On Being a Blessing in Your Local Church

As everyone well knows, this virus situation has been a very difficult and complex issue for churches. It’s difficult and complex because it has to do with a variety of issues, from health to politics to laws to biblical principles to various views on these issues. I don’t want to comment on those things here, but I do want to encourage you, dear Christian, to be a blessing to your church familiy during this time. Be patient, humble, loving, sympathetic, and kind to your brothers and sisters as well as to your deacons, elders, and pastors. Wear these Christian virtues well!

In the last few months of my ministry so many people that I serve here have exhibited much patience and kindness as we’ve tried to navigate through this situation together. It’s hard to explain how comforting and encouraging it is when a Christian says kind and loving words to his or her pastor. Proverbs 16:24 says it exactly right: “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (NIV).

Of course, we should be all be encouraging to each other! Scripture commands members of Christ’s church to be a blessing to his body. For one of many examples, Romans 14:19 says “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (NIV). This very much applies to the situation we’re in today! Rather than grumble, complain, and be critical, we should be peacemakers whose goal it is to encourage one another. In other words, we should build up, not tear down! Matthew Henry’s comments on Romans 14:19 are a good meditation for us all:

Here is the sum of our duty towards our brethren:
(1.) We must study mutual peace. Many wish for peace, and talk loudly for it, that do not follow the things that make for peace, but the contrary. Liberty in things indifferent, condescension to those that are weak and tender, zeal in the great things of God wherein we are all agreed; these are things that make for peace. Meekness, humility, self-denial, and love, and the springs of peace, the things that make for our peace. We are not always so happy as to obtain peace; there are so many that delight in war: but the God of peace will accept us if we follow after the things that make for peace, that is, if we do our endeavour.
(2.) We must study mutual edification. The former [that is, peace] makes way for this. We cannot edify one another while we are quarrelling and contending. There are many ways by which we might edify one another, if we did but seriously mind it; by good counsel, reproof, instruction, example, building up not only ourselves, but one another, in our most holy faith. We are God’s building, God’s temple, and have need to be edified; and therefore must study to promote the spiritual growth one of another. None so strong but they may be edified; none so weak but may edify; and, while we edify others, we benefit ourselves.

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2235.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christian Courage or Christian Compromise? (Guinness)

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by [Guinness, Os] Impossible People is an excellent book by Os Guinness that discusses what it means to courageously and faithfully follow Jesus in our Western culture that is more and more antagonistic towards the claims of the Christian faith.  We always need a call to stand up for the truth when the going gets tough.  This applies to our current situation as well, since it is illegal in some places to publicly worship our King, Jesus.  I realize our “quarantine” situation is not a black-and-white one, but whatever the case, we do need to put following Christ and his word first on our list of priorities as his people.   Obedience to him is more important than the laws of man and our own personal health.

After Guinness discussed Christian courage and faithfulness in light of persecution in the East he wrote,

“And what of us in the West? Are we showing that we too are prepared to follow Jesus and his authority at any cost?  When an imperceptible bow would have saved Daniel’s three friends, they defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatry at the threat of being burned alive.  When simply closing a window and drawing his curtains could have saved Daniel himself, he chose to risk the lions rather than mute his allegiance to God.  When a mere whiff of incense would have saved their lives, early Christians refused to acknowledge Caesar as lord rather than Jesus and were made human torches or the evening meal for wild animals.  When it seemed quixotic to take on the emporer, the empress, and all the empire, Athanasius took his stand for truth ‘contra mundum’ (against the world) and was exiled five times for his faithfulness.  When he was told he was arrogant or out of his mind to follow his conscience and defy the consensus of tradition, Martin Luther stood firm in the face of the fiery stake that had cremated Jan Hus before him….

What then of us? Are we living in the light of the great cloud of witnesses and martyrs who have gone before us?  Or in the comfortable conditions of the advanced modern world, where the seductions of modernity are more of a threat to our faithfulness than persecution? In the golden era of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Younger advised Emperor Trajan that Christians should be executed solely for their tenacity and intransigence.  ‘Whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinancy ought not to go unpunished.’  The similar charge in the death of many martyrs was routine: ‘Since they remained unbending, obstinate, I have condemned them.’

Would we be convicted today for being stubborn, tenacious, unbending, and obstinate? It is surely undeniable that only rarely in Christian history has the lordship of Jesus in the West been treated as more pliable or has Christian revisionism been more brazen, Christian interpretations of the Bible more self-serving, Christian preaching more soft, Christian behavior more lax, Christian compromise more common, Christian defections from the faith more casual, and Christian rationales for such slippage more suprious and shameless.

…It is time, and past time, to turn this situation around and take a stand worthy of our Lord – before the cock crows and we are left with the bitter regret that our brothers and sisters around the world stood firm and paid with their lives, but our generation in the West betrayed our Lord in such a pitiful way….

Yes, this is a pretty blunt way of speaking, but also very necessary.  I highly recommend this book if you need an encouraging and motivating read for help on the journey of following Jesus with Christian courage.

Os Guinness, Impossible People, p. 29-30.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

Troublers in the Church (Bridges)

 It’s not a new occurrence when someone purposely tries to disrupt the unity and peace of a local Christian church. Paul had to deal with the Judaizers (cf. Gal; Phil. 3:2, etc.).  John had to warn the church of antichrists and false prophets (1 John). The list goes on.  Thankfully I’m not dealing with any sort of troublemaker right now, but I know from experience that they are like cancer or gangrene for a local church fellowship.

On this note, I very much appreciate how Thomas Murphy addressed troublemakers in his 1877 publication, Pastoral Theology.

The pastor need not be surprised if he finds troublers in his church.  The discovery of such persons among the professed people of God sometimes shocks ministers, especially inexperienced ones, and discourages them, and sometimes leads them unwisely to give up their charges.  But it should be understood as a lamentable fact that such persons are most likely to be found in every church, that the pastor will almost certainly encounter them, and that he ought to be prepared for the discovery, and not to be too much cast down by it.

It is well for the pastor to be forewarned on this subject, and to be undismayed if he encounters many dispositions which are calculated to disturb the peace of the church.  He will find that some are sadly inconsistent, bringing constant reproach upon the cause; some are complainers and fault-finders, acute at finding or inventing things to annoy; some take pleasure in criticizing and opposing everything that is done or said by the pastor; some are so utterly unreasonable that they will listen neither to argument nor entreaty; some are restless, always finding something to agitate and distract; some are quarrelsome, as if they found their greatest satisfaction in strife; and others again there are whose business it seems to be to pull down, never to extend a helping hand even to the cause which they profess to love.  The injustice and cruelty of such persons toward him – and that, too, when he is conscious of doing the very best in his power – will sometimes almost break the minister’s heart.

We would recommend as the sovereign remedy for such troublers in the church simply to let them alone.  Our advice would be, do not notice them; do not speak of them; do not oppose them; if possible, do not think of them – and they are disarmed for evil.  If they cannot excite any commotion, they soon become weary of their fruitless efforts to annoy….

If you’re a pastor or elder, take note (and read the rest of the section if you have access to it).  For those of you who aren’t pastors or elders, it’s also good for you to be aware of this so you can in a biblical way help keep the peace in your local church.  Finally, if you are one of these troublemakers, you certainly need to pray for forgiveness and ask the Lord to give you a peacemaking heart that lovingly seeks to build unity in Christ’s flock rather than tear it down.

Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology, p. 461-2.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Exiles in a Post-Christian Society (Williams)

Exiles on Mission: How Christians Can Thrive in a Post-Christian World - Williams, Paul S - 9781587434358 I’ve been working through Exiles on Mission by Paul Williams.  So far I’m enjoying it – it’s getting me to think about living as Christians in a post-Christian context. I don’t agree with everything I’ve read, but it is surely a good resource on this topic. Here’s a paragraph I read this morning that I marked up quite a bit.  There’s more to this discussion, of course, but this is worth thinking about:

In our own day we may not have been physically exiled, but Western culture has changed around us.  Although the West was formed out of the rubble of the classical world by two thousand years of Christian influence, it has decisively thrown off that heritage and rejected the faith that brought it to birth.  Many believers have still not come to terms with the fact that we now live in a post-Christian society.  By this I mean not at all that Christ is no longer relevant but that society has turned away from Christ.

Indeed, Lesslie Newbigin speaks of a post-Christian paganism, different from the pre-Christian kind because it is inoculated against Christianity, yet equally instrumental – and thus dehumanizing – in its inner life.  We hark back to the days of greater Christian influence, and this nostalgia makes it all the harder to live faithfully in the present.  Our culture may be godless, but it is also wealthy and comfortable.  Comfort plus nostalgia for a half-remembered past form a dangerous emotional combination capable of numbing us to the reality of exile in our day and the missional challenges it presents.

Great food for thought!

Paul Williams, Exiles on Mission, p. 39.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

 

The Pity and Presentness of God (Melanchthon)

 We might sometimes forget the many difficulties the Protestant Reformers faced in their efforts to reform the church according to the Word.  It’s not like everyone appreciated what they were doing and flocked to their churches.  Many reformers faced a lot of hardships, hostility, and hatred from all different kinds of people.  I’m sure many of you know the stories.

In light of the difficulties the reformers faced, Phillip Melanchthon (d. 1560) preached a comforting sermon on John 10:28 called “The Safety of the Virtuous.”  In the sermon, Melanchthon said that this verse often raised him “up out of the deepest sorrow” and drew him as it were, “out of hell.”  I recommend reading the whole sermon, but here’s one excellent section of it that I appreciated:

For to this end are we laden with such a crowd of dangers, that in events and occurrences which to human prudence are an inexplicable enigma, we may recognize the infinite goodness and presentness of God, in that He, for His Son’s sake, and through His Son, affords us aid. God will be owned in such deliverance just as in the deliverance of your first parents, who, after the fall, when they were forsaken by all the creatures, were upheld by the help of God alone. So was the family of Noah in the flood, so were the Israelites preserved when in the Red Sea they stood between the towering walls of waters. These glorious examples are held up before us, that we might know, in like manner, the Church, without the help of any created beings, is often preserved.

Many in all times have experienced such divine deliverance and support in their personal dangers, as David saith: “My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord taketh me up”; and in another place David saith: “He hath delivered the wretched, who hath no helper.” But in order that we may become partakers of these so great blessings, faith and devotion must be kindled within us, as it stands written, “Verily, I say unto you!” So likewise must our faith be exercised, that before deliverance we should pray for help and wait for it, resting in God with a certain cheerfulness of soul; and that we should not cherish continual doubt and melancholy murmuring in our hearts, but constantly set before our eyes the admonition of God: “The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your heart and mind”; which is to say, be so comforted in God, in time of danger, that your hearts, having been strengthened by confidence in the pity and presentness of God, may patiently wait for help and deliverance, and quietly maintain that peaceful serenity which is the beginning of eternal life….

Phillip Melanchthon, “The Safety of the Virtuous” in The World’s Greatest Sermons (vol 1), p. 167.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

No Lone Christian: Kuyper on the Fellowship of the Saints

One of the most dangerous situations a Christian can find himself in is isolation: isolation from God’s people. If you read the New Testament and think about the community of believers (the church) you won’t find good stories about great Christians purposely following Jesus alone, solo, by themselves. It was just the opposite: the disciples were devoted to fellowship (Acts 2:42) and were called to not forsake the asssembly (Heb. 10:25). Abraham Kuyper explained this in an outstanding way in chapter 37 of The Work of the Holy Spirit. Notice how he wove together the blessing of spiritual gifts and the rich history of Christ’s church:

It is wrong, therefore, to consider the life of individual believers too much by itself, separating it from the life of the Church. They exist not but in connection with the body, and thus they become partakers of the spiritual gifts. In this sense the Heidelberg Catechism confesses the communion of saints: “First, that all and every one who believes, being members of Christ, are in common partakers of Him and of all His riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts for the advantage and salvation of other members.” The parable of the talents has the same aim; for the servant who with his talent failed to benefit others receives a terrible judgment. Even the hidden gift must be stirred up, as St. Paul says; not to boast of it or to feed our pride, but because it is the Lord’s and intended for the Church.

…The Church of to-day is the same as in the day of the apostles. The life lived then is the life that animates it now. The gains of two centuries ago belong to its treasury, as well as those received to-day. The past is its capital. The wonderful and glorious revelation received by the Church of the first century was given, through it, to the Church of all ages, and is still effectual. And all the spiritual strength and insight, the inward grace, the clearer consciousness, received during the course of the ages are not lost, but form an accumulated treasure, increasing still by the ever-renewed additions of spiritual gifts.

He who realizes and acknowledges this fact feels himself rich and blessed indeed. For this apostolic view of the matter causes us to be thankful for our brother’s gift, which otherwise we might envy; inasmuch as those gifts do not impoverish, but enrich us. In one city there may be twelve ministers of the Word, all gifted in various directions. According to the natural man, each will be jealous of his brother’s gifts and fear that his talents will excel his own. But not so among the Lord’s own servants. They feel that together they serve one Lord and one flock, and bless God for giving them together what the leading and feeding require. In an army the artillerist is not jealous of the cavalryman, for he knows that the latter is for his protection in the hour of danger.

Moreover, this apostolic standpoint excludes isolation; for it creates the longing for fellowship with distant brethren, even thoough they walk in more or less deviating paths. It is impossible, Bible in hand, to limit Christ’s Church to one’s own little community. It is everywhere, in all parts of the world; and whatever its external form, frequently changing, often impure, yet the gifts wherever received increase our riches…

Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, p. 184-186.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Church: A Waste of Time? (Bavinck)

Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers Bavinck, Herman cover image Herman Bavinck wrote the following words around 1890 in Holland, but they are quite relevant to our situation in the United States in the year 2019:

Humility, as is rightly said, is the garment that always suits us… Humility must be our home and traveling and wedding and mourning garment.  In order to cultivate this Christian humility, it is good and necessary to pay attention to many things in which we fall short and that can keep us from boasting.

Think only of the sermon in the church service.  The era of the powerful pulpit is no more.  Churchgoing is gradually declining, not only among the moderns but also among the orthodox in most places.  Interest in the church and desire to listen to a sermon is declining. There are now thousands who are estranged from the church, who never darken its doors, and their number increases by the day.  Many who have been called orthodox have permanently given up the practice of going to church twice on Sunday; once is more than enough for them.  For many, being in church for so long, sometimes two whole hours, is even viewed as a waste of time.  In our busy, calculating age, people think that this time could have been better, much better, used…

This aversion to the church should certainly be accounted for, in large part, in relation to the spirit that dominates in our time, under the influence of which one has formed a wholly wrong concept of ‘going to church.’ We live in an era of grandiose activity, an era of steam and power.  It hastens and turns and pushes everything forward.  We do not think about rest, silence, or calm.  Whoever does not follow suit simply belongs to the past or is trampled underfoot.  Time is money, and money is the soul of trade.  ‘What do I get from it? How is it useful?’ These are the questions of the day. Feverish excitement and stressed overwork are the hallmarks of all business. The silence of the holy and the calm of the eternal are all to sorely missed.

‘More haste, less speed’ [Festina lente] is an old proverb.  It is a rivalry, a competition to be the fastest.  This spirit has also left its mark on Christians.  Despite their confession of an ancient faith, they are also children of the era.  An industrious, active Christianity is now appearing.  Sitting in silence under the word, which should have been their strength, has fallen from their thoughts…  Now there is something else to do.  …We no longer have the time or desire to go to church twice on the day of rest, sometimes to spend an hour listening to a sermon from the mouth of a teacher they have heard so often.  What could be exciting or useful there…?

Herman Bavinck, Preaching & Preachers, p. 57-59.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002