True Church, False Church (Bavinck)

 Herman Bavinck’s discussion of ecclesiology is, in my opinion, one of the best Reformed treatments of this doctrine available in English.  Since I am presbyterian in my ecclesiology, I appreciate Bavinck’s robust and biblical view of the church: its spiritual essence, spiritual government, spiritual power, and so forth.  I also like how he appealed to the post-reformation context to discuss the true/false church distinction that the Belgic Confession speaks of in article 29.  Bavinck (in IV.315-16) mentions how Calvin and other Reformers taught that there is no perfectly pure church.  Therefore, when we say “true church” we don’t mean “perfectly pure church.”  He explains how the post-reformation teachers wrestled through this.

“On the one hand, one had to admit that a true church in an absolute sense is impossible here on earth; there is not a single church that completely and in all its parts, in doctrine and in life, in the ministry of the Word and sacrament, meets the demand of God.  On the other hand, it also became clear that an absolutely false church cannot possibly exist, for in that case it would no longer be a church at all.”

Even though Rome was a false church insofar as it was papal, nevertheless there were many remnants of the true church left in it.  There was a difference, therefore, between a true church and a pure church.  ‘True church’ became the term, not for one church to the exclusion of all others, but for an array of churches that still upheld the fundamental articles of Christian faith but for the rest differed a great deal from each other in degrees of purity.  And ‘false church’ became the term for the hierarchical power of superstition or belief that set itself up in local churches and accorded itself and its ordinances more authority than the Word of God” (p. 315-316).

Well stated.  In the post-reformation context, there were true churches whose doctrine was more or less pure.  These churches were true because they upheld the fundamental articles of the faith as they displayed the three marks (word, sacrament, discipline).  False churches were those that denied fundamental articles of the faith by subverting the authority of the Word (this is where the Reformers discussed Rome and anabaptistic sects).

I think Bavinck is right here, and though others may disagree, I also believe that a proper reading of the Belgic Confession of Faith article 29 is the Westminster Confession of Faith’s application of this teaching.  WCF 25.4 explains how local churches that are part of the visible church catholic [universal] “are more or less pure.”  In other words, and in summary, “true church” doesn’t mean “most pure church.”  “True church” means churches that uphold – more or less purely – the biblical fundamentals of the faith displayed in the biblical three marks (preaching, discipline, and the sacraments).

(Note: This is a repost from March, 2011)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Knowing God and Scripture Apart From the Church? (Augustine)

  In the first section of the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Douglas Kelly makes a great point about how God is known by his Word in the fellowship of believers, in a covenantal context.  He puts it like this: faith is caused by truth, faith is the only appropriate response to truth, and faith arises within a community context.  Later Kelly gives an excellent quote from Augustine to further explain what he means by knowing and learning Scripture in the fellowship of the saints.  Here’s Augustine:

Let us not tempt the one in whom we have placed our trust, or we may be deceived by the enemy’s cunning and perversity and become unwilling even to go to church to hear and learn the gospel, or to read the Biblical text or listen to it being read and preached, preferring to wait until ‘we are caught up into the third heaven, whether in the body or out of the body’ (in the words of the apostle) [2 Cor. 12:2-4], and there hear ‘words that cannot be expressed, which a human being may not utter’ or see the Lord Jesus Christ in person and hear the gospel from him rather than from men.

Let us beware of such arrogant and dangerous temptations, and rather reflect that the apostle Paul, no less, though cast to the ground and enlightened by a divine voice from heaven, was sent to a human being to receive the sacrament of baptism and be joined to the church. And Cornelius the centurion, although an angel announced to him that his prayers had been heard and his acts of charity remembered, was nevertheless put under the tuition of Peter not only to receive the sacrament but also to learn what should be the objects of his faith, hope, and love…

All this could certainly have been done through an angel, but the human condition would be wretched indeed if God appeared unwilling to minister his word to human beings through human agency.  It has been said, ‘God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are’: how could that be true if God did not make divine utterances from his human temple but broadcast direct from heaven or through angels the learning that he wished to be passed on to mankind?  Moreover, there would be no way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity,  to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learned nothing from other humans. (Augustine: De Doctra Christiania, preface)

I always appreciate the reminder that just like it is unbibical to purposely be a “solo” Christian (Heb 10:25, 1 Jn. 4:21, etc.) it is also unbiblical to purposely avoid the church when learning about God from his word (Heb 13:6, 1 Tim. 3:15, etc).

The above quote by Augustine is found in Kelly’s in Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 25.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

The Spirit, the Church, and Mission (Horton)

 I always appreciate Michael Horton’s balanced approach to biblical doctrine and theology.  Here’s one example of how Horton strikes a biblical balance concerning the topics of church, mission, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Note how he explains that we cannot separate the institutional church from work of the Holy Spirit in missions:

For many Christians today, even those in more liturgical traditions, the notion that the Spirit is at work visibly wherever the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution is no longer intuitive.  For many, it seems, the only way of redeeming the term ‘church’ is to identify it exclusively with the invisible church, that is, the spiritual fellowship of all God’s elect in all times and places rather than the visible and concrete institution that in its various manifestations it somehow thought to be endowed with real authority from Christ and genuine power from the Spirit.  The Spirit is associated with mission, often in some tension (if not outright contrast) with the church’s ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline.

But this is a glaring misapprehension of the economic operations of the Trinity in general and the incarnation in particular.  The Father sent the Son, and the Spirit clothed the Son in our nature; the Father and the Son sent the Spirit into our hearts, regenerating and uniting us to Christ the living vine.  The Spirit’s work is consistently associated with that which is public and tangible in history, as we have seen. Furthermore, the Spirit equips the church to be an official and creaturely embassy of Christ’s reign and sends us out on his mission to bring the liberating word of the King to the ends of the earth.  The sending of the church therefore belongs to the same economy as a Father sending of the Son as well as the sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son.

Consequently, to divide Spirit-filled mission from the institutional church is to misunderstand at a fundamental level who the Spirit is, how he works ordinarily, and what we are called to do and be in the world today.  I fear that we are creeping toward a Gnosticism that views the visible church as the prison house of the invisible church.

Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, p. 300-301.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Sunday Sickness?!? (Morbus Sabbaticus)

Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations From time to time I read and utilize sermon illustration books.  Sometimes the illustrations aren’t good or helpful.  Sometimes they are helpful.  Other times they just make me think.  Here’s a humorous one that stuck out this morning in my studies:

“Morbus Sabbaticus,” better known as “Sunday sickness,” is a disease peculiar to some church members. The symptoms vary, but these are generally observed:

1. It never lasts more than twenty-four hours.
2. It never interferes with the appetite.
3. It never affects the eyes. The Sunday newspapers can be read with no pain. Television seems to help the eyes.
4. No physician is ever called.
5. After a few “attacks,” at weekly intervals, it may become chronic … even terminal.

No symptoms are usually felt on Saturday. The patient sleeps well and wakes feeling well. He eats a hearty Sunday breakfast, then the attack comes until services are over for the morning. The patient feels better and eats a solid dinner.  After dinner, he takes a nap, then watches one or two football games on TV. He may take a walk before supper, and stop and chat with neighbors. If there are church services scheduled for Sunday evening, he will have another short attack. Invariably, he wakes up Monday morning and rushes off to work feeling refreshed. The symptoms may not recur until the following Sunday, unless another service is scheduled at the church during the week.

This illustration is based on true stories!

(This is a repost from January, 2017)
Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

When the Church Becomes Worldly (Guinness)

 Here’s a helpful commentary by Os Guinness on worldliness in the church:

It would be idle to speculate what terrible new order today’s trendy clerics and faithless Christian activists are greasing the slipway for.  But we need not wait for the outcome.  The truth is that the greatest enemy of the Western church is not the state or any ideology such as atheism, but the world and the spirit of the age.  Anything less than a full-blooded expression of the Christian faith ahs no chance of standing firm against the assaults and seductions of the advanced modern world.

So when the church becomes worldly, she betrays her Lord, and she also fails to live up to her calling to be dangerously different and thus to provide deliverance from the world by a power that is not of the world.  When ‘saving us from ourselves’ has become the widespread problem of the advanced modern world, the worldly church has no supernatural salvation to offer and stands in shame and as desperately needing saving herself.

But that is not the end of it.  The worldly church is not only corrupt but cowardly, for much contemporary worldliness is a voluntary capitulation to the spirit and system of the age.  There are times when the powers of the age openly seek to seduce the church or brutally subjugate her to their own purposes.  That can be bad enough, as witnessed by the widespread compromise of Russian Orthodoxy under Stalin or Lutheranism under Hitler. But the contemporary worldliness of parts of the Western church, as exemplified differently by the extremes of either the Episcopal Church in America or the emergent Evangelicals, is in one sense worse.

As Jesus said, ‘You will know them by their fruit.’  Just wait long enough for their ideas to ripen, and in case after case it turns out that the much-trumpeted ‘new kind of Christianity for a new world’ turns out to be the old kind of compromise and heresy.  Such worldliness is inexcusable because it is self-chosen, naively and brethlessly self-chosen, and in many cases foolish beyond all comprehension.

From Renaissance, p. 119

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

Family Visitation > Small Groups

If done wisely, small groups can be a benefit to Christ’s church.  On the other hand, small groups can sometimes get in the way of the church’s ministry.  It takes wisdom, patience, grace, and work to ensure that small groups help rather than hinder spiritual growth in the local church.  One aspect of the church’s spiritual growth that many forget today is the practice of family visitation.  In historic Reformed churches the elders and pastors go “from house to house” every two or three years to visit the members of the congregation (Acts 20:20b).  During these visits, they pray, read Scripture, and discuss the Christian church and life with God’s people.  Some might disagree, but I would say that this kind of family visiting is even more important than small groups.

Here’s a book that I very much recommend on this topic: Taking Heed to the Flock by P. Y. DeJong. This book talks about various aspects of family visit: its history, biblical basis, spiritual purpose, necessity, value, and so on.  Taking Heed to the Flock is one of the best books you’ll find on family visiting.  Here’s one excerpt that was encouraging for me thinking about family visits in the church I serve:

In an age in which individualism is rampant and has wreaked havoc everywhere, it is essential to stress the organic aspect of life.  We cannot live without each other.  Nowhere is this more valid than in the church among the communion of saints.

Where this law of life is understood, the elders do not regard themselves as policemen of the congregation.  Theirs is not the duty of trying to uncover all the sins which mar the hearts of God’s people who are as yet imperfect.  But, realizing the almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of a well-rounded Christian life, they visit the families for the purpose of helping all to see their duty more clearly.

This makes for the closest possible fellowship between the officers and members of the church on the one hand and between the m embers among each other on the other.  They learn to stand shoulder to shoulder in the great spiritual struggle against the common foe and learn to wage this war more successfully.  It makes of the church truly a ‘militant’ church.  As each soldier has his own position and duty and obliges himself to carry it out in strict obedience to the commands of his superior, so too in the church all the members find their calling outlined by Christ in His Word.  The purpose of the work of the elders is to remind the believers in the name of the Commander-in-Chief of their personal and social responsibilities.  Where this is found, the words of the well-known hymn are immortalized in the life of the congregation:

Like a mighty army
Moves the church of God
Brothers, we are treading
Where the saints have trod.
We are not divided,
All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
One in charity.

As this is progressively realized in the life of the church, she marches forward from victory to victory in the name of the Captain of her salvation.

P. Y. DeJong, Taking Heed to the Flock (1948), p. 38.

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

The Mentality of Abuse

In the past few years, I’ve written several posts on church bullies and abuse (also here).  These two topics overlap and I’ve studied them on and off for some time.  Another resource that has to do with these topics is Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. Before I say anything else, I want to note that this is not at all a Christian book and I have many major disagreements with this book.  Christian readers will have to be especially discerning when reading it.  To be absolutely clear, I only recommend it to mature Christian readers.

Having said that, it is a helpful resource on the topics of [church] bullies and abuse.  Here’s one section where the author talked about the abusive mentality.  I’ve edited it for length:

  • He is controlling.  A few of my clients have been so extremely controlling they could have passed for military commanders.  Most of my clients stake out specific turf to control, like an explorer claiming land, rather than try to run everything.  A large part of this man’s abusiveness comes in the form of punishments used to retaliate against another for resisting his control.
  • He feels entitled.  Entitlement is the abuser’s belief that he has a special status and that it provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner.  The rights of his wife and children are diminished but his own rights are greatly inflated.
  • He twists things into their opposites.  The abuser’s highly entitled perceptual system causes him to mentally reverse aggression and self-defense.  When I challenge my clients to stop bullying their partners, they twist my words around just as they do their partners’.  They accuse me of having said things that have little connection to my actual words.
  • He disrespects his wife and considers himself superior to her. The abuser tends to see his partner as less intelligent, less competent, less logical, and even less sensitive than he is.  He often has difficulty conceiving of her as a human being.  This tendency in abusers is known as objectification or depersonalization.
  • He confuses love and abuse.  An abusive man often tries to convince his partner that his mistreatment of her is proof of how deeply he cares, but the reality is that abuse is the opposite of love.  The more a man abuses you, the more he is demonstrating that he only cares about himself.
  • He is manipulative.  If a man is abusive all the time, his partner starts to recognize that she’s being abused, and the man may feel too guilty about his behavior.  The abuser therefore tends to switch frequently to manipulating his partner to get what he wants.  He may also use these tactics just to get her upset or confused, or so that she blames herself and feels sorry for him.
  • He strives to have a good public image.  If you are involved with an abusive man, you may spend a lot of your time trying to figure out what is wrong with you rather than what is wrong with him.  One of the most important challenges facing a counselor of abusive men is to resist being drawn in by the men’s charming persona.
  • He feels justified.  Abusive men are masters of excuse making.  In this respect, they are like substance abusers, who believe that everyone and everything except them is responsible for their actions.  The abusive man commonly believes he can blame his partner for anything that goes wrong, not just his abusiveness.
  • Abusers deny and minimize their abuse.  If the man is abusive, of course he’s going to deny it, partly to protect himself and partly because his perceptions are distorted.  If he were ready to accept responsibility for his actions in relationships, he wouldn’t be abusive.
  • Abusers are possessive.  Possessiveness is at the core of the abuser’s mindset, the spring from which all the other streams spout; on some level, he feels that he owns you and therefore has the right to treat you as he sees fit.

These points can be found (in full length) in Why Does He Do That?, chapter 3.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI