundiced eye these examples must appear weak in the extreme, even faintly ridiculous.  If this is the best egalitarians can put in the window to prove women’s leading role in the early church then they should shut shop.  Wright’s examples have a whiff of desperation about them. His first is Junia.

Junia(s), Wright informs us, is female and an apostle.  In fact, the sum total of information we have about Junia(s) in the NT is contained in these words found in Romans 16,

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to/among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (Roms 16:7)

Junia has become an egalitarian cause célèbre carrying on her shoulders as she does the responsibility for providing a clear example of female leadership in the NT.  I say ‘her’ with some diffidence for while it is probable, it is by no means certain that Junia(s) is a woman.   Further, it is certainly not clear that ‘well known to/among the apostles’ implies Junia(s) is herself/himself an apostle.  It may be just as readily, and more plausibly, understood that the apostles knew of Andronicus and Junia (a husband and wife team?) and held them in high regard.   Given the explicit texts supporting patriarchy we are obliged to understand the more ambiguous reference to Junia(s) in a way which harmonizes with these which makes Junia someone well-known to the apostles the likely interpretation. However, even if the text is understood as Junia being an apostle, she is clearly not one of the twelve and we must remember the noun ‘apostle’ has also an non-technical ordinary sense, simply meaning ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’ and saying nothing about church leadership (Phil 2:12; Cf. 2 Cor 8:23; Jn 13:16); Andronicus and Junia may simply be messengers or envoys sent from one church to another, or a husband and wife missionary team each functioning within their God-given gender roles.   If the proof for active female leadership in the early church depends on Junia’s credentials as an apostle it is thin indeed.


Wright, to my mind, scrabbles around even more desperately in his second example.  The sum total of what we know of Phoebe is again found in Romans 16 where we read,

Rom 16:1-2 (ESV2011)
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

Wright exposits,

‘Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.’

I think he hopes the flourish of rhetoric will mask the audacity of his claim.  The conclusion of his last sentence leaves one flabbergasted.  Wright makes theological quantum leaps larger than many secular evolutionists do in their discipline though like them he seems unfazed and unabashed.  We are not told Phoebe is the letter-bearer?  Where is the proof that the letter-bearer read it out to the church?  And more insistent still, where is the evidence that the letter-bearer exposited it to the church?   Wright’s sweeping assertions and leaps of logic beggar belief.  Let’s not be swept along by his rhetoric; let’s not mistake rhetoric for what is actually revealed, for the rather more prosaic truth is that Phoebe was a servant of her home church and was visiting Rome.  We are not told that she carried the letter to Rome; Wright extrapolates from a conjecture and creates a mythology, ‘ The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.’.  Can we trust biblical scholarship like this?

If this case presents the strongest plank egalitarians stand on then it is not merely ominously creaky but collapses under them.


the world’s mistress…

The soon-to-be-former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams announced today that the Church of England was ‘ wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.’  He added,  ‘We have some explaining to do, we have, as a result of yesterday, undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.’  He was referring, of course, to the recent rejection (ironically and tellingly, by the House of the Laity) of attempts to introduce the ordination of women bishops.

Now, no right-minded Christian wants to unnecessarily create a bad press for the Christian Faith.  Yet, it does jar with my Christian sensibilities when the Archbishop’s big regret over the ordination vote is how the world will react.   Surely he is in the wrong job if the approval of the world is his ambition.  The Church, he seems to believe, ought to be politically correct.  It should keep in step with ‘the trends and priorities’ of society.  No sense here then of the world and Church representing two different and conflicting Kingdoms (Col 1).  No concept of the opposition of light and darkness (2 Cor 6) and no thought that the friendship of the world constitutes you an enemy of God (Jas 4:4). The approval of the world was the last thing the early Church expected or courted.  It was always the false teachers who ‘improved’ the gospel that it may be approved by the world.

In Galatians, it wasn’t female ordination (with homosexually active vicars hard on its heels) that was the pressure point of assimilation but circumcision.  If only Christians were circumcised then the new Faith would be so much more respectable and acceptable in the Jewish world  But Paul will have none of it.  He writes,

Gal 6:12 (ESV2011)
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.

Paul, as always goes to the heart of the issue – the cross of Christ.  Every attempt to simply blend in with the world and have its approval is a denial of the cross.  The Archbishop thinks the credibility of the Church is at stake over the ordination of women bishops; how credible was the cross in the ancient world?  Nothing was less credible than a crucified Messiah.  No message was more counter-cultural and less in keeping with what was trending in the ancient world than the cross.  It was foolishness to any conventional wisdom and an affront to it. The cross, ends once-for-all any camaraderie between the world and the church.

Properly embraced, the cross ends all concern for the approval of the world for at by it the world has been crucified to me and I to the world (Gals 6:12); I’m finished with the world and the world is finished with me.  As Paul comments, ‘if I try to please men then I am not the servant of Christ’ (Gals 1:10).

Any desire for respectability in the world is a cause for soul-searching.  The world hates God’s people just as it hated Christ (Jn 17:14; 1 Jn  3:13).  The world and the Father are opposed (1 Jn 2:15-17).  Indeed, if the Church has the ear of the world and her indulgent smile it is almost certainly a proof she is no longer the Church but some apostate parody (1 Jn 4:5).

The Archbishop’s words reveal the truth of at least one half of the old adage, ‘Rome wants to be master of the world but Protestantism is content to be its mistress’.  What a pathetic desire, for like all mistresses she will never really belong, will require to endeavour tirelessly to please, and yet will ultimately be discarded.

Instead of the approval of the world, the approval the Archbishop should seek is that of God.  This is the approval we all should seek.

1Thess 2:4 (ESV2011)
but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.

2Tim 2:15 (ESV2011)
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

I trust this approval is the focus as they handle Scripture seeking to understand God’s will on the ordination of women.


stellman, roman catholicism, and reformed inadequacies

Jason Stellman, a fairly prominent American Reformed Presbyterian has resigned his position and the signs are he is river crossing to the Roman Catholic Church.  Why?

Well, no doubt the ‘why’ is multifaceted. There are, however, two reasons that loom large involving both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola scriptura and sola fide).

Stellman has clearly become increasingly disaffected by some Presbyterian teaching on justification that he had personally and enthusiastically defended   – a definition of justification that distanced it from godly living.  The flaws in his definition evidently  became too big to ignore – the theological gap between justification by faith and justification by works became just too wide in the face of Scripture creating cognitive dissonance. Sola fide must have a place for works.

Furthermore, high churchman that he is, Stellman increasingly struggled with sola scriptura (the Bible as ultimate authority) perhaps fueled by the way the Bible is given a wax nose by modern evangelicals, reformed and otherwise, that seems to mean it is not an authority to which one can turn for certainty; Stellman hopes to find this authority and certainty in the church of Rome (in tradition and presumably papal infallibility).  I hope, I am representing him fairly, if perhaps a little too simply.

My aim is not to critique Jason Stellman’s decision but to remark briefly on these two reasons for swimming Romewards, whether by Stellman or others.

soteriological weakness – an inadequate shaping of justification and sola fide

There is a quasi-lutheran view of justification currently popular in some Presbyterian Reformed enclaves in the States (in particular) that virtually cuts the umbilical cord between justification and sanctification.  Justification implies, for some, no moral imperative.  Indeed, any talk of self-effort is ridiculed as pietistic, legalistic or Romish; Jesus has done everything, including keeping the law for us and therefore talk of aspiring to holiness is simply humbug and a denial of grace.  Of course, this flies in the face of Scripture.  It is little wonder that some who subscribe to this deeply circumscribed view of justification eventually find the biblical evidence to hard to ignore and perhaps end up over-reacting.

Justification, properly understood, is not as in Presbyterian theology, Jesus’ imputed life and death: his death for our sins (passive righteousness) clearing our guilt augmented by his life of law-keeping (active righteousness) giving us a positive law-keeping righteousness.   The whole structure here is flawed.  Justification is not based on Jesus life and death but on his death and life, that is his resurrection life.

Justification involves me in his death.  In his death I die. I die for the only possible end for a sinner is death.  The soul that sins must die and this admits of no exceptions.  Thus I and my sins were nailed to the cross.  The penalty was enacted and God’s justice satisfied. The debt was paid in full.  My history as a man in Adam came to an end.

But justification does not end here.  Christ could not stay in death.  It would be unrighteous of God to leave in death someone who had glorified him in life and death as Jesus had.  God must vindicate Jesus.  He must declare him righteous, hence resurrection.  In resurrection, Christ is vindicated as righteous.  Men said he was unrighteous and deserved to die but God said he is righteous and must live, as must all who are united to him by faith.

I (we who believe) share in this resurrection verdict and standing, the righteous verdict of the Father.  I am raised with Christ and have a new life,  resurrection life.  Justification is ‘unto life’ (Roms 5:18).  Christ was raised ‘for our justification’ (Roms 4:25).  Thus justification is inextricably linked with a new life and new lifestyle.  We must never separate justification from life and righteous living.  Godly living, living in the resurrection life of Christ, is always the vindication of justification.  Justification is to a life no longer ruled by sin, Satan, the world, law and death, a justified life.

The tendency in some modern Reformed circles to make an absolute disjunction between justification and sanctification puts an intolerable strain on reading Scripture with integrity.  It is impossible to read Scripture and pooh-pooh aspirations after godliness as legalistic and an attack on justification.  Any honest believer cannot help but reckon with James’s assertion that a person is in some sense ‘justified by works’.  Our works affirm and approve our justification, they attest to it and to God’s righteous judgement.  Justifying faith produces justifying works, works that are the proof of life and bring reward on the day of judgement.

Skewed and imbalanced theologies of justification may create reactions that lead to Rome.  They seem to have done so with Stellman.

ecclesiological weakness – an inadequate shaping of authority and sola scriptura

Stellman asks the age-old question – where does authority lie, in Scripture or the church?  The allied question is which comes first the Word or the church?

The answer to the second should be easy – the Word comes first.  The Word always comes first for it is by his Word God creates all things.  Not only does creation come by the Word but new creation comes by the Word.  We are born ‘by the word of truth’ (Jn 1:18).  The church is the product of the word and not vice versa.

However, the question still remains, who declares what this word is?  Who has authority to declare and delineate truth?  Although in one sense the Word or Truth is self-authenticating and has its own authority in another sense we can quite happily say the church declares and delineates the Word.  The church is the repository of the truth.  But which church?  The apostolic church.  The NT church.  It was the apostles and prophets (instructed by the risen Christ through the Spirit) who were entrusted with declaring and defining the Word.  They laid the foundations – namely Jesus Christ.  Thus, when I look to the church for truth I look to them.  John affirms concerning his witness and that of the other apostles,

1John 4:6 (ESV)
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 

The apostles taught and revealed, ‘that which was from the beginning’ and all who had the indwelling the Spirit of truth listened to them.  Thus I find in Scripture, the only apostolic and so divinely authoritative word we have.  I listen to John… and Peter… and Paul…. and Matthew… and James… and whatever aligns with them I accept as the spirit of truth and whatever contradicts them I reject as the spirit of error.

How am I, a mere ordinary believer competent to so discern?  Don’t I need a guide, an interpreter?  Indeed I do.  I am instructed by the Spirit of truth who indwells and teaches.

1John 2:20-27 (ESV)
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth… Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us-eternal life.  I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie-just as it has taught you, abide in him. 

Stellman longs for certainty.  The only certainty lies in the apostolic word understood and interpreted by the indwelling Spirit.  The only message that has weight and divine imprimatur is ‘that which is from the beginning’.

In the great house of professing Christianity there is confusion and darkness mingled with that which is holy.  We should not be surprised at the chaos and that many who claim to follow Christ make a wax nose of Scripture and the apostolic teaching – such, after all,  was predicted by the Lord and his apostles (Matt 24:11; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet 2:1).  False prophets/teachers abound and deceive.   However, the way forward is not Rome, a church whose teaching cannot stand before the test of the apostolic word.  The answer is much more mundane and not terribly attractive or grandiose.  It is found in the instruction of the apostle Paul as he anticipates the apostasy of the visible church

2Tim 2:20-22 (ESV)
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.  So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

The way forward is to separate oneself from all that is evidently doctrinally and morally corrupt and fellowship with small groups of like-minded believers who ‘call upon the Lord from a pure heart”.  In the context of false teachers and churches which have corrupted the gospel Paul says,

2Tim 2:19 (ESV)
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” 

God knows who is real and who is unreal.  We cannot pontificate on this.  Our responsibility is to keep ourselves distant from all iniquity whether of belief or behaviour and leave the question of whether those who embrace it are truly Christian to the Lord.

Stellman hopes to find in the Roman Church what belongs only to the early church (apostolic certainty).  He has not grasped that the ruin he finds in secession runs through Rome too.  Stellman, high churchman that he is, is making the tragic mistake of seeking certainty in an institution and in a structure rather than in the Spirit.  He is confusing a human organisation with a spiritual organism and is doomed to disappointment as he substitutes a defective view of justification for one which is more defective and seeks divine authority where it does not reside.

In the age of the Spirit, the Spirit is Christ’s vicar on earth (Jn 14:16).  He led the apostles into truth (Jn 14:16).  When believers hear the true Spirit-breathed apostolic word expounded the indwelling Spirit authorises it to their hearts and minds and ecclesia fellowship in the Spirit ensues (we are, after all, a spiritual temple or house offering up spiritual sacrifices).  We may fully trust the Spirit.  When we don’t, like Stellman we look for certainty elsewhere whether it be, like him, the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Roman Magisterium.


funerals, fasting, feasting, and the first day of the week

Emergents (enchanted by the ‘Big Tradition’), some Old Life Reformed (emphasising the institutional church and sacraments), some Federal Vision folks like Peter Leithart (with a similarly high ecclesiology), the rising influence, in the States at least, of evangelical Lutheranism (which tends to stress liturgy), our ecumenical romance with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the popular influence of Anglicans like Tom Wright, the childish drive for the novel and sensual that marks a culture bloated on narcissism, and the shallow gospel of many Western believers have converged to create the perfect liturgical storm.   It is a storm threatening to swamp gospel fulness and freedom in Christ.  Evangelicalism, in many quarters, is all too ready to exchange the real for rituals and regulations, the freeing for the enslaving, Christ for the childish and cultic legalistic ceremonies.  Ritualistic faith is on the increase, an inevitable result of  faith that fails to ‘hold fast to the head’ (the risen reigning Christ in heaven) and instead seeks religious experience and assurance in that which is sensuous and ceremonial, that which is merely ‘earthly’ (Cols 2:16-20); when the substance is lost the shadows rush in to fill the void.

My previous post (but one) protested strongly against the present evangelical love-fest with all things liturgical (liturgical calendars and its seasons such as lent).   However, you may well read the post and say, ‘That’s all very well.  I see the force of your argument.  However, does not Christianity have its special day (the first day of the week), and its rituals (baptism, the Lord’s supper), and does it not promote fasting?  Is there contradiction here?’

It is this latter question I wish to address.

a believing hermeneutic

Whenever we find what we perceive to be a tension in Scripture the way forward lies in believing faith that seeks to do justice to both statements without playing off one against the other or adopting one to the exclusion of the other.

With this hermeneutic, we may well conclude that in principle New Covenant faith radically abandons ritualistic religion reducing many religious days to one, many different rites and ceremonies to two simple acts, and  regular ritually obligated fasts to the occasional and voluntary.  We may not understand why any special day or ritual is left but this is a question faith need not have answered to live obediently.  We do not have to fully understand a matter to be taught and guided by what is revealed.

This seems to me terribly important.  Christians ought to have a humble submission to God’s Word that believes and obeys without requiring all questions answered.  We must avoid the critical superiority that robs Scripture of its authority and impact by a thousand clever avoidance questions and arguments.  I am not advocating a faith that does not inquire, study and seek to learn.  Far from it.  Godly scholarship is a gift from God.  However, scholarship is not always godly, not always believing, and certainly not always submissive.    Scholars, like the rest of us, too often read the Bible without that childlike trust and submission.  When this is the case no amount of scholarly nous will compensate, indeed it is likely to blind; spiritual truth is spiritually discerned.

Church tradition can also be a force for good or ill.   Church tradition like scholarship can be good if the tradition encourages making Scripture humbly studied the authority for faith and practice, but where the tradition makes the authority the tradition itself (whether confessional or non-confessional)  spiritual blindness is inevitable.  Both scholarship and tradition are powerful forces to buck, yet a believing hermeneutic must be willing to challenge both.  Neither are final authorities.  Only Scripture is truth.

There is only one guard against deception and that is a heart and mind subject to the Word and depending on the Spirit.  This is ever the way of understanding and blessing.

sabbaths and sunday, law days and love days

We can, however, go a little further in addressing the apparent tension expressed above by noting some basic differences between OT regulations and NT practices.

We should remember that the nature of religion that allows man to save himself (as the Mosaic Law did) is to focus on what is external and ritualistic.  Such religion is typically full of rules and regulation, things to do.  The Mosaic Covenant (this do and live) was certainly like this.  The Sabbath was the key sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Ex 31:13) and exemplifies this principle.  So important was the Sabbath that it was enshrined as part of the Ten Words in the tablets of stone.  Remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy was a vital component of covenantal obedience.  It was a regulation carefully drafted with various activities proscribed.  Failure to observe it was punishable by death (Ex 31) and honouring it was the way of life (Isa 58:13,14).  We should not miss the fact that Sabbath observance was a legal obligation with much hanging on it.

However, when we come to the NT and the day Christians observe, the atmosphere is quite different.  Firstly, of course, Christians do not observe the Sabbath.  It simply will not do when Sabbatarians, in an attempt to claim Sunday as  the Christian Sabbath, argue for one day in seven.  The Sabbath is not any one out of seven, it is specifically and intentionally the seventh day.  It is the day when God rested having created for six.   There is simply no suggestion in the NT that the Christian day is a Sabbath, in fact the opposite is the case (Col 2:16).  The very choosing of another day clearly signalled a decisive change in covenantal relationship since the Sabbath was the covenantal sign of the OC (Ex 31).

But what of the Christian day of worship – the first day of the week?  Is this enshrined in a  statute or written on a tablet of stone?  Is there a command that Sunday must be remembered and treated as holy?  Is it defined as a day of rest? Is there a sanction of death on those who fail to observe it?  Clearly not.  Why do Christian’s worship on a Sunday?  We worship on a Sunday because that is the day of Christ’s resurrection.  Indeed, after his death the resurrected Christ appeared only to his disciples on Sundays (the first day of the week).  It would appear that the Holy Spirit so impressed upon the young church the association between the resurrection of Jesus and the first day of the week that  it quickly became the day of Christian gathering and worship.  Soon it was simply known as ‘the Lord’s day’ (Rev 1:10).  Love for the Lord had set it apart.

My point is, it was no mere legal regulation or ordinance that gave the first day of the week its significance but love for the one who was identified as Lord in resurrection on this day.  In this way the Spirit impressed on the heart of the infant church the appropriateness of Sunday for Christian worship.     The Sabbath signalled the end of the old creation: the first day of the week the beginning  of the new creation.   The Sabbath was for man, the first day of the week is for the Lord.  Sunday is not for Christians a day of rest but a day of worship.  Let me repeat, Christians worship on a Sunday not from duty, not from fear of judgement, and not to gain merit.  They gather out of love for their Lord.

Can I observe in passing, this is why the Lord’s Day observance society is so wrong-headed.  The Lord’s Day was never intended to be foisted on society.  It was intended for Christians and not the world.  It was a day when believers were drawn together to worship out of love for their Lord, not for unbelievers to observe by legal enforcing.  The whole premise is wrong.  We so easily lapse from grace into legalism.

These two days, it seems,  illustrate the different principles that guide the different covenants, the difference between the legal precepts of the old and the gracious privileges of the new, in particular, those of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

baptism and the lord’s Supper

We speak of these as ‘ordinances’.  The word means ‘an authoritative command or order’.  Yet I wonder whether this word is best suited.  For, yet again, juridical language is entirely absent.  Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper may be better termed privileges than ordinances.  In both cases we receive from the Lord.  In both cases, the emphasis is far less on what we ought to do than what grace has accomplished.  Both indicate blessings bestowed.

In our baptism we are carried through waters of judgement and death (safely in Christ our ark) and emerge  to the privilege of a new world and life the other side of the deluge.  Sin is gone in the judgement of the waters and we stand before God in resurrection with no more conscience of sins (2 Pet 3:21).  Baptism is rich with the symbolism of grace; it brings us through judgement into a new creation.  (In terms of command, the preponderance of verses focus on the command to baptise rather than the command to be baptised.)

In the Lord’s Supper, again we receive.  We sit at the table of the Lord and eat what he provides.  He is the spiritual host.  And he is the spiritual food (specifically in his death).  The focus is what is graciously given.  Again there is no legal or juridical context. The context when the disciples are first introduced to the Supper could not be more intimate and familial.  Christ’s love for his own and his desire to fellowship with them is the atmosphere in which it is inaugurated (Luke 22:15).  His love is on full display.  He washes their feet, feeds them, teaches them, comforts and prepares them for the coming hours and days; having loved his own which were in the world he loves them to the end.

The Lord’s Supper is a love feast.  It is no formal ritual with eating a legal duty.  It is not rigidly confined by rules and regulations.  Nor is it elaborate or ceremonial.  The meal is the essence of simplicity.  It is simply bread and wine and we are free in when we eat it and where we eat it (Cf Acts 2).  What matters is the state of heart in which we eat (1 Cor 11).  We should eat realising that it is a meal symbolising the oneness of God’s people in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16).   We eat out of love for the Lord and a desire to fellowship with him and his people.  Any thought of mere obligation to a rite or ordinance fails to grasp what it is about; ritualism and relationship are mutually exclusive.

Much more of course could be said regarding these gospel privileges, however, my concern is simply to underline that both, like the Lord’s day, arise in a context of grace and relationship not law and ritual and both reflect the context in which they arise.  Be suspicious of every attempt to squeeze ritualistic drama from these privileges for the less we appreciate their inner spiritual realities the more we will make of their externalities.

We should also note in this context that neither has any intrinsic ‘magical’ saving quality.  They have no sacramental value of themselves.  Being baptised and taking the Lord’s Supper does not confer grace or guarantee spiritual security.   1 Cor 10 makes this very clear; it is possible to be both baptised and regularly take the Lord’s Supper yet be destroyed by God.


Paul is quite clear that denying ourselves bodily needs and provisions is no virtue in itself.  The Mosaic Covenant (Judaism)  made numerous ascetic ritualistic demands on the people.  Not so the NT.  In fact,  it explicitly condemns ascetic impositions (Col 2:20-23) describing such teachings as the teaching of ‘deceiving spirits’ and ‘doctrines of demons’ (1 Tim 4:1-5).  Real self-denial, we discover, is not a denial of the body but a denial of the flesh (our Adamic human nature opposed to God).  Yet, fasting is something the NT assumes God’s people may do from time to time (Matt 9:15) normally depriving ourselves of some legitimate bodily need (usually food).

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?  The first thing to be said is that in the New Covenant fasting is always voluntary (whether by an individual or a group).  There is no imposed season for fasting.  There is no rule that tells us we must fast.  Indeed there is no injunction to fast. Yet  Jesus assumes his people will fast and Paul tells us he often fasted.  We are not told when to fast, where to fast, how to fast, or how long to fast (though it should not be of such a time that Satan can take advantage Cf 1 Cor 7: 5).  Again the difference between law and gospel becomes apparent.

If someone fasts it will be because the Holy Spirit prompts him or her to do so.  Such prompting appears to be definite and in lieu of a specific task or purpose.   Thus Jesus fasts before facing the temptation of Satan and the beginning his public ministry (Matt 4:2).   Some of the church at Antioch fasted as they were considering the future strategy of expansion.  When Paul and Barnabas were considering who to appoint as elders in various churches they fasted (Acts 13:2, 14:23).  It seems too that fasting was generally accompanied by prayer (Lk 2:37, 5:33).  The point is this was a time of intense seeking the mind of God and humbling oneself before the Lord.  It is to our shame that most of us know little of this today.  Prayer and fasting seem to be linked with spiritual power.  Perhaps we see here a reason for our spiritual weakness.

For our purposes, the main point to note is that fasting is not an institutionalised ritual that is part of an imposed church calendar but is an activity that arises out of a burden placed on the heart by the Holy Spirit.  How easily our legalistic hearts institutionalise and ossify activities that should flow from freedom in the Spirit.  The value of a fast does not lie in the hunger for food it creates but the hunger for God that created it.


The heart of Christianity is a living relationship with Christ by faith.  We live in union with him, rooted and grounded in him, and nourished by him (Cols 2).  Everything that ritualises, institutionalises and mechanises this should be treated with suspicion.  How ready we are to make a ritual or a law out of what is intended to arise from the heart freely as it seeks God’s face.  How easily we turn from life in the Spirit to the deadening letter, from privilege to performance, from relationship to ritual, from the unveiled to the veiled, from the spiritual to the sensual, from grace to works.

Let’s make it our aim to discover the true grace of God and having discovered it, to stand fast in it.


carson on church life in great britain

Don Carson gives here a brief survey of evangelical church life in Britain as he sees it.  It should be seen in the context of some rather negative criticisms of British evangelicals made by Mark Driscoll.


discipline… an initiative of grace (2)

the grace of church discipline

One of the ways God graciously disciplines his children is through the local church.  Tragically, church discipline has all but disappeared from many evangelical churches.  For some, the very idea, shocks.  This shows how far we have drifted from NT standards.  There are a number of reasons why church discipline is in the doldrums.  Let me mention two.

insensitivity to sin

Accommodation to our Western liberal culture has hardened our hearts.  We are insensitive to sin (in belief or behaviour) and treat it lightly.  There are many parallels between our culture and that of ancient Corinth.  Corinth was ‘materially prosperous, intellectually alert, and morally corrupt’.  Even in the pagan world Corinth had a reputation for debauchery.  The Corinthian church was a young church (no elders had apparently been appointed) but even given this they were inexcusably influenced by their culture and as a result allowed behaviour to exist among them that every spiritual instinct ought to have abhorred and rejected.  Paul writes,

1Cor 5:1-2 (ESV)
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

The church considered itself to have attained no mean level of spirituality (in knowledge, gift and experience) yet it had little moral sense or conscience.  It tolerated behaviour that even many in debauched Corinth would find shameful.  The Corinthian church is a mirror for contemporary Western churches.  All too often we tolerate or treat lightly what our renewed hearts ought to tell us is shameful and deeply sinful.  This may be, as it was in Corinth, sexual sin, or it may be other forms of unacceptable behaviour.  Paul cites a few in this chapter:

1Cor 5:11 (ESV)
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-not even to eat with such a one.

Elsewhere false teachers (teachers who deny the basics of the gospel) are another group who must be disciplined (1 Tim 1:20; Rev 2:14-16).  Notice that those who are disciplined in these instances are excommunicated from fellowship.  This  means they are not free to come to the gatherings of the church,

1Cor 5:2,7, 13 (ESV)
Let him who has done this be removed from among you… Cleanse out the old leaven… “Purge the evil person from among you.”

but it also means that the Christians in the church should not befriend the disciplined member socially.  Paul is clear,

1Cor 5:9-11 (ESV)
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-not even to eat with such a one.

‘Eating’ is not (as some bizarrely suggest) the Lord’s Supper, it is clearly social interaction; it is mixing with the disciplined believer in the world not the church that is in view.   In one sense, this exhortation should be obvious.  If someone is forbidden to attend church meetings as a means of discipline then it makes little sense for Christians to meet and fraternize with him elsewhere.  The excommunicated person is be avoided, even shunned (2 Thess 3:6-15).  They are to be deprived of Christian company (I assume the exception of close family and those elders given specific pastoral responsibility for the person disciplined).  Does this seem draconian to us?  It does.  Is it what the Holy Spirit teaches?  It is.  Why will become apparent later in this post.  But reasons apart, we must assume the Holy Spirit is the best judge of how to pastor such difficult situations. Certainly his wisdom is preferable to ours, and that of Western liberal culture (which has no success rate in checking sin).

Insensitivity to sin, therefore, is a principal reason why church discipline is in decline.  However, there is another reason, and an equally disturbing one, namely, an inadequate grasp of  grace.

insensitivity to grace

We have, as we noted in the previous post, dangerously mistaken ideas about grace.  C21 evangelical grace is too often soft and indulgent.  It assumes God is easy-going and accommodating and protests that we must not judge.  Bonhoeffer called it ‘cheap grace’.  He defined ‘cheap grace’ as

“cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

But cheap grace is not true grace.  True grace desires the best for God’s people.  It is determined that they should deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and live self-controlled, godly, upright lives.  It is resolutely committed to purifying God’s people and making them a people in whom God’s rights are realized (Tit 2:11-14).  If this requires rebuke, correction, discipline, even church discipline, then so be it.  Grace will go to great lengths to train us in godliness for godliness is our best life now and apart from it there is no life in the future.  Grace will be as tough as necessary to bring us to glory.  As God says to his people in the OT, ‘You only have I known [loved and chosen] of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you’ (Amos 3:2).

Church discipline is neither  loveless nor unkind, but an initiative of grace.

grace for the church

God cares deeply about his people.  He is deeply protective of them. He desires their purity and godliness.  Purity and holiness though hard-won are easily lost.  Consequently the church must be protected from all that will corrupt it.  Paul says,

1Cor 5:6-8 (ESV)
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 

The feast of the Passover in Israel was a commemoration of their redemption from Egypt.  Immediately following this feast of passover was the feast of unleavened bread.  For seven days after Passover  the nation ate only unleavened bread.  Leaven was an agent of corruption and so the seven-day feast of unleavened bread symbolised their rejection and expulsion of  all that was corrupting.  Paul reminds them of the cost of their redemption – Christ the passover lamb – and that this redemption was that they should be a holy people – a people who would put away from them all that corrupted and destroyed.  For sin among God’s people is intolerable, and if tolerated, is a corruption that spreads (Cf. Gals 5:9).  What one does (or believes) others soon copy, especially if they see there is no consequence, and soon the whole church is deeply compromised (Cf. 2 Tim 2:16-18; 1 Tim 5:10).  If you doubt that this is true simply look at the sin that is widespread in churches where discipline is all but non-existent. The pattern is clear.  Sin that is not disciplined quickly spreads. What was initially condemned is soon condoned and  finally commended; such is the ready corruption of the human heart if left unchecked and unjudged.

God is jealous for the well-being of his people.  And so he graciously protects them from all that will destroy them.  This is why church discipline is so important.  When the church disciplines it is protecting God’s people from harm and spiritual danger.  Indeed it is simply preserving what they really are – ‘a new lump, as you really are unleavened’, a holy people.  The church is God’s distinctive counter-culture.  It is a people distinct from Egypt and Corinth and all other cultures intended by its very holiness and distinctiveness to praise the excellencies of God.  Peter writes,

1Pet 2:9-12 (ESV)
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light… Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 

Incidentally, the danger of embracing these ‘passions… which war against the soul‘ is why those who belong to the church ought to have as little to do as possible with the person expelled.  Their own spiritual safety is at stake… we must avoid people who are dangerously compromised spiritually.  On more than one occasion Paul urges avoidance. The first two references below clearly refers to those who persist in teaching what is contrary to apostolic teaching, those who preach a false gospel.  The third text includes false teachers but goes much further – it embraces belief and behaviour that is contrary to the gospel.

Rom 16:17 (ESV)
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

Titus 3:9-11 (ESV)
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. 

2Tim 3:1-5 (ESV)
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

Is Paul an extremist?  The question itself is blasphemous.  For if he is then so was Christ for Paul’s teaching is simply an echo of what Jesus taught.

Matt 18:15-20 (ESV)
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

The context is narrower (it is an offence against an individual) the audience is not quite the same (Jewish followers before local NT churches existed) but the principle is made clear.  There are situations (in this case a hard, self-justifying, self-willed spirit that will listen to none) where someone  must be avoided; ‘And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’.  Jews shunned and avoided tax collectors and gentiles. Cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15

Moreover, notice that this discipline is imposed not simply by the elders but by the whole church.  It is the church  who ‘bind and loose’.  That is, the church has authority to accept or reject, to bring in or put out.  The church may consist only of a few (two or three) but these people have  the authority of Christ to receive or expel.  This is why, while it may be elders or spiritual leaders who are principally involved with the offender, if discipline must take place then the reason must be clear to all, for it is the whole church that disciplines (and bears responsibility for it) and not merely the elders.  1 Cor 5 corroborates this.  Paul writes to the church,

1Cor 5:3-5 (ESV)
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Equally, when someone is received into fellowship the whole church should be informed about their faith and spiritual journey.  The church receives and rejects (Cf 2 Cor 2:6).

Thus the case for not associating with the disciplined person appears to me to be overwhelming.  Paul’s language bears repeating:

1Cor 5:9-13 (ESV)
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” 

However, Paul’s comment ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’ probably is even more forceful than stressing the spreading nature of sin.  It is probably saying that the presence of even a little leaven constitutes the whole as leavened.  Even if sin doesn’t spread, its presence taints and compromises the whole – consider Achan’s sin (Josh 7).  Certainly it takes only one tolerated sin to bring shame and dishonour on the whole church and so upon the name of God himself.  We must remember, we are the temple of God and God’s temple is holy.  So holy in fact that if someone destroys this temple God will destroy him, a warning given by Paul to false teachers in the first instance (1 Cor 3: 16,17).

Church discipline, then, is God acting in grace to preserve the purity of his people and the glory of his own name.

grace for the disciplined

When your child behaves abominably what do you do?  Do you simply ignore their behaviour and hope it will improve?  If you do you are stoking up trouble for you and the child.  You are doing him no favour.  Proverbs wisely observes,  ‘Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, ​​​​​​​but the rod of discipline drives it far from him (Prov 22:15). ​​​ It is neither wise nor loving to allow  a child’s self-will to be indulged.  Proverbs reminds us that ‘Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him’ (Prov 13:24).  Discipline, appropriately administered, is a response of love.  In the words of Proverbs, yet again,  ‘in the reproofs of discipline is the way of life’ (Prov 6:23).  The same is of course true of the children of God.

Church discipline, like God’s direct discipline, is not an act of condemnation but of confrontation and correction.  The discipline is intended to break self-will, impress upon the disciplined the seriousness of rebellious sinful behaviour and how unacceptable this is in God’s children.  God will not indulge sons who disgrace his name.  He will not simply ignore children who sin with a high hand.  If they are to have a place in his family they must learn how unacceptable wilfully sinful behaviour is, and if this requires stern discipline then so be it.  This is precisely Paul’s point at the beginning of 1 Cor 5, note again these words,

1Cor 5:2-5 (ESV)
Let him who has done this be removed from among you.  For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

The purpose of discipline is plainly not retributive but remedial: it’s aim is ‘the destruction of the flesh’.  This of course is the purpose of all God’s disciplining of his people.  The discipline teaches the seriousness of our sin.  Delivering ‘to Satan’ it seems is exile from the warmth and joy  of church fellowship  to the world, the theatre of Satan’s power.  This exile is shock therapy for the soul.  The true child of God will feel keenly the loss of blessing.  His mind will contrast his past blessings among God’s people with his present exile and this will bring him to his senses.

This is why it is so wrongheaded for church members to socialize with any removed from fellowship (with such a one not even to eat).  It is undermining the discipline and doing the one disciplined no favours.  The child who is banished to his room for misbehaviour feels no impact if all his friends go to his room to play with him.  The discipline has little effect.  The banishment is intended to give time to reflect.  It is intended to make him aware of love abused and so for a time forfeited.  The weight of the wrongdoing is brought home by privileges withdrawn, especially the acceptance and approval of those loved.  This will bring the child to his sense and produce contrition and confession of wrongdoing.

For a repentance to be deep and life-giving rather than superficial discipline must take place and the whole church must uphold it.  And where it does, the true believer will respond.

Of course such discipline is drastic and severe.  Language like ‘the destruction of the flesh‘ and ‘deliver to Satan’ makes this plain, but sometimes drastic surgery is vital.  In the church it is vital for the well-being of the body of Christ as a whole and it is vital for the person disciplined as well.  For the gracious intention is that discipline now will prevent destruction later (his spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord).  Proverbs gives us its wisdom again, ‘​​​​​​​​There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the way; ​​​​​​​whoever hates reproof will die’. ​​​ (Prov 15:10).  We should be in no doubt that blatant wilful unchecked sin places the perpetrator outside of salvation.  1 Cor 6 (the immediately following chapter) unequivocally warns,

1Cor 6:9-10 (ESV)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

In Galatians the same grave warning is given.

Gal 5:16-21 (ESV)
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh… Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Ungodly behaviour like those catalogued banishes not merely from the local church but from the final City of God, the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:15) and makes our final destiny the Lake of Fire (Rev 21:6-8).

Rev 21:6-8 (ESV)
And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” 

The issues at stake are significant, of eternal significance (Cf.  Jas 5:19,20).  This is why church discipline properly administered is gracious and life-giving.  It teaches through present banishment the danger of eternal banishment, jolting the transgressor to his senses and repentance.

In 2 Cor we read of the success of such discipline.

2Cor 2:5-11 (ESV)
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure-not to put it too severely-to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him… so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

The discipline has had its desired effect.  The one who has sinned has come to feel his sin and has known ‘godly sorrow that leads to repentance’ (2 Cor 7), evident in that  the discipline is in danger of overwhelming him and doubtless too by the presence of changed attitudes and behaviour (Acts 26:20).  The time has come for reaffirmed love and acceptance (note, the implication, that discipline involves love withheld).  Discipline reveals the heart.  ‘​​​​​​​​Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, ​​​​​​​but he who hates reproof is stupid’ ​(Prov 12:1).  Where the transgressor is a true child of God, and all discipline assumes he is (1 Cor 5:11; 2 Thess 3:13-15), discipline will have its desired effect.  The words of the Psalmist in Ps 118 reveal the godly response to discipline: recognition it is from the Lord; no resentment but rather thankfulness; a desire to live in the presence of God; and an awareness that this presence is a place of righteousness (Cf. Ps 15; 24).

Ps 118:18-19 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​The Lord has disciplined me severely, ​​​​​​​but he has not given me over to death. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Open to me the gates of righteousness, ​​​​​​​that I may enter through them ​​​​​​​and give thanks to the Lord. ​​​

These are simply a few reflections on church discipline.  For some, they will undoubtedly seem mediaeval and monstrous.  Yet only a couple of generations ago these would have been virtually unquestioned evangelical orthodoxy.  But, gut-reactions aside, the question is – are they biblical?

Other aspects of church discipline have not been considered, for example, the duration of exclusion, the spirit of discipline (Gals 6:1,2), post-discipline consequences (1 Tim 3:10), and other less extreme forms of discipline  (1 Tim 5:20, Tit 1:13; Gal 6:1).  These were beyond the aim of the post, namely, to instil confidence in biblical discipline and to establish it for what it is, an initiative of grace.


the best kind of christian leader

Christianity Today’s article, ‘Why we need more ‘Chaplains’ and fewer leaders’,  well deserves a perusal.


getting real about church

I rather like Tim Gombis’ post on our idolatries of church life.   I especially like the quotation from Bonhoeffer he cites though the whole post merits reflection.  Read the post here.

‘In his classic work, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the clash between our imagined ideal church experience and the actual church communities we encounter.  He absolutely nails it.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial (emphasis added).

He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

Big thanks to my friend, Kyle Bos, for alerting me to this passage.  Cited from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), pp. 14-15.’


the church and fellowship after the apostolic age (2) the apostasy of the church from grace

My contention is that the apostasy of the Christian Church, already underway before the demise of the apostles, led to the Judaizing of the church – a tendency already present during the lives of the apostles.  The NT church was plagued by both Jewish (Judaistic) and gentile (Greco-Roman) notions from early days.  Many of the NT letters are attacks these very diseases.   In fact, Judaism and Greco-Roman faiths had some principles in common which is why Paul was able to say to gentile believers ready to adopt Judaistic practices that this was simply a return to the ‘weak and beggarly elements’ of religious bondage and death they had left behind.

Gal 4:8-11 (ESV)
Formerly, when you [gentiles without the covenants of promise] did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more [the OT Mosaic Law, Judaism, they were being encouraged to embrace]? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

What then are the ‘weak and worthless elementary principles of the world‘ that the church were tempted to adopt, and in time did, in abundance?

I want to sketch over a few posts three areas of Judaistic recidivism now institutionalised in the professing church.

a)    a Judaistic soteriology

b)    a Judaistic ecclesiology

c)    a Judaistic eschatology

Let me say, these posts will but scrape the surface.  You will need to read and reflect much further to grasp the extent to which the Church has capitulated to a Judaizing apostasy.  It is a journey of discovery that is unpalatable for it shakes our complacency. Often, when the choice is between living in our comfortable and cosy theological world and the messy world of hard truth we choose the former.   We don’t like to think just how far removed our church experience is from NT Christianity for it requires adjustment and that is often painful.  So before reading on I would say to you as Morpheus says to Nero in the film ‘The Matrix’ :

‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.’

To read on is at least to flirt with the red pill.

But first…

the gospel of the grace of god

Christianity is a wonderful story.  It is the story of grace.  It is the story of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  In fact, the whole biblical story anticipates this grace (1 Pet 1:10).  Yahweh (the Lord) who reveals himself to Israel in the OT is merciful and gracious.

Exod 34:6-7 (ESV)
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

His grace is evident among his people throughout the OT.  However, in the arrival of Jesus and the Kingdom, God’s  grace flows as never before.   John tells us ‘the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ – an implied contrast surely cannot be avoided.

In the Law, the glory of God was hidden behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies.  No ordinary Israelite could look on this glory and live.  Thus Moses hid his face (which shone with this glory) when he came down from the mountain.  Only the High Priest could enter into God’s Holy presence and see his glory and he could only do so once a year (and only with blood) and even then the Holiest was thick with the smoke of incense and his vision was faint.   God was among his people but essentially hidden from them.  One reason for this was that God’s glory under Law was essentially the glory of his holiness and grace was not to the fore.  Thus Sinai, which lays the basic character of the Law relationship, was a place of thick darkness, thundering, lightning, and terror – the people were afraid to draw near and forbidden to draw near (Ex 19; 20:18; 34:30; Hebs 12:18-21).

It is in Christ that God is revealed in the brilliance of grace and truth.  The Word became flesh and ‘tabernacled’ among us.  We beheld his glory, says John, the glory of the only Son of the Father full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).  The hidden God is now revealed.  And of his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn 1:15).  The heart of God that moves out in love, compassion and salvation to sinners is seen in all its glory in Jesus Christ.  The gracious God – the God who is Father – is revealed in him.  We know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich he became poor that we through his poverty may be made rich (2 Cor 8:9).

In his flesh, he revealed the glory of God but, ironically, if there was any veil to this glory, it was this flesh.  While he lived in this life on earth the way into the ‘holiest’ (the immediate presence of God) was not open to us.  But through his death all this change.  We now have access into the immediate and majestically holy presence of God.  We enter with confidence, anywhere and at any time, the Throne Room of God.  We stand as creatures before his aw(e)ful purity and, beyond all belief, we do so without fear of expulsion, without fear of death, without fear of condemnation or accusation; we are holy and without blame before him in love (Eph 1:3).

Facing God in the filthy rags of our own self-righteousness, the way of  Judaism and human religion (though Judaism did acknowledge sacrifice and grace albeit as an adjunct to a relationship of works) is an impossible thing,  fearful and futile.  We are crushed and condemned if we seek to face him this way.  Our conscience immediately accuses us and we ‘tremble to die’.   If heaven and earth flee and there is found no place for them before the holiness of God on his throne what hope has a wretched sinner?  I cannot stand before God on the ground of responsibility – if I do, I am lost.  ‘I’ is a weak link that will collapse before intractable righteousness and all-seeing eyes.  No, if I am to be in God’s presence I must be there on another ground altogether.   I need the righteousness of grace (Roms 3:24), the righteousness of God that comes through  the infinite worth of the atoning life-blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ God’s Son which cleanses me from all sin.  I need to be there knowing that God is for me, and if God is for me who can be against me.  It is God who justifies (not, who judges, but who justifies) who then can condemn (Roms 8)?

In God’s presence the only righteousness that is acceptable is his own.  And so Christ was made sin for us, he who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor 5:21).  We stand as those whose sin no longer exists – without conscience of sins (Hebs 10:2).  We are without stain, a new creation.  We stand pure, justified, forgiven by virtue of his blood… justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Roms 3:24) and it is by faith that it may rest on grace (Roms 4:16).  Blood that gives more than a merely superficial, ceremonial, temporary cleansing but cleanses the conscience forever and brings us faultless into the presence of God.

Heb 9:11-26 ;10:19 (ESV)
But when Christ appeared… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God… For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf… he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself… Therefore, brothers we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh…’

All rests on grace.  And if it is grace it is no longer by works or grace would not be grace (Roms 11:6).  Being justified by faith we have peace with God and stand in grace (Roms 5:2).  We need no  further redemption, justification, sacrifice, or reconciliation before God.   All has been accomplished, once for all, by Christ’s death, a death that by the grace of God he experienced for every man (Hebs 2:9).  Our sins and iniquities God will remember no more forever.  We have been enriched in him with every salvation blessing out of the riches of God’s grace in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:7) – the God, who is the God of all grace (1 Pet 5:10) .  By grace we have been saved, and that not of ourselves, not of works [of Law] lest any man should boast (Eph 2:8,9).  God’s throne has become for us a throne of grace where we find grace (Hebs 4:16).  Indeed, we have, by immeasurable grace, been raised with Christ and find ourselves not merely standing in God’s presence, but seated there; seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph 1).  We have been chosen by grace  (Roms 11:6) not merely to be forgiven sinners but to become family members, sons of God and co-heirs with Christ (Roms 8).  And all is of grace.  Our security and salvation rests on the reliability of grace for we are not ‘under law’ but ‘under grace’ (Roms 6:10).  We live in ‘the reign of grace’ (Roms 5:21).  Through the one man, Christ Jesus, ‘we receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness’ and ‘reign in life’ (Roms 5:17).  The invincible and inexhaustible grace of God in Christ is the source and guarantee of everything.

We can be sure, if all rests on grace, not only of forgiveness and filial relationship but also of freedom.  Freedom from all that destroys and enslaves.  We are no longer in bondage to sin because we are no longer under law but under the rule of grace (Roms 6:10; Cf Gals 5:1).   The Law of Moses could not bring this freedom.  In fact it only accentuated our slavery to sin and death (Acts 13:39; Roms 7).  It made demands that none could keep and that fallen human nature rebelled against.  Indeed to be ‘under grace’ is to be ‘free from law’, the only way to produce fruit for God (Roms 7:1-6).  It is God’s all-powerful all-enabling grace (not law) that has appeared in Christ to all men that is ‘ training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in m the present age waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ’ (Tit 2:11,12).

All we are and ever will be rests solely on the grace of God (1 Cor 15:10).  His providing grace is sufficient, indeed more than sufficient, for our every requirement (2 Cor 9:8,14, 12:9; Jas 4:6).   If God did not spare his Son but gave him up for us all will he not along with him graciously give us all things (Roms 8:32).  Every skill and calling we have is a gift of grace (1 Cor 3:10; Eph 4:7; Roms 12:6).  Our salvation is to the praise of God’s grace, and to that grace alone (Eph 1:6).  The gospel is grace from first to last.  All is from God.

And there are immeasurable depths to the riches of this grace that only eternity will reveal (Eph 2:7).  Thus we live, growing in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus (2 Pet 3:18) having our hearts strengthened presently by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:1: Hebs 13:9) and our hope set fully on the grace that is to be ours at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:13). The gospel, in entirety, is the good news of the triumph of grace.  It is intoxicating, glorious, heady, liberating wine for the soul.

As usual classic hymns capture the heart of the apostolic gospel so well.  John Newton exults in the triumph of grace when he writes

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

And so too does Philip Doddridge in his eulogy of grace

Grace, ’tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to mine ear;
Heaven with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.

Grace first contrived the way
To save rebellious man;
And all the steps that grace display
Which drew the wondrous plan.

Grace first inscribed my name
In God’s eternal book;
’Twas grace that gave me to the Lamb,
Who all my sorrows took.

Grace led my roving feet
To tread the heavenly road;
And new supplies each hour I meet,
While pressing on to God.

Grace taught my soul to pray
And made mine eyes o’erflow;
’Twas grace which kept me to this day,
And will not let me go.

Grace all the work shall crown,
Through everlasting days;
It lays in heaven the topmost stone,
And well deserves the praise.

O let Thy grace inspire
My soul with strength divine
My all my powers to Thee aspire,
And all my days be Thine.

Such is the gospel of the grace of God, the word and grace of God in truth (Col 1:6) by which the Church of God has been called (Gals 1:6), made a partaker (Phil 1:7), and with which it is entrusted as with a precious deposit (Acts 20:24; 1 Cor 9:17; Eph 3:2; 1 Tim 1:4; 2 Tim 1:8-14).  The gospel to which Peter referred when he wrote his first letter and urged:

1 Pet 5:12 (ESV)
I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.

When we begin to grasp the dimensions of grace in the gospel we understand the dismay, grief and anger of Paul when this gospel began to be subverted by Judaizing teachers and the faith of God’s people established in grace was being shaken, defected and potentially lost.  Listen to his words to the Galatian believers

Gal 1:6-9 (ESV)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Elsewhere he will say of those Judaizers that they are ‘dogs’ (an abuse rich in ironic intent for it was usually reserved by Jews for gentiles Phil 3:2 Cf. Mk 7:27) and wishes that they would ‘emasculate themselves’ (Gals 5:12).  He hates what they teach for it ‘severs’ from Christ those who believe it (Gals 5:4).

What did the Judaizers (often called, the circumcision) teach?  Simply put, yet truly, they taught that the grace of God in Christ was not enough added to it must be the Law of Moses.  They taught salvation in Christ plus Moses or salvation by grace plus works.    The very covenant of death that Christ had come in grace to deliver from and render obselete they wanted to reinstate, to rehabilitate.  Their teaching is a lethal virus that has invaded the church ever since in one form or another.  Tragically, the story of the professing church is all too often one of Christ plus Law for the flesh (self) cannot endure grace.  Grace exalts man, even to divine glory and divine excellency, but it sets aside self wholly.  Thus flesh neither trusts grace nor tolerates it.  Flesh always wants to glory in flesh and cannot bear exclusion.   Flesh demands that something in my salvation must be my accomplishment – the predicate of all human religion.    And, all too often it is the flesh and not the Spirit that has been heeded in the institutional church resulting inevitably in an apostate church – a church that is fallen from grace (Gal 5:4).

We shall explore this in the next post in this series: a Judaistic soteriology.

In the meantime…

The grace of our Lord Jesus be with your spirit (Roms 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:14; Gals 6:18… the benediction at the end of most Pauline letters).


ot and nt worship

Since I am writing a few intermittent blogs considering the Judaizing  of the Christian Church, I thought I would post an extract from an article ‘Worship Wars’ I wrote a few years ago.  It seems relevant to the topic. The article in full can be sourced here.

OT Worship

The old covenant ‘form’ of worship, especially Temple worship, was striking in two ways: it laid great emphasis on sensory experience and it was largely ‘performance-worship’.  All the senses were involved in old covenant worship.  The vast spectacular and imposing temple conveyed the grandeur of God.  The High Priests rich vestments were all a vivid dramatic statement, conveying the glory and beauty of God (Ex 28:2).  The spectacle of priestly ceremony at the altar, the bloody sacrifice conveyed the messy ugly cost of sin. The smell of burning fat (sweet savour) and the aroma of incense was a vivid olfactory experience; the sweet fragrance conveying God’s delight in the sacrifice.  The performance music of the temple, with its choirs and various musical instruments all contributed to a rich aural experience.  Nevertheless, paradoxically this elaborate sensual worship served not to bring God near but actually hid him from the people (Hebs 12:18-20). The people had little personal involvement; they watched as the priests officiated on their behalf.  They listened as the Levitical choir (male) sang praises to God and the Levitical musicians (male) played (2 Chron 5:2; 35:15).

All of this was quite intentional on God’s part for although, in one sense God resided among them; in another sense he made it clear that there was a distance between him and the people.  This is made evident as soon as they come out of Egypt.  The first place he took them was Sinai – the mountain of the Lord (it was a prototype temple).  The Lord was present at the top of the mountain, though hidden in the dark cloud.  Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain; the elders (symbolic of the priests) were allowed to go part way up but no further; and the people were instructed (by God) to remain at the bottom on pain of death.  This they were only to glad to do for the thunder and fire at the top made the presence of God a place of dread (Ex 19).  This three-tier system of approach to God remained the same throughout the OT.  Only Moses at Sinai, and the High Priest in the tabernacle and temple could approach God closely; in the case of the High Priest, only once a year.  The point was clear, God was holy and the people could not come too near.  The old covenant ceremony did not create a sense of intimacy or nearness.  It was designed (since worship was through representatives) to stress distance; in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, ‘the way into the holiest was not yet open’ (Hebs 9:8-10).

We shall see how this contrasts completely with NT worship and approach to God.  The observation I wish to make just now is that much modern worship finds its justification and model in OT worship forms – it is highly sensory and increasingly performance-based (the congregation watch someone else worship).  Often those who promote modern worship forms turn, in a quite unabashed way, to the OT for both inspiration and justification  There is no recognition that there is clearly a sharp divide between OT and NT when it comes to the forms of worship and that OT forms of worship in the law are emphatically inferior to the NT experience of worship; that sensory and performance-based worship forms, far from enhancing worship actually are an obstacle to worship.

It is tempting at this point to do no more than simply highlight some of the self-evident differences between the OT and NT when it comes to worship and let these speak for themselves.  We could point out for example, that the NT lays no emphasis on buildings whatsoever.  Places and buildings are of no significance.  A cursory glance at the NT shows that there is no hint of liturgy, holy days, choirs, musical accompaniment, dance incense (smells and bells), or any other purely sensory experiences in NT church worship.  Baptism and the Communion meal are the only two ‘rituals’ of the NT church; both are simple and are the exception that prove the rule.  This stark contrast between OT and NT can scarcely be exaggerated and its implications must be faced by a modern church increasingly enchanted by the sensory.

These differences cannot be explained merely by changing culture; the cause is much more profound than culture.  The difference is a spiritual one; it is not a change in culture but a change in covenant that is responsible for the radical difference between OT and NT worship forms.  OT worship is shaped around and appropriate to the conditions of an old covenant (the law) and NT worship is the outflow of the new covenant that God introduced in Jesus.  NT Christians are in a relationship with God that is quite different to OT believers.  It is not only different, it is superior.  We shall, I hope, see that it is not merely anachronistic for NT Christians to adopt OT practices in public worship but theologically and tragically wrongheaded for it replaces the superior with the inferior, substance with shadow, reality with model, that which is living with that which is dead.

Weak and beggarly elements…

The Mosaic covenant of Law that God established at Sinai has long been a stumbling block to Christians.  Despite the many clear statements in the NT that the Old Covenant of law was made only with Israel, was temporary and intended to be so, became redundant (by being fulfilled) in Christ as even the language ‘new covenant’ implies (Hebs 8:13), and has no direct bearing on Christian people (Jew or gentile), Christians still find themselves clinging on to it.  Many Christians of a Reformed persuasion who are quite clear that the worship forms of the Law are superseded in Christ ironically wish to retain the law as a rule of life (a moral code) for Christians to obey.  By contrast many other Christians, less reformed, perhaps more dispensationally inclined, who rightly believe the law belongs to a pre and sub-Christian era and should remain there, ironically, are at the forefront of reinstituting the very forms of worship that belong to that old covenant.  The lesson perhaps is that the heart of a legalist is not far from any of us.

Why is it important for Christians to live beyond law, to reject it – either as a rule of life or as a model for worship?

The short answer is that the NT overwhelmingly calls us to do so.  The teaching of the NT is that believers are ‘in Christ’.  This means that they have died to this present age and all the powers that hold sway in it (sin, the world, the flesh, the devil and , paradoxically, God’s Law) and live in the world to come (the world of the Spirit). We do not belong to the realm where law has force or claim and for this we may be glad for Law represents an inferior spiritual experience (Roms 6:14; 7:1-6; Gal 3:23; 4:1-6, 21; 5:18; 1 Cor 9:20; Hebs 7:11)

The NT makes clear that ‘the law’ was given to men ‘in the flesh’; to people considered ‘alive’ in the old age.  This is too big a question to be fully explored here, only some elementary observations can be made. 

Although Israel was redeemed from Egypt, were declared God’s people and given the covenant of law at Sinai – they were still ‘in the flesh’.  That is they were not a ‘new creation’; new creation, life in the Spirit, only comes after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  The Mosaic Law represents a God-given religion of works not of faith (Gal 3:12) given to man (albeit God’s people) in the flesh (Roms 7:5; 8:3; Gal 3:3; 4:21-31; 6:12; Phil 3:3).  God effectively says – if you want to have relationship with me on the basis of (fleshly) self effort then here is the only way to do so.  Morally, the Ten Commandments represented the standard of righteousness that must be attained if the people wished to gain ‘life’.  Ceremonially, the detailed religious cultus (all the holy places, days, sacrifices, ceremonies, liturgies etc) was religion suited to a people in the flesh (still belonging to the old creation, not the new creation); it was expressed in highly sensory ways that are attractive to flesh, ways that are all essentially external.

Another way of understanding the OT law is by seeing it as something given to children (Gal 4:1-6).  Children are taught in simple terms.  Moral guidance is given to children in black and white rules.  They do not decide what is right and wrong for themselves (we do not yet trust their internal moral instincts), we tell them; sometimes we give them reasons, more often we simply give rules.  Children are also taught in pictures.  The era of law is a period of spiritual infancy and the law is designed for spiritual infants; it is a set of black and white rules accompanied by lots of pictures of God’s salvation.

Both ways of viewing Israel (in the flesh, infants) lead to the same conclusion – Old Covenant worship is inferior to New Covenant worship, for God is kept at a distance. 

It is impossible to draw near to God in the law, a religion designed for man in the flesh (only the High priest could enter God’s presence, and only once a year and not without blood). Jesus will teach Nicodemus, a teacher of the law, that flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God that a new birth of the Spirit is necessary (Jn 3).

Infants too, in the ancient world, using Paul’s analogy in Galatians, had only remote contact with their Father – they were brought up by a pedagogue (someone responsible for controlling their behaviour, a picture of the Mosaic Law) not by their Father.  For children growing up in a Roman household their Father was a distant remote figure with whom they had little contact (Gal 4:1-6).  It was mature sons (NT believers indwelt by the Spirit) who had close contact with their Father.

Thus OT law, and my implication OT worship forms, belong to a time of spiritual infancy.  The Law’s cultus (worship forms) was designed for the spiritually immature, indeed for people still in the flesh. The Law never brought intimacy and nearness in worship, indeed its whole apparatus was designed to stress distance.  It is for this reason that Paul finds it, to say the least, tragic and frustrating when C1 Christians kept being drawn back to the trappings of law (Gal 3:1-3). For Law, with its rules and rituals and religious razzmatazz was not progress but regress; it seemed solid but was really shadow (Hebs 10:1; Col 2:17); it had an air of godliness but was really only a show of flesh; it led to distance not nearness (Gal 4:1-3; Hebs 12;18-24); it led to a religion of fear not joy (Roms 8:15; Hebs 12:18-24)  it seemed to offer spiritual life but actually was no more than ‘weak and beggarly elements’, or ‘dead works’ or ‘basic principles of the world’(Gal 4:1-11; Hebs 9:14; Col 2:8,20).

True worship, the NT would make clear, is in spirit and truth; true worship is in every respect in a contemplation of Christ, seated at God’s right hand.  True worship is New Covenant worship.

NT Worship

It is impossible if we read the OT and then read the NT to avoid seeing the radical change in worship that takes place.  Worship is radically decentralised, radically de-sacralised, and radically de-externalised.  Worship that once was an elaborate external ceremony becomes a matter of the interior life of the spirit/Spirit; it is radically internalised (Roms 8:16).

Now it is not enough to say that God is simply focussing on heart commitment.  He always demanded that, even in the OT (Amos 5:21-24; Hos 2:11; Isa 1:11-17; 29:13) as the people knew (Ps 103:1).  No, it is the form of worship that radically changes; the form changes from focussing on the visible, tangible, and sensory to focussing on the invisible, intangible and spiritual.  From Pentecost onwards the church has worshipped what it cannot see, touch or experience with the physical senses – a glorified heavenly Christ. 

This is the key to NT worship.  All that the elaborate OT cultus focussed on pointed to and is fulfilled in one person – Christ.  It is this that the NT with one voice proclaims.  The ‘regulative principle’ of NT worship is laid out by Jesus himself in his conversation with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4).  The Samaritan woman was concerned with the place of worship – Gerazim or Jerusalem – Jesus informs her that place is no longer important, that all future worship of God would be ‘in Spirit and in truth’.  In these words he was heralding what the NT Scriptures would in time develop more fully, that Old Covenant worship forms were finished for they were fulfilled in him. NT worship is radically Christ centred; cross centred; gospel centred.

To worship ‘in Spirit’ means to worship in the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, commentators agree, was contrasting the old covenant (age), externalised worship of Law to the new covenant (age), internalised worship of the Spirit.  All that belonged to spiritual infancy, to a flesh based religion, had been superseded.  In Christ the New Creation had arrived, the Age of the Spirit, and in this age infancy had given place to adulthood; Christians were no longer children treated like slaves but mature adults treated like sons with direct access to the Father (Gal 4:1-6; Roms 815,16).  They could go where only the High Priest could go once a year – into the Holiest itself, into the presence of God (Hebs 10:19).  All of this meant the old childish, elementary forms of worship were redundant.  God is spirit (not material) and those that worship must worship in spirit, not flesh (Jn 4:24).

Worship would also be ‘in truth’.  In truth is not so much worship of what is true as opposed to what is false but what is reality as opposed to what is merely shadow. In John’s gospel Jesus refers to himself as the true bread (6:32); true vine (15:1).  John says he is the ‘true light that enlightens every man (Jn 1:9). True worshippers will worship in Spirit and in truth for such the Father desires as worshippers (Jn 4).  To worship in truth therefore is simply to worship Christ.

NT worship therefore can be defined as worship that is more internal than external and that focusses on the true rather than the type.  It is profoundly Christ-centred.  He is the truth (Jn 14:6).  The Law came by Moses but grace and truth by Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14).  He is the one to whom the Spirit always points.  Jesus told his followers that when the Spirit came (at Pentecost) he would tell the disciples about Jesus (Jn 15:26), he would glorify Christ (Jn 16:14,15).  We worship God the Father when we find our minds and hearts captivated and enraptured by Jesus; by who he is in himself and by all he has accomplished.  The worship that delights the heart of God is that which adores his Son (Matt 9:7-9; Jn 5: 22,23). God is glorified in Jesus, as we glorify Jesus (Jn 12:28; 13:32; 17:1). God’s desire is that every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord this brings glory to God the Father (Phil 2:11).  To see and know and honour Jesus is to see and know and honour the Father (Jn 14:9).’


making love to cecilia

Simon and Garfunkel wrote the song ‘Cecilia’ in 1969 and it featured in their 1970 classic album ‘Bridge over troubled water’.  The song appears somewhat coarse, though less so by modern standards. It’s leading line is

‘Making love in the afternoon to Cecilia up in my bedroom
I got up to wash my face when I went back to bed someone had taken my place’

But Cecilia is not simply a groupie girlfriend.  Cecilia is the goddess of music.  Saint Cecilia appears to have been the christianised (and sanitized) expression of the ancient goddess expressed in the Greek ‘Muses’ (from whom we get our word ‘music’).  Paul Simon was writing about his love for music and the frustration of the creative process in writing music.  Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians, and her name is often invoked before a performance. One performer who said a prayer to St. Cecilia before he sang was the famous tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

But herein lies the rub.  Music, which is a gift from God along with other artistic expression, so easily becomes more than a gift, it becomes a god.  It becomes and end in itself.  When this happens it has become that seductive siren song that seduces men blissfully to their doom.  Music has become a god in our culture.  It is the rhythm of life in a hedonistic world.  The tragedy is this same idolatry invades the church.  We ‘adore’ music and musicians rather than God.  Our worship is often merely sensual (evoked by instruments) rather than spiritual (evoked by the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ).

Paul focuses our singing where it ought to be focussed when he writes:

Eph 5:18-19 (ESV)
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart

Col 3:16 (ESV)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Our praise must not arise from musical manipulation, the mere delight in aesthetic and sensual expression.  It must arise from a heart filled with Christ through the Spirit.  For only then will it be worship ‘in spirit and truth’.  Only when this is the spring will we worship Christ and not Cecilia.


the church and fellowship after the apostolic age (1)

In the comments section of the previous post the question of how we identify an authentic Christian church was raised.  It’s an important question.   I don’t intend to try to answer it.  However, what I would like to do is try to shape the context in which any final definition can be made.

the church today is not as it was in the C1

Hopefully this is self-evident.  The churches of the NT, composed of professing Christians, were founded by the apostles and, while autonomous, were in full unity with each other.   There are no such apostolic churches today.  No church can claim apostolic succession or a mandate for such.  No church is in any strict sense a NT church.  The church as it was in its infancy does not exist today.  This is a simple fact that any who have the slightest sense of historical perspective will acknowledge.  Realising this means that no church will claim exclusive rights for itself.  Claiming of exclusive rights to being a proper church, by the way, is not simply the error of Roman Catholicism, other groups make similar absurd claims.  I should know.  I once belonged to one.

we can never recover nt church conditions

My point here is simply that attempts to bring about structural unity with all professing Christians  is wasted energy.  The kind of church unity that existed in the NT is no longer possible.   All NT churches began as churches of true believers.   They were churches of those who believed the gospel, and for many years, although false teaching arose in various forms, this was held at bay and combatted by apostles and trusted apostolic delegates.   In the early churches, truth triumphed and error was contained and excommunicated.  As the C1 progressed, however, the tables began to turn.  Before even the end of the C1 many churches were turning away from the gospel and apostasizing.  False teaching was not simply in the church, it was gaining ascendency, even dominance.  True belief was becoming a minority position.

an apostate church

In every epoch of God’s dealings with humanity, whatever God in grace introduces, man corrupts and destroys.  Apostasy, defection from what God begins, is the story of humanity in every situation he has found himself tested.  Adam is created and placed in the garden and rebels.  Noah comes out of the ark and gets drunk.  Even as Moses is on the mountain receiving the words of the covenant the people are breaking it below building an idolatrous golden calf.  The same pattern can be seen in the institutions of the priesthood and the monarchy in Israel.   The corruption is usually obvious from very early on in the administration and then spreads and takes over leaving only a remnant.   The church, viewed as an administration, a visible community responsible to God (God’s household), has been no different.  It too has been corrupted and spoiled.  Pentecost and the birth of the new covenant people of God was a glorious realisation of the Spirit.  Acts tells us:

Acts 2:41-47 (ESV)
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.  And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. 

The following few chapters describe more of the same.  We have accounts in Paul of gentile churches being formed and the presence and power of the Spirit among them as they ‘turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God and wait for his son from heaven’.  But such halcyon days did not last.  Believers did not guard their hearts and in time Paul is writing:

Phil 2:21 (ESV

… all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

Where the hearts of God’s people are so compromised, heresy and defection from truth flourish.  It is while men slept that the enemy sowed tares.  And so it was in the early church.  False teaching began to proliferate.  As I say, in the early days this was contained and judged, but where hearts care more for their own interests than those of Christ the false will make inevitable inroads.  Thus, before Paul leaves Ephesus for Rome he warns the Ephesian elders:

Acts 20:28-31 (ESV)
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.

Paul’s prediction was confirmed.  By the time he is writing his last letter (2 Timothy) Paul is reporting that ‘all Asia has forsaken him‘ (2 Tim 1:15).  Now, he does not simply mean they have taken cold feet because of his imprisonment and were avoiding him.  He means they are turning away from his authority, from the gospel he preached.  Asia, is Asia Minor, modern Turkey.  Paul is including churches like Ephesus and Colossae and the churches in Revelation 2-3 in this departure.    So while this defection does not include every believer (as 1:16 shows), it does signal a serious defection from the apostolic gospel in many key churches.  The letter clearly indicates that Timothy, if he is to be true to Paul and the gospel, will have his back against the wall, not simply from the world outside, but from the professing church itself.  The ‘mystery of lawlessness’ was at work.  The church was apostasizing.

Paul. although grieved by this defection, is not surprised.  Defection from the faith was  expected.  He makes this clear in 2 Tim 3.

2Tim 3:1-5 (ESV)
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

Now, a casual reader might assume this is a description of the world at large for this description parallels Paul’s description of a world rejecting God in Romans 1 (Roms 1:18-32).  However, Paul is not describing the world, but the professing church.  Notice those described have ‘the appearance of godliness, but deny its power‘; these people claim to be Christians.  The appalling truth is that such is the scale of defection from the gospel by the professing church predicted for the gospel age (the last days)  that the professing church becomes indistinguishable from the dissolute world.  A mere glance at the professing church in our world today confirms the truth of this prediction.

Again, Paul warns Timothy:

2Tim 4:3-4 (ESV)
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

It would not only be the world who would believe a lie, but the professing church.  And Paul’s theology of apostasy was not created on the hoof to account for the situation at the time he wrote.  He had already warned of this apostasy in his first letter to Timothy.

1Tim 4:1-3 (ESV)
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

Nor was this expected apostasy a fevered figment of a pessimistic imagination that one might find in an imprisoned man perhaps not seeing clearly.  The other apostles spoke of it too.  Peter in his 2 letter parallels the experience of OT Israel and the NT church when he warns:

2Pet 2:1-3 (ESV)
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. 

John too writes,

1John 2:18-22 (ESV)
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour… Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

Notice, it is not the evil in the world but the apostasy of the church that John sees as a signal of the ‘last hour’.  Antichrist will come but the spirit of antichrist is already working… lawlessness is already at work in the professing church and will be until Christ returns.

2Thess 2:1-12 (ESV)
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out-of-the-way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. 

Falling away or rebellion (apostasy) from what?  From the gospel.  The ‘man of lawlessness’ will sit in the Temple of God and proclaiming himself to be God.  What would the early church understand to be the temple of God?  Why, the church of course!  It was God’s Temple.  Whatever the details may be, here is a defection from God that corrupts the whole world and it is sourced in the church itself.  The corruption of the most holy is the very worst kind of corruption and the greatest rebellion and affront to God.

Of course, as the apostles throughout these texts cited regularly affirm, their predictions are really only an echo of what the Spirit of God had already revealed.  Both Christ and the OT had made the same point about the last days.  Jesus said,

Matt 24:11-13 (ESV)
And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many [that is, many believers] will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Many other Scriptures could be cited but I hope enough have been mentioned to establish the point that even before the end of the NT the professing church had largely abandoned the purity of Paul’s gospel.  And Scripture held out no hope of improvement.  Paul says ‘evil men and seducers will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived’ (2 Tim 3:13).  In Rev 2,3 Christ walks among the professing churches in disapproval; most have significantly compromised.  His words are strong and critical.  He threatens to remove their witness unless they repent, and invites (and finds) fellowship only with individuals who overcome.  The church after the C1, viewed comprehensively, is a parody of a NT church.  Every kind of unclean bird nests in its branches.  Only in a believing remnant is there substantial loyalty to apostolic truth; the gentile church, like the Jews before them, had embraced unbelief and would be ‘cut off’ from the olive tree (Roms 11).

I believe, before any defining of what a church is takes place, and before any talk of ecumenical unity, this biblical perspective needs to be understood and accepted.    There is no return to the pristine days of NT church life.  They are gone forever in this age.  There can never again be that initial unity when visible and invisible church were one, nor does God intend there should be.  Structural unity is a folly for any structural unity was an expression of the only true unity of the people of God, unity in the Spirit (Acts 2; Ephs 4:1).  In a future blog we shall reflect on the instruction given in Scripture for believers living in days of apostasy.  But I can say just now, we will find no injunction to seek unity outside of the gospel.

If it is true that the church has apostasized, what is the nature of this apostasy?  What are the hallmarks of ‘falling away’ in the professing church?  Actually, all apostasy is simply the ripening of the two strains of apostasy that germinate in the NT church.  Two evils afflicted the NT church: Jewish legalism and gentile lasciviousness.  Or, to put it another way, the early church was corrupted from within by influences from without, namely Judaism (the Jewish influence) and paganism (the gentile influence).   All apostasy has its roots in these as I hope to demonstrate in future posts.

the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


Site Posts

July 2014
« Jun    

Recent Comments

Susanne Schuberth (G… on an apology…
Don J Chiechi on an apology…
Susanne Schuberth (G… on an apology…
Susanne Schuberth (G… on an apology…
Don J Chiechi on an apology…
Follow Cave Adullam on


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers