Monday, January 19, 2015

The Church 7: The Essence of Biblical Worship, Part One

The Church 7: The Essence of Biblical Worship, Part One

Biblical worship is best understood through what the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple teaches us.  What is found there for the Jewish people represents, in essence, what also constitutes Christian worship of the one God in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Holy of Holies helps us to understand worship of God as

1.      acknowledging the worth of God’s holy commandments for His covenant people through obedience and repentance;
2.      being aware of and responding to His glory and holiness; and
3.      giving thanks for and receiving His mercy and forgiveness. 
Each of these might be discussed in regard to the Temple imagery and symbolism, what this means for worship, where this view of worship challenges certain contemporary practices, and how this understanding of worship relates to mission.

A.     Worship as Honouring God by Obeying His Holy Commandments

Imagery of Worship: An Altar of Incense and the Ark of the Covenant

In the Holy of Holies of the Jewish tabernacle in the wilderness and the Jerusalem Temple that replaced it, a golden altar for incense, representing the worship offered before the One God, stood before the ark of the covenant.  The ark of the covenant contained three things: the tablets of God’s Law, a golden urn holding manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9.4).  Aaron’s rod was in the ark as a warning to those rebelling and complaining against God (Numbers 17.8, 10).  God had given manna to sustain the Israelites forty years in the wilderness.  A small amount of it was kept in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 16.31-35) to remember that God’s people live not only by bread but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8.3).  The Ten Commandments on tablets of stone were the basis for the words that came from God’s mouth for His people.

Thus the ark represents God’s holiness with regard to His commandments—commandments that define what it means to be God’s own treasured possession.  The ark contained God’s Law for His people.  It contained God’s warning not to rebel.  And it contained God’s reminder that His people live by every word that proceeds from His mouth.  The holiness of this ark is seen in a story that took place when it was being transported.  When the ark began to slide off the cart, a man by the name of Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it.  When he touched the ark, he immediately died because of the LORD’s anger (2 Sam. 6.7; 1 Chr. 13.10).  With the image of the ark for understanding worship, we come to see worship of God as acknowledging that we live in God’s world according to His laws and should not disobey.  Biblical worship, like Biblical wisdom, is the fear of God, and, as Biblical understanding is the departure from evil (Job 28.12, 20; Ps. 111.10), like Christian worship.  The end of the matter of philosophical speculation on the meaning of life, says the author of Ecclesiastes, is this: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone’ (Eccl. 12.13).  Likewise, to worship God is obey Him as His children.

Worship and the Holy Commandments of God

We might learn from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  In it, the order of service for Holy Communion begins with praying the Lord’s Prayer and a collect (brief prayer), and then the priest is instructed to rehearse the Ten Commandments.  The people, kneeling, are instructed to ask God for mercy for their transgressions and for grace to keep the Law.  Moreover, the first and second greatest commandments of our Lord are also rehearsed—to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.  Then the priest says (using an older, 1789 version), ‘O Almighty Lord, and everlasting God, vouchsafe, we beseech thee, to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments….’  While not followed everywhere in Anglican circles to this degree, the focus at the beginning of this part of the service is, as it were, on the ark of the covenant: God’s Law.  Worship that honours God is worship that acknowledges the fact that being God’s people means being under his commandments.  It understands that repentance and mercy are appropriate responses to the God who gives us his Law so that we might live.  In worship, there is a place for recognizing our human sinfulness, and there is a place to pray for God’s mercy.

Perhaps the two classic passages illustrating the failure of worship due to the failure to obey God’s commandments are Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 7.  In both, God’s people are depicted as following a form of obedience but not a real obedience.  Isaiah says of the house of Jacob that ‘day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God’ (Isaiah 58.2).  Jeremiah says,

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known,  10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!"-- only to go on doing all these abominations?  11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD (Jer. 7.9-11).

This second passage is one Jesus quotes when he cleanses the Temple (Matthew 21.13).  Jesus’ concern with ‘cheap grace’ worship at the Temple has to do with people who find in their worship a too easy access to God’s blessing despite their sinful behaviours.  Even as he challenged the worship at the Jewish Temple, he would today challenge worship in many churches where sin is taken rather lightly but people, thinking themselves ‘covered’ by God’s abundant grace, do not truly repent and live righteously.  As Micah says,

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"  8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.7-8).

What Christians add to this understanding is not a new license for sin because of God’s abundant grace through Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins but both a forgiving grace and a transforming grace in Jesus’ sacrificial death for us.  Jesus not only dies for our sins, but we die to sin in him and are raised to new life with him (Rom. 6.1-14).

A Challenge for Contemporary Worship

Contemporary worship in many churches does not always follow this focus on God’s commandments, human sinfulness and confession, and the grace of forgiveness.  One reason appears to be that some people are uncomfortable with this emphasis on God’s Law and human sin.  They choose not to read uncomfortable passages dealing with human depravity, such as Rom. 1.18-3.20 (check your lectionary, if you use one, to see if it is there!).  God is seen more as a jolly old chap, someone who empathizes with our human challenges and failings, who will not hold his Law over our heads but wants to pour out his love to and through us.  This view of God sees God as a parent who is a little embarrassed over his harsh treatment of us when we were young but now recognizes that we’ve turned out pretty well after all and are grown up enough to make our own decisions.  Thus the holiness of God’s Law is denied as the commandments are relaxed, and so, also, the very notion of sin is relaxed.  The closest one comes to confessing actual sin is confessing that we have not been fervent enough in caring for the environment or treating our enemies and neighbours with divine love or on seeking justice for the latest social concern.  Well and good, but sin is kept ‘out there’—a failure of sufficient action by social activists more than as a condition of the heart that delights to break God’s Law.  The commandments of God, on this view, are, if not outdated, more a general and suggestive approach for life; we had best critically evaluate them before embracing them too fully and readily.

A more typically Evangelical view in worship is also disturbed by too much of an emphasis on sin.  It understands that God has overcome our sins in Christ and no longer counts them against us.  We are not saved by works of the Law but by grace through faith in Jesus.  And so, the emphasis on sin and repentance is played down as a part of worship even if theologically acknowledged—let us rather get on with celebrating God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace.  Yet this can—indeed has!—led to a diminished focus on the holiness of God and His commandments.  Instead, a more cuddly and fatherly God is worshipped, and we see ourselves less as sinners in the hands of an angry God than as scallywags who’ve had a little too much fun.

The General Confession of sin in the daily Anglican Morning Prayer, however, not only speaks of erring, straying, and following the ‘devices and desires of our own hearts,’ but it also states outright, ‘We have offended against thy holy laws.’  (One can only marvel at the great contradiction when, despite this focus in the liturgy, so many churches in this tradition in the West have celebrated their disobedience of God’s Law in sexual ethics.)  Moreover, a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in a way that no other act of worship does.  We are set squarely in front of the cost of our sins with the reminders of Jesus’ body and blood given for us in the elements of bread and wine, while at the same time we joyfully receive the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God in Christ Jesus.

The ‘three songs and a sermon’ form of Evangelicalism that has become so popular in non-denominational churches, along with certain denominational churches, typically undercuts if not totally dismisses any act of worship that focusses our minds and hearts on our own sinfulness before a holy God who has given us His commandments so that we might live.  If we pass too quickly to sing and reflect upon God’s grace, we cheapen that grace by ignoring the gravity of our own sin.  But so great a sacrifice of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, challenges us to appreciate human sinfulness—including our own—and life lived apart from God’s rule.  These typical Evangelical worship services also reduce the amount of Scripture that is heard by the people in worship, and they have one or two short prayers that carry little substance and are easily missed, being more about transitional moments in the service than prayers from the heart of the people of God.

In the contemporary West, as society recoils from the notion of sin altogether, the Church can either succumb to such cultural influences on its own theology and practices or stand up as a counter-cultural witness.  The beginning of such a witness lies first in worship, in hearing God’s Word (reading Scripture and being instructed by it), repenting of breaking God’s commandments and living for ourselves, and receiving His forgiveness.  By not making such repentance a feature of our worship, we signal to the world that our separation from its ways is more about our own claim to superiority than about our own brokenness in sin and reception of a forgiveness available to all.

The first dimension of Biblical worship, then, is to (1) acknowledge God’s commandments (the tablets of the Law) as though we were standing in the Holy of Holies before the ark of the covenant, (2) heed His warning of judgement to all who rebel against Him (represented by Aaron’s rod), and (3) feed upon the manna of His word that we might live.  Thus we pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ (both physical and spiritual), ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and deliver us from evil.’  This is itself worship, acknowledging that God is worthy of our obedience.

Without elaborating too much here, the presence of the tablets of the Law also reminds us of the place for instruction in God’s Word as part of our worship.  Teaching from Scripture in a service of worship leads to a response of conviction before our holy God or a response of praise and thanksgiving to God.  The more we turn teaching into rhetorical flourishes—‘sermons’—in the Greek style of public speaking instead of teaching of Scripture, the more the focus is on the rhetorical skills of the minister, self-help messages for the audience in the coming week, or political agendas of interested parties.  The church will be well-served by getting away from the idea of preaching in the sense it is so often practiced and by returning to a more ‘synagogue’ understanding of teaching the Scriptures as part of worship.  Our concern for the message during worship is not to be, ‘What application does the minister have for us of Scripture this week in his engaging message?’ but ‘What does Scripture teach us that we might obey and give glory to God?’

Mission, Worship, and Obeying God

Worship as acknowledging God’s worthiness to be obeyed translates into mission in two ways.  One is within the congregation at worship, the other is that mission is a form of worship.  These points come out in Paul’s two canonical letters to the Corinthian churches.  First, Paul understands congregational worship as having a dimension of mission.  This can be seen when he says that partaking of Communion is a ‘proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.26).  What Paul as an apostle does in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in the public squares of the cities where he ministered, the churches do in worship during the Eucharist.  Also, as the gathered church meets together and hears, along with any unbelievers who have joined them, the words from God in prophecy, the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed,’ and ‘that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you" (1 Cor. 14.25).

Second, mission is a form of worship.  Paul sees himself in his ministry as a libation being poured out (2 Tim. 4.6).  The imagery of the Temple’s golden altar for incense features as an image for mission in 2 Corinthians.  Paul says,

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;  16 to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?  17 For we are not peddlers of God's word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence (2 Corinthians 2.14-17).

Thus worship is missional in the congregation insofar as it reflects on the death of Christ for our sins and involves God’s prophetic word to us such that we are convicted of our sins.  And, as in 2 Cor. 2.14-17, mission is itself a worshipful service unto God, as the missionary is an incense in society that is the ‘aroma of Christ to God,’ pleasant to those receiving the Gospel and unpleasant to those rejecting it.  The altar of incense, whether congregational worship or missional service as worship, always appears together with the ark of the covenant, challenging us all: ‘Will we, God’s covenant people, live by His Law?’

[Two further articles to follow on worship as awareness of God's holiness and glory and worship as thanksgiving and reception of God's mercy.]

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 26: God the Most Holy, God the Most Merciful

Issues Facing Missions Today 26: God the Most Holy, God the Most Merciful

On the one hand, a people’s understanding of God can lead them to uphold his justice, holiness, and glory over against those who would pursue injustice, profane his holy name, and insolently defy his majesty.  On the other hand, a people’s understanding of God can lead them to tell of his mercy, live by his love, and rejoice in his own humble sacrifice for a people’s sins.  Yet the first path can lead to (so-called) holy war, and the second path to libertine indulgence.  Only a complete understanding of God’s character as just and merciful, holy and loving, glorious and suffering is Biblical.  Moses and Solomon understood this, and the first Christians witnessed and testified to it as the fullness of God’s glory was revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ.  In the cross, we see God the most holy and God the most merciful.

God the Most Holy: the Essenes

Getting this answer wrong is the stuff of much theological error across religions.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the Jewish Essene community of the 1st century as a people devoted to holiness.  ‘What they most of all honour, after God himself, is the name of their legislator [Moses]; whom, if anyone blaspheme, he is punished capitally’ (Jewish War 2.145). The Essenes understood God to be holy, and their response was to pursue a life of holiness that had little room for forgiveness.  No wonder they are never mentioned in the Gospels!  Jesus, a friend of sinners, might have made it onto the invitation list of the ultra-pious Pharisees (and they were ever offended by him even so), but he was not even on the radar of the Essenes.  Their rules for keeping the Sabbath were stricter than any other Jewish group (Jewish Wars 2.147).  Any initiates entering the community after a period of testing had to take tremendous oaths (2.139), and any of their number who committed a heinous sin was cast out of the community, not permitted to eat normal food but only grass, and often died from hunger—unless the community, at the last moment, allowed him to return (2.143-144).

Such is a community that understands the holiness of God, but knows little to nothing of his mercy.  King David was once frustrated when he witnessed the holiness of God without mercy.  David was having the ark of the covenant transferred to Jerusalem when the ark began to slide off the cart.  A man named Uzzah reached out to steady the ark with his hand, and he was immediately killed.  He had profaned the holy ark, and there was no mercy.

God the Most Holy and the Most Merciful: King Solomon’s Prayer and Moses’ Revelation on Mt. Sinai

King Solomon, David’s son, also had the ark transferred (1 Kings 8).  He fully understood its holiness as he had it moved to the holy place and situated between the cherubim (v. 6) within the temple that he had constructed.  The ark was transported with long poles—there would be no slipping off of a cart and no possibility of touching it (v. 8).  Innumerable sacrifices of sheep and oxen were offered (v. 5)—some twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred twenty thousand sheep (v. 63).  Once the ark was in place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, indicating the presence of God’s glory.  Yet, when Solomon offers a prayer on the occasion, we learn more than that God is holy.  We also learn that God is merciful.  In Solomon’s prayer, we hear the truth that God is both holy and just as well as loving and merciful.

In his prayer, Solomon first acknowledges that God is ever so much greater than the temple itself, for ‘even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’ (1 Kings 8.27).  Yet God’s name is present in the temple.  Thus Solomon prays that God, who dwells in heaven, would hear people who pray toward the temple (v. 30).  While the temple is holy, and the ark is holy, and God’s glory and name dwell in the temple, God himself is not contained in the temple.  God’s holiness overflows the holy temple itself.  So far, Solomon addresses the holiness of God, awesome in its splendour.

Yet, while acknowledging the holiness and glory of God—indeed, because of God’s glory!—Solomon prays that God would heed the prayers of the people and forgive! (v. 30).  Herein lies the Biblical understanding of the character of God.  The glory of God is manifest not only in his holiness but also in his mercy.  This is a truth that was already revealed to Moses, when he learned God’s essential character on Mt. Sinai not just as the God of the Law but also as the God who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34.6).  The glorious wonder of God is manifest not only in the greatness of his majesty but also and most fully in his grace, his compassion, and his love.

At Mt. Sinai, Moses understood this deeper revelation of God’s character, and so he boldly prayed, ‘Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance’ (Exodus 34.9).  Likewise, as the holiness of God settled upon the ark and the covenant, Solomon prays first for justice for the righteous when people come to pray before God’s altar in the temple (1 Kings 8.31-32) and then for forgiveness when people plead before God despite their sins (vv. 33-34). While God might visit affliction on a sinful people because he is just and holy and righteous, Solomon also knows God is merciful, loving, and forgiving.  So he prays,

‘If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if [Israel’s] enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is;  38 whatever prayer, whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing the afflictions of their own hearts so that they stretch out their hands toward this house;  39 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know-- according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart--  40 so that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors’ (1 Kings 8.37-40).

Remarkably, Solomon also prays that foreigners—those outside of God’s chosen people—who come to pray before the house of the LORD might also be heard by God (vv. 41-43).  Again remembering God’s chosen people, Solomon prays that God would stand with them in battle in their just cause as well as forgive them when they sin and repent.  Solomon’s prayer dwells on God’s forgiveness and mercy.  He prays,

If they sin against you-- for there is no one who does not sin-- and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near;  47 yet if they come to their senses in the land to which they have been taken captive, and repent, and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, 'We have sinned, and have done wrong; we have acted wickedly';  48 if they repent with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies, who took them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their ancestors, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name;  49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, maintain their cause  50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you; and grant them compassion in the sight of their captors, so that they may have compassion on them  51 (for they are your people and heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron-smelter) (1 Kings 8.46-51).

There are those who see God as loving and forget his requirements of obedience to his commandments, his call for justice, and his warning that he will judge unrighteousness.  Such people are the opposite of the Essenes, and they fail to understand God’s identity and what it requires of us just as much as the Essenes did.  That said, only a balanced understanding of God’s character as holy and merciful is what can guide his people in a sinful world.

Conclusion: The Cross of Jesus Christ, Western Freedom, and Jihad

Jesus never said, ‘Never mind about those dusty Old Testament laws; God is really all love and forgiveness.  Do what you like: our highest value is human freedom, and God will not judge.’  On the other hand, he constantly challenged those who failed to understand that God desired mercy, not sacrifice (cf. Mt. 9.13; 12.7, quoting Hos. 6.6).  But he was himself the perfect sacrifice that showed the glory of God in his death (Jn. 12.23-28) in both God’s justice—for Jesus died for our sins (1 Cor. 15.3)—and God’s love—for Jesus died for ungodly sinners who we all are (Rom. 5.5-8).

Getting this wrong has terrible consequences.  On the one hand, there are those whose understanding of God correctly appreciates his holiness but misses the fact that he is merciful and wants ‘everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2.4).  Such people take on themselves the cause of justice, but in so doing they kill and persecute and, thinking themselves to uphold God’s name, in fact blaspheme him.  They are miserable creatures, filled with hate and doing evil in the name of religion.  There are also, on the other hand, those who are aware of God’s love and mercy but who find God’s justice and holiness offensive.  They offer salvation without Jesus and his death on the cross.  They promise freedom from God’s commandments and deny the need for God’s mercy and forgiveness precisely because they deny sin itself.

Just here is where the post-Christian West meets a militant form of Islam every day in the news, where a libertine society that champions human rights over against God’s law meets a society that pursues its (often confused) understanding of God’s law without his forgiveness and mercy.  For orthodox Christians—those holding to historic Christian faith—we lift up the cross of Jesus for the whole world to see.  We proclaim Jesus crucified to a world that needs to know the cost of sin before a holy God, and we proclaim Jesus’ suffering death for a sinful world that needs to know the forgiveness and love of a merciful God.  Moses heard this same God speak to him when Israel broke his commandments and deserved death.  Solomon prayed to him for forgiveness and justice when his holiness filled the temple.  And we tell of the revelation of his glorious holiness and merciful love in Jesus Christ, crucified for our transgressions and raised from the dead by God’s glory.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Church 6: Timothy and Bucklebelt Bible Church

The Church 6: Timothy and Bucklebelt Bible Church

‘Thank you for visiting our church this morning.  We hope that you enjoyed your time with us and that you will come again,’ said the youth minister of Bucklebelt Bible Church to the strangely dressed person who had hung around after the service until almost everyone had left.  Then he added, ‘Where do you normally go to church?’

The stranger, who was dressed in a simple tunic and sandals, replied with a question, ‘I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘go to church’—are we not always the church if we have been baptized into the body of Christ?  As Paul wrote, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12.13).  If we are the church, what sense does it make to say that we ‘go to church’?

The youth minister straightened his cap and decided to evade the question, which struck him as a semantic quibble from a slightly off-balanced person that would keep him from Sunday lunch.  Trying to be friendly, though, he said, ‘I think your outfit is pretty cool.  Do you always wear sandals and a robe?’  ‘Yes,’ replied the stranger, ‘for me this is normal dress.’  ‘Oh, where do you come from?  The Middle East?’  ‘I lived in Ephesus some time back—when everyone dressed like this.’  ‘I see,’ said the youth minister, lifting his gaze to someone standing a little off to the side and trying to plead with his eyes for some help.  Taking his cue, the other person walked over and introduced herself, ‘Hello,’ she said, stretching forth her hand, ‘I am Stephanie, the counsellor for this church.  I see you met Jimmy, our youth director.’  ‘Ah, pleased to meet you,’ said the stranger, ‘my name is Timothy.’  But he did not take her hand.  ‘I’ve been raised from the dead for an hour to have this conversation with the two of you.’  Jimmy’s eyes widened, and Stephanie took a deep breath.  ‘Right, well, perhaps we have a little time to talk,’ replied Stephanie, insisting with her eyes that Jimmy not leave her alone for one minute.  ‘Why don’t we sit right here.’  She motioned to some seats in the church sanctuary.  ‘Excellent,’ said Timothy, ‘and I appreciate your time.’

‘Well, now, you say you were raised from the dead?  This is actually a first for us, right Jimmy?’  Jimmy nodded slowly.  ‘Actually,’ said Timothy, ‘that is not so important—we really need to discuss your worship service in the time we have.  At the end, I should warn you, I will simply disappear.  Could we begin with your understanding of what you are doing during worship?  I know that the expression of worship has had to change over the years and in different cultures, but what it is we are doing must surely remain constant.’  ‘Well, this is quite a large topic,’ replied Stephanie, ‘and I would actually like to learn a little more about you.’  She was going to try to keep the focus on this person, who obviously needed help.

Timothy understood that the conversation needed to proceed somehow along this line even though he was not the reason for the conversation.  So he replied, ‘Certainly.  I was a pastor of the church at Ephesus back in the days of the early church.  We used to meet to worship together in houses, and so we were necessarily small in our meetings—about 50 or even 70 at times on average.’  Timothy had already turned the conversation away from himself and back to the question of what Christian worship was.  ‘As Christians, we understood ourselves as the Church and our smaller grouping as a church, but we were the church 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  That is, we really could not ‘go’ to church if we were always the church.  This meant that we were a community involved in each other’s lives.  Paul used to say we were like a body made up of different body parts.  Each of us was gifted by the Spirit to contribute something to the body—the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12.27), who is our head.  We cared for one another and gave greater honour to the seemingly inferior members (1 Cor. 12.24-25).  Throughout the week, we would experience the various gifts that the Spirit had given to different members of our Christian community.  Being the church was so much more than a weekly worship service or some other programme.  It was all about people and not, by the way, about buildings at all.  The apostles bore witness to the Gospel, the prophets spoke spiritual truth as they were moved by the Spirit to do so in order to build up the church, to encourage us, and to console those going through difficult times’ (1 Cor. 14.2).

At this, Stephanie said, ‘that rather well defines my role as a counsellor in this church.’  She was drawn into the conversation and, for a moment, forgot to try to keep the conversation on Timothy.  There was something about the conversation that unravelled her professional training. This was not due to her own inadequacies in her role but had to do with Timothy’s personal authority and depth that was already showing itself in the conversation.  Apart from his dramatic statement at the beginning about being 2,000 years old and raised from the dead for an hour, he seemed perfectly rational.  In fact, his personality and words were compelling.

Timothy, though, knew he needed to challenge Stephanie in her own understanding.  ‘Stephanie, he said, you have some training to counsel people, but I am speaking about a ministry that goes beyond your own gifts and training, a ministry in the Holy Spirit.  This is something God wants you to add to your wonderful service in this church.  This will not come in any other way than through prayer, an ever-deepening study and knowledge of God’s holy Word, and an openness to be guided by the Holy Spirit in your counseling.  Don’t turn your gift into a professional exercise to help guide people to self-discovery, to identify their problems through analysis, to find their own truth and meaning.  Be God’s spokesperson in this community, and do so with fear and trembling as a service commissioned by God himself.’  Stephanie stared ahead, knowing that Timothy had spoken right to her own sense of inadequacy.  She felt secure as a counsellor in so many ways, but not in her own sensitivity to the Spirit and her knowledge of Scripture. She also felt, at times, that she failed to tell people what seemed rather obvious, trying, rather, to help them discover their own issues and solutions through therapy.  Timothy was telling her to turn her training upside down, to begin with Spirit-gifted, prophetic ministry rather than professional training, as valuable as it was.

Timothy, however, moved on as he had much more to say.  ‘For us, ‘church’ also meant gathering in various settings to be taught the Scriptures, fellowship, worship around the Lord’s Table, and prayer (cf. Acts 2.42).  Teachers spent their time in the Scriptures, for it was the Scripture that they taught.  This always happened as we came together as the Church around the Lord’s Table in our house meetings, but the teachers we had in our churches also taught almost daily in various ways.  I was a teacher more than anything else in Ephesus, having learned the Scriptures from my youth (2 Tim. 3.14-15) and been gifted by the Spirit to this ministry (1 Tim. 4.14).  I gave myself to the public reading of Scripture, exhorting people through the Scripture, and to teaching people the Scripture (1 Tim. 4.13).’

Then, Timothy looked hard at both of them.  ‘I have a word for you about this as well.  Your church is not getting enough teaching in the Scripture.  People do not know Scripture well enough.  This is, in part, because your adult Sunday School hour is more a social event around coffee and doughnuts than anything else.  People ‘share’ their ideas and receive little teaching.  Also, your teachers do not know Scripture well enough themselves.  The emphasis during this Sunday School hour is more on application than on learning God’s Word.  The same goes for the younger age groups.  It is as though your primary concerns are fellowship and everyone having an opportunity to speak rather than a time to learn from those appointed by the Holy Spirit as teachers in your church.’

At this, Timothy turned to Jimmy, ‘This is especially a challenge for you.  You are in charge of a youth programme.  You are young and easily relate to many of the youth—somewhat like an older youth guiding other youth.  You focus on games, music the teenagers like, and teaching is a minimal part of your ministry.  I’m not here to tell you to teach them more, although they need much more teaching.  But your church has laid this on your shoulders too heavily.  You yourself have not been adequately trained in the Scriptures, and you cannot do this alone.  The older members of the church need to be involved with the younger people—a youth group that is all about youth is destined to shallow faith.  Don’t build a youth group as a youth programme; start with the depth of community where youth and elders come together.  Let the life of the whole community in Christ bear the responsibility for developing the youth in their faith, and let the teachers of the church teach the youth.  Do not make this your overwhelming responsibility.  And never, never turn the spiritual life of the youth of this church into a youth programme.’

Jimmy felt a burden lift from his shoulders.  He had been given a responsibility beyond anyone’s capacity to fulfill it.  He himself needed mentoring and teaching, let alone being given the responsibility to train the youth of the church with a couple of adult helpers.  He had seen himself in charge of a programme, but what he needed was a ministry with people.

Then Timothy continued, ‘Also, teaching must not be reduced to what you experience in this church as preaching.  It is clear that preaching is the main part of your worship services, with the singing as a kind of preparation for this moment.  In fact, what everyone sees up front from their seats in the audience tells a pretty big story.  When you put all sorts of instruments on the stage up front, you emphasize that musical performance is a very important part of your service, and when you have a pulpit in the centre you state that this is the other important part of your meetings.  Worship in song and teaching the Word of God are absolutely critical, do not get me wrong.  However, there is a sense of theatre about all this, as though music and preaching are more a matter of performance.  The singers and musicians put on a rather good show, and about half of the congregation sings along with them.  It is as though you have a concert and are allowed to sing along.  Similarly, the preaching also comes across as performance.  It is a successful piece of oration more than a Biblical teaching.  Have you ever noticed that there is no such practice in the New Testament or early church?  Where ‘preaching’ is mentioned in the New Testament, it is really proclamation of the Gospel, not some weekly sermon that is a well-crafted piece of oratory.  You understand preaching as a Biblically-based talk that has the goal of applying the big idea of the passage to your life.  So you want the preacher to tell you interesting and enjoyable or challenging stories that bring that big idea out.  This puts quite a responsibility on your preacher to be an orator, and it downplays the importance of teaching the Scriptures.  In my time, all the emphasis was on teaching the Scriptures—something we inherited from the Jewish synagogue.  Over time, the influence of Greek culture put increasing pressure on people to produce fine orations—sermons.  Paul already saw this coming and often warned against it (e.g., 1 Tim. 2; 1 Cor. 2).  One way to test what you understand about the church is to ask what difference it would make for you if you lost your top musician or singer or your rhetorically excellent preacher.  Would your church survive that, or would people leave?  If so, then you have the wrong understanding of what a worship service is, and you have the wrong understanding of what a church is.’

Timothy asked how much time remained.  He had been speaking for about forty minutes.  ‘I have a few more things to say before I need to go.  In our churches, some others were gifted with gifts of healing in our churches in Ephesus.  If someone was injured or became sick, these persons would go to the homes of the sick with other elders to anoint them with oil and pray for them.  They would also be prayed for during our home gatherings.  You have lived through a radical time in history during which the Christian faith became more an intellectual philosophy than an encounter with the living God.  You see the Christian faith as a list of doctrines, but it is so much more.  You would not try to describe a relationship with someone, like a husband or wife, in terms of tenets of faith.  I’m not saying that the content of faith is unimportant, of course, and we have to teach against false teaching all the time.  However, do not reduce the Christian faith to doctrine.  To move in this realm of the Spirit, people need to draw close to God so that He will work miracles and healing through them.  Do not undermine this through your lack of faith in such things and by essentially dismissing the Spirit from the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Some of you Evangelicals have as little faith in God’s powerful presence today as the Liberals you rightly challenge for a lack of faith in the power of God to work miracles in the days of the Bible.’  This point hit Timothy’s two listeners hard.  They had a very successful church in the eyes of many, but they had little place for healing and miracles.  In fact, one of their ministry staff was a Cessationist, someone who believed that such gifts ceased after the apostolic age.  While he believed that miracles happened in Biblical times, he did not believe that they continued to occur in the present day.  Some in the church believed in miracles, but they were actually considered a little awkward.  More people prayed for God to guide the hand of the surgeon or to comfort those going through difficult times—that was the level of expectation around illness and trouble.  The church was rather pleased that it had so well opposed the pathetic Health and Wealth charismatics down the street, whose distortion of Christian faith had caused so much harm to so many—some of whom had left and joined this congregation.  Timothy was not advocating this either, but rather challenging them to encounter God rather than experience him as a list of doctrinal truths.

Timothy continued, ‘When this church hired your head minister, they said that they were looking for a pastor for this church.  Then they interviewed various persons and eventually hired someone who is not a pastor at all.  In this, your church failed.  You hired a gifted speaker, and he tries hard to deliver sermons that speak into people’s lives. He does very well at this—so well that you start other churches and beam his talk into those assemblies through your amazing, modern technology.  In that way, he is able to speak to a great many people.  He is also trying to pastor people in this way, although it should be patently obvious how difficult this is to do through telecasting.  But his gift of oratory gets in the way of his really pastoring this church, just as much as the enormous size of this church does.  He is not, frankly, a pastor.  The word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd’.  This preaching you do in your churches today is a kind of shepherding, but so often these pastors are distant from the people in the church.  If it is not because of their special role as a cleric versus the laity, it is because the church is too large to pastor.  Or it may be that the pastor spends so much time crafting his messages—and this would be necessary to keep a couple thousand people coming back each week—that he cannot take the time needed for real pastoring.  Nor can I imagine how a person with responsibilities for several campuses, so many other ministers, preaching to thousands every Sunday, and so forth could have the time needed for his own proper soul care or spiritual life.  Stop demanding this kind of ministry from your minister, and do not let him fool himself that he is in fact providing meaningful ministry by running this programme every week.  You’ve hired a kind of teacher, although he is too focussed on crafting his message and addressing life issues in the community to get into any depth of teaching the Scriptures.  In fact, while he is Biblically sound, many in this congregation would not know if his replacement were teaching the Bible or not because you have become so accustomed to listening to stories and picking up points of application.  You have a flickering candle of Biblical teaching in your church, even though you pride yourself in being a Biblically based church.

‘Also, I want you to understand what a pastor really is.  He is to be humble, not someone set apart from or above the congregation.  He is to set the example for the rest of the church—and that requires life on life ministry.  People have to know him well and want to follow the example of Christian life that he sets.  Some people think that a shepherd lords it over the flock, but this is not the image of shepherding or pastoring from the Scriptures.  The apostle Peter said to the elders or shepherds in the church that they should not ‘lord it over those in [their] charge, but be examples to the flock’ (1 Pt. 5.3).  Shepherds are charged to give oversight, and, frankly, this can only be done by living among the flock and not mainly by speaking from the pulpit.  Living with the sheep, not talking at them, is the key.  Here’s a test: is the person you hired to minister spending his days in your homes and visiting with you, or do you really only know him as a great public speaker who tells great stories, often about himself, and offers pithy advice to you for the upcoming week from the pulpit?  Pastors are shepherds, not pulpiteers.’

Stephanie and Jimmy were stunned.  That is exactly what their head minister was.  People loved him, but the church was far too large for him to visit people in their homes, let alone know most of their names.  His gift was oratory—and being publicly likable as a person.  But few people knew him.  Pastoring happened in small groups, but those leading these groups had minimal training to pastor or teach, and the emphasis was really on the fellowship people had together.  ‘Three major Biblical metaphors for the church,’ Timothy continued, ‘are ‘body’, which emphasizes Christ as the head and also the Spirit-gifted ministry of members to one another, ‘temple’, which emphasizes being built upon Jesus Christ and the apostles’ and prophets’ speaking the Gospel and truth and the holiness of God’s people, and ‘family’, which entails the love and intimacy in a small community that is drawn around Jesus Christ.  Many people are part of a large gathering that lacks intimacy, does not require the exercise of much love, tries to be as inclusive as possible rather than strive toward holiness, and is a spectator sport of the musicians and preacher instead of people ministering to one another as a body.’

Checking the time once again, Timothy quickly added, ‘This brings me to my last point.  As I just said but need to emphasize in closing, Jesus is central to everything we are and do as the church.  This is why it is better to place a table with bread and wine in the center of the church rather than the pulpit and the musical instruments.  Aesthetics are nice, good public speaking is fine, fellowship is critical, but Paul used to say, ‘I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2.2) and ‘Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Col. 3.17).  We are Christians—Christ followers.  It is so easy to turn our meetings together into meetings that offer great music, great speaking, and great fellowship, without Jesus.  That is what we mean by ‘worship’—we are ascribing, proclaiming, and declaring God’s worth in what we do, and we do this because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation.  Here is a final test for your church: ‘Does your music point people to the musicians or to Jesus?  Does the sermon make you rejoice in the minister as a great speaker or lead you to Jesus?  Is your fellowshipping together a community formed around natural interests and food or does it originate in and express itself as fellowship in Christ?  When you find yourselves in the presence of Jesus, you will find yourselves lost in worship wherever you meet together.  This is the exact opposite of church as performances and programmes.  It is meeting with Jesus, being broken before his holiness, washed in his loving sacrifice, and empowered by his Holy Spirit.’  As he said this, he waved his hand toward the cross on the wall, and as Jimmy and Stephanie looked away from Timothy and to the cross, he faded from their presence.  The two of them broke into spontaneous worship in the Spirit and, as they did so, they felt the presence of a third in their midst.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Church 5: Western Christians in a Post-Christian Culture—Merry Christmas!

The Church 5: Western Christians in a Post-Christian Culture—Merry Christmas!


This brief reflection on a major issue is meant to stir some discussion: I truly hope it brings some change.  The larger issue is, “How are Christians to Live as Christians in a Post-Christian Culture?”  In order to offer a crisp reflection on an otherwise huge topic, I will focus this on the matter of Christmas.  And, Merry Christmas to all reading this post this month!  The subject of mission involves, among many other things, an understanding of the Church as a distinct entity—Christ-focussed—within a larger society that reaches out to that society.  A “Christian” holiday gets to the heart of such a matter.

The Present Post-Christian Situation

Living in England some years ago, we were amazed to find children in the local Church of England primary school who did not know what Easter was about and who were encouraged to practice Buddhist meditation as an exercise in the classroom for a religious education class.  I recently had a student ask, “What is ‘Post-Christian?’”—that is!  When vestiges of Christianity are more likely to show up in a history course—if even there—a once Christian society is post-Christian.  That no country can ever be said to be “Christian” is, in my view, an important caveat to this discussion and one that goes all the way back to St. Augustine’s City of God.  Still, Europe, and the countries it colonized, established an institutional relationship with churches such that Christianity was a powerful force within the culture.  We call it “Christendom,” and it is not a neutral story but a story of both great blessing and horrible abuse.  Laws were passed, hospitals and schools were established, Christian “holy days” were observed, and most people showed up for church services on Sunday morning if not other times during the week.  Marriage was a covenant relationship between a man and a woman, and people did not live together before marriage, were not sexually active until marriage, did not contemplate same-sex unions (let alone ‘marriages’), did not divorce—except as exceptions to the rule, and these rules were what the Church taught and the social institutions and laws of the country, to some extent, supported.

Again, this is not to say that the society really was Christian, or even that the institutions that supported the Church and its projects were Christian, or even, for that matter, that the institutional Church was itself Christian!  Frankly, there was a lot in Christendom that was not at all Christian.  However, whatever gains were made by the Church to overcome the pagan practices of pre-Christian Europe were gains made by persons seeking to establish a more Christian society.  And there, by the way, is a history lesson often missing from the classroom today because history is always written by the conquerors, and non-Christian society has, by and large, conquered the Church in Europe, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa today.

The Christianizing of Culture, and Christmas

We need to think a little about the Christianizing of culture before we think further about living as Christians in a post-Christian culture.  Christmas illustrates the point.  It was once an important day in pre-Christian Europe.  Coming just after the winter solstice, the actual day was associated with the god Mithras in Roman religion, a religion originating in what is today Iran.  In Roman practice, the holiday celebrated the rebirth of the sun-god after the shortest day of the year, and it involved giving gifts and feasting.  The priests carried wreaths made from evergreen boughs as they processed through the towns and villages during the festival.  The origin of the Christmas tree in Christian times in Germany may have something to do with sacred trees in German culture—proposals of its possible history can easily be accessed online.  With the “Christianization” of the Roman empire, beginning with the first Roman Emperor, Constantine, in 312, such practices needed to change.  It is one thing to pass a law against gladiatorial shows, slavery, or homosexual practice, but what can be done with holidays?  People do not easily give up their holidays!  So, this holiday became a Christian holy day, Christmas, the day of Christ’s birth.  He was not, of course, born on Christmas day—and we do not know on what day he was born (it would have been at a time of the year when shepherds could be in the fields in Israel, though!).

The De-Christianizing of Culture

In the West today, every holiday season associated with the Christian calendar ends up under attack, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes very intentionally.  Have you ever heard a Christmas song that incorporates Jesus and Santa Claus?  I have.  The Hallmark channel has worked hard to create a vision of Christmas that is all about love, Christmas decorations, and Santa Claus that often makes reasonable viewing for families but, in fact, more often than not excises Christ from Christmas.  This is a far more powerful instrument of de-Christianizing culture than the more aggressive forms, such as lawsuits against public nativity scenes, a governor lighting the “Holiday Tree” (“Christmas” is too Christian), and the like.  The effects of this are felt when the sales lady says, “Happy Holidays” to you, having been instructed to eliminate any Christian message from the season.

Living as Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

Christians are caught off guard in the West today, not knowing how to respond to all this.  One response is to fight back, figuratively speaking, trying to reclaim the Christian nation that some Christians imagine the country in which they live once was.  (Again, there is never such a thing as a Christian nation.  Do not imagine that prayers to an unknown God before a football game are in the slightest way Christian prayers and of any merit, for example!)  So they respond to the sales lady who wishes them “Happy Holidays” by saying “Merry Christmas!”  Another response is to accept the division between Church and society, and remove Christian presence from the public square altogether.  That may actually be an appropriate response in a time of intense persecution—we should not write it off altogether.  However, in the West today, the best approach is for Christians to learn how to be a minority witness within a larger society.

This means realizing that we are not the majority, and we are not going to force the rest of society to adopt our ways.  We are going to have to acknowledge that society has a different view of marriage from us, that we practice business differently and are not typical in how we conduct our affairs, that we use our time and resources differently, and so forth.  We are going to have to know who we are better than we have in the past, distinct from the larger society in many ways.  An example might come from some ethnic group in the larger society holding a festival in the city—like the Greek festival in Charlotte, North Carolina.  People attend the festival, listen to the Greek music, buy the Greek food, and some people visit the Greek Orthodox Church out of curiosity about what goes on inside.  People at the festival do not show up feeling threatened to become Greek, and so they feel free to explore what it means to be Greek.  Somehow, Christians need to celebrate their differences publicly without threatening the now pagan society around them.  They need to give up the notion that the end-goal is “Christendom” once again—a powerful take-over of pagan culture.  Unlike the Greek festival, they want to celebrate a way of life distinct from larger society that offers the possibility of inclusion, not exclusion.  They need to focus on what it means to witness as a minority within a larger culture and be a winsome community of love in Christ.

What about Christmas?

This takes us back to Christmas.  We wring our hands about how it has become commercialized while we go out with everyone else to buy our presents.  We tell the sales lady that it is Christmas, not simply Holiday!  We buy our evergreen tree and decorate it with everyone else.  We try to celebrate a fairly pagan holiday while insisting that it is all about Christ’s birthday.  I think there is an alternative, although it will take a little effort on our part.

My suggestion for the West is that we change the date of Christmas from the “Catholic” West to the “Orthodox” East.  Just as the Western Church took over the pagan festival as the Church became a power in Europe that forcefully Christianized culture—often losing its Christian witness in the process—so now, in post-Christian culture, we might just as well give it back.  This will be a tremendous gain for the Church, not a loss at all.

It will be a gain, firstly, because the Church is not trying to articulate its message around a holiday with Santa Claus, Hallmark, and the atheist governor fighting for control of the meaning of Christmas.  The Church can only gain by separating the message of Christ’s birth from all that.

Secondly, the Church would gain because its engagement with the world would not be over who has power and control in society.  Instead of forcing itself on society, the Church would be free to bear witness to its distinct identity.

Third, the Church will gain because at least one of the divisions between the West and the East in Christianity can be healed.  The Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January, not due to any theological debate that might be worth fighting over but simply because different calendars developed over time.  Well, why not join the celebration over on the other side of what is, in any case, a holiday time of year?  Let Coca Cola’s red suited Santa Claus have the 25th of December.  Let the stores have their commercial holiday and let them fight Hallmark over whether it is about promoting capitalism or showing "Holiday" cheer and love to neighbours.  There is nothing on the 7th of January except the Orthodox Christmas—just waiting for Christians worldwide to focus their attention on that day, without any other claims.  This would allow Christians, like the Greek festival in Charlotte, to showcase what the day is really about, who Jesus Christ really is, and what the Church is celebrating.

Fourth, by celebrating Christmas on the 7th of January, Christians would have a non-threatening opportunity to stand apart from culture and witness to culture.  Christians could keep their children home from school that day and, if possible, not go to work themselves.  (My Jewish friends did this on Jewish holidays in South Africa while the rest of us had to show up for classes!)  They would not be telling everyone else that they should also take the 7th of January off as a holiday but only that they do, as Christians.  In fact, Christian witness would be especially powerful in the West because Christians would be saying, “What you celebrate as Christmas has nothing to do with our faith—go ahead, we might even join with you in a Winter Holiday celebration of food and presents that is pretty much the same as the Autumn Harvest Festival (if in the northern hemisphere, or Thanksgiving, if in America).”  And then, by celebrating Jesus’ birth a couple weeks later, Christians would be making the world ask, “So, what is this holiday of yours all about?”  At last, we could explain that it has nothing to do with decorated trees and Santa Claus but about God sending His Son into the World to live among a people that needs a Saviour.

We could, fifthly, also reform some of our all-too-pagan practices around Christmas.  How about making it a “Giving” day instead of a “Getting Day”?  By that I do not mean exchanging presents, as though that is giving, but a day that the Christian Church actually gives to those in need?  We could be a visible presence in society that day for the good that we do in our local areas.  (Imagine that!)  We would be distinct from society but in a way that serves the larger society.  This would not make Christmas into a family holiday, as it now is, with everyone trying to get home for Christmas.  It would be alright that the college students have already left for college (if that occurs—it often would not), that children are back in school, or that people are already back to work from the “Winter Holiday” celebrations.  Christmas would be about the Church incarnate in society just as Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh and dwelt among us.  We could have a church service on this holy day, a special service that somehow makes the wise and wealthy foreigners from the East as welcome as the lowly and despised shepherds in the field welcome.  We would need to alter our church calendar slightly in the West, but this is not a difficult task—and tradition needs to serve the witness of the Church, not the other way around!


We have a lot to think about as we learn to live as a minority within society in the post-Christian West.  We need to learn to give up power, but to do so in ways that increase the witness of our unique faith in Christ Jesus.  We need to learn how to have discussions about ethics that do not simply revolve around the human rights debates of Enlightenment ethics.  We need to learn how to explain our faith as belief amidst scientific foundationalism just as much as we need to learn how to articulate our universal claims regarding truth in a postmodern world that only believes in locally constructed, functional truth.  We need to learn how to speak of God in a culture that struggles to see anything transcendent beyond the immediate and physical—like the mid-twentieth century, existentialist playwright, Ingmar Bergmann, concluding the God is silent and, unable even to explain a transcendent notion such as love, settling simply for the momentary pleasure of sex.  As we seek to live winsomely but against the grain of our now pagan culture, we might have a go at what this could look like by moving the date of Christmas and watch what happens!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Church 4: Confessing Sin as Congregational Testimony

The Church 4: Confessing Sin as Congregational Testimony


Ah, confession of sin in the weekly worship service!  Here is a division between various forms of worship in Evangelical churches.  Some churches do, some do not—and who knows why anymore? Here follows my appeal to reinstitute this practice where it is not present, and to understand one role it plays in the worship service where it is already practiced: congregational testimony.

I have been a part of a great variety of worship forms over the years: Assemblies of God, Baptist, Evangelical Free, Presbyterian, Kaley Heywet, and Anglican in particular.  High Church worship—liturgical worship—and Reformed theology seem quite comfortable with a confession of sins by the congregation.  Confession of sin is an ancient part of Christian liturgy.  Theologically, it fits well with a Reformed ecclesiology that sees the local church in covenantal terms: that is, as consisting of “Israel” and the “elect” within Israel: not all in the church are believers.  It makes sense within a theological tradition that stresses human depravity, sanctification as a process not completed in this life, and for a view of salvation that distances grace and faith from works.  On the other hand, churches stemming from the Wesleyan and especially holiness tradition have a different notion of what the local church and Christian life are.  The local church is an assembly of true believers, saints, challenging each other to holiness.  The Christian life is more than just forgiveness of sins; it is transformational and a walking in step with the Spirit.  In such a tradition, confession of sins seems defeatist: are we going to go back to “Go” every Sunday rather than press on in our faith?

Speaking personally, in the higher Church and more Reformed churches, I used to feel the challenge of the holiness churches that we should be beyond confession of sin, while always feeling grateful for a time to confess sin!  In the more holiness church traditions, on the other hand, I feared the danger of triumphalism in the spiritual life and nevertheless, like everyone else, sought out times to confess my sins privately.  Just how do we resolve this tension between liturgies and theologies?  Well, not in a brief essay, but here is an initial attempt to speak to the issue.


For the past fifty or so years, Evangelicals have learned to speak of Christian eschatology as “already/not yet”: we live in the overlap of the ages, when we are not yet done with this world while also living out the life of the age to come through the Spirit.  We live between the first and second coming of Christ.  We have not reached a perfection in our own lives even if, in Christ, we are perfected already.  We stand before God not in our own righteousness but in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The solution to the situation of the believer is not a static theology but a dynamic theology, such as Paul states in Philippians:

Philippians 3:10-14   10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


The local church is not a hospital for convalescing sinners.  It is a fellowship of the people of God that has removed the “yeast” of sin in order to celebrate the Passover sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  As Paul says to an all-too-sinful church in Corinth,

1 Corinthians 5:7-8   7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The church is the righteous remnant itself, not the covenant community in which might be found the righteous remnant.  It is not the field in which grow wheat and tares side by side (Mt. 13.24-30; in this parable, the field is the world, not the church—despite many a misguided commentary and sermon!).  It has authority to deal with sin and can exclude persons from fellowship—which is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 5 and is also something we hear reflected in other New Testament passages (e.g., Mt. 18:12-20; 2 Cor. 2.5-11; 1 Jn. 5.16-21).  Such passages involve church judgement, restoration, ostracism, and prayer for sinners.  The church is a community dealing with its own sin.  As Paul says,

Galatians 6:1  My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.

Soteriology and Sanctification

The relationship between “justification” and “sanctification” has been articulated in a variety of ways, often in terms of 16th century theological concerns more than Biblical theology.  While affirming that the semi- or all-out Pelagianism in some quarters of the Roman Church of the 16th century was way off base, we need to realize that an unhealthy separation of salvation from sanctification is a frequent challenge for many Protestants.  Such was the concern of Lutheran Pietists, Calvinist Puritans, Anglican Wesleyans, and holiness Methodists. At one extreme, there is a hyper-grace notion that almost celebrates sin because it emphasizes all the more the grace of God.  This is, however, a sad misunderstanding of grace as forgiving grace without understanding grace as also a transforming grace, and Paul rightly rejected it with one of his emphatic “May it never be!” statements in Rom. 6.1.  As he continues in the same passage, he explains how grace is transformative, a dying and rising with Christ—and in Rom. 8 he explains further that the body of those in Christ is “dead” and they have “life” through the indwelling Spirit (vv. 10-11).  The moral life is not our option to show gratitude for God’s grace; the moral life is the life of the indwelling Spirit of God for those in Christ.  Those who do not have the Spirit do not belong to Christ.

Yet this is not a static theology: it is not a spiritual graduation such that believers are simply done with the flesh, temptation, and sin.  Because of sin, people were “not able not to sin”; because of Christ and the Spirit, believers are “able not to sin.”  What is required of us, then, who have the Spirit?  We are exhorted to live as debtors (without imagining that we can pay the debt ourselves). We are to stop living according to the flesh and, by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the flesh.  We are to be led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8.12-14).  We are to breathe the life of the Spirit not in one breath but throughout our lives.  He continuously lives in us, expelling our sin and giving us the breath of life.


So we come to worship.  Worship is a performance of our theology, and it will be best when it captures our entire narrative of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joyful celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit.  Whether or not we have personally sinned in the past week (and who is to be certain of such a thing?), as a people we stand before God as a confessional people.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.”  We gather around the Table to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11.26).  To be a people of the Table is to be a people of confession: we need this, our confession of sin and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shed his blood on the cross for our sins, a sacrifice of atonement.

John spoke of this in his first epistle.  He was writing against those who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh, whether those believing the Messiah had not come or those believing that Jesus was not human (the so-called “Docetists”).  John affirmed that Jesus did, indeed, come in the flesh, is the Christ, and has provided the blood sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn. 1.7; 2.2).

To gather together as the church also means to enter into a fellowship of love for John.  Confession of sins rightly precedes the passing of the peace in liturgical worship (cf. 1 Jn. 2.9-11): confession, forgiveness, and fellowship are enacted in preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s Table.  Love for the fellowship of believers also goes with hatred of the world—in the sense of hatred of the sinful desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of riches (1 Jn. 2.15-16).  There are, says John, three who bear witness to Jesus as the Son of God: the water (cleansing birth), the blood (forgiving, sacrificial death), and the Spirit (creating new life) (1 Jn. 5.7-8).  To believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to “live” that truth in cleansing, forgiveness, and life of the Spirit.  Worship is not only about this, it is an experience of this.  Confession of sin as a people is a part of such worship.

If worship involves a congregational testimony to the Gospel itself, if it is a reenacting of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if it is a dynamic performance of our theology and life in Christ and the Spirit, then it must include congregational confession that leads to the celebration of forgiveness around the Lord’s Table.  Those churches that have shuffled the Lord’s Table off to occasional moments in the church’s worship—tacked on after the normal service once a month or even less—have to a significant degree omitted the centrality of Christian testimony in worship.  They struggle to testify to the Gospel through a few contemporary worship songs and a self-help sermon all too often focussed more on the preacher’s personal stories than Scripture or some big idea of the text expressed through some contemporary story.  Yet even these worship services retain a vestige of confession around their occasional celebrations of the Lord’s Table, when believers bow their heads in private confession before the cracker and grape juice are passed down the aisle. 

There are good and bad performances of the same practice, and, while private confession is in order, corporate confession is still something different.  We do not take the element of the Lord’s Supper on our own—although all too often services make this as private a practice as a group can do something privately!  We pass individually broken pieces of bread or crackers and individual, little glasses of juice (wine goes in the common cup!), we confess sins privately, we sit with the back of our heads towards one another in our private pew spaces—we have taken what started out in the Church as a corporate love feast and meal and turned it into a private affair in a public space.  And we do this as quickly as possible because it is, after all, an addition to the regular worship in such churches.  No wonder we have also, in those services, lost corporate confession.  We are in such churches a collection of individual believers, not a body.  We are an audience attending church programmes, not a family of believers.  We are private disciples sharing space together because the singers and the preacher cannot give us a private audience.

When we confess our sins together, as a people of God, we confess our need for Jesus’ death.  We confess that we are not yet a perfected people.  We confess that we need the Spirit indwelling us individually and corporately.  And we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

This was also one of the functions of prophecy in the early Church where unbelievers were concerned: the Spirit reproves and calls to account any undisclosed sin.  As Paul says,

1 Corinthians 14:24-25  But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.  25 After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you."

We have just suffered through several decades of “Seeker Service” church, in which anything but confession of sin and the conviction of the Spirit can be heard or experienced by believers and unbelievers alike.  Thankfully, this craze is somewhat on the wane, but we have wandered far from the concept of the worshiping church as a confessing body testifying to the truth of the forgiving, reconciling, and life-giving Lord Jesus Christ and Spirit of God.


The worship service, then, is, in part, a confessional service.  It is a performance of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and celebration around the Lord’s Table that declares the Lord’s death.  It is both private and corporate, the people of God declaring their need of and experiencing the cleansing water, forgiving blood, and life-giving Spirit of Jesus Christ.  Confession of sin is a sincere prayer for forgiveness, but it is also a corporate testimony to the Gospel itself—a Gospel that, with the Spirit’s convicting presence, may cause unbelievers to bow down before God, worship Him, and declare that truly God is among us.