This strikes me as a really helpful observation. From Michael Reeves' The Unquenchable Flame, speaking to our culture of self-esteem and positive thinking:
But it is fact precisely into this context that Luther's solution rings out as such happy and relevant news. For, having jettisoned the idea that we might ever be guilty before God and therefore need justification, our culture has succumbed to the old problem of guilt in subtler ways that it has no means to answer. Today we are all bombarded with the message that we will be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet still it is a religion of works, and one that is deeply embedded. For that, the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. As Luther put it: 'sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.' Only this message of the counterintuitive love of Christ offers a serious solution.
1. The keys: Like Kevin, I think the power of the keys pertains to authority in matters of doctrine and discipline (assuming one is using “discipline” more broadly to refer to order and not just to excommunication). Concisely put, Kevin!
2. Several kinds of authority: However, I don’t think there is only one kind of authority that shows up in churches. In a company, the CEO has one kind of authority, the board another kind, and the shareholders still another kind. In the U.S., the president has one kind of authority, a Supreme Court justice another, and the voters still another. (I use two examples here because I don’t want to tie myself to any one. Both are different than what you find in a church.) And each of these parties have authorities that overlap and sometimes check one another. You can’t just say, “The CEO has authority” or “Congress has authority” and be done with the conversation.
The point here is, it’s not enough to say, “The elders have authority. Look at Hebrews 13:17.” Yes, they have authority, but what kind? How far does the jurisdiction extend, and are there any checks on that authority? Could it be that the elder authority/oversight described in the Epistles (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:17, 1 Peter 5:2-3; Hebrews 13:17) is just one kind of authority which plays a role in the foundation and function of a church?
Why assume that oversight given to the overseers is the be-all, end-all of authority in the church?
3. Kingdom authority vs. authority of oversight: What’s distinct about the authority of the keys discussed in Matthew 16 and 18 is the explicit connection that is made to the kingdom. They are called “the keys of the kingdom.” Their binding and loosing ability binds and looses in the kingdom.
Nowhere is the discussion of elder authority in Acts or the Epistles tied to the kingdom (that I’m aware of) or to the keys. And nowhere in Matthew 16 or 18 are elders mentioned. Exegetically, in other words, there’s no reason to think that the authority of the keys is the authority of oversight.
The congregationalist’s basic contention is that the authority which belongs to the congregation is of one kind, and the authority which belongs to the elders is of another kind. The congregation’s authority pertains to the foundation or very existence of the church as an eschatological embassy of Christ’s kingdom. The elders’ authority pertains to the function of the church—they lead life together within the community, including in the church’s use of the keys.
The keys are the church’s to use, but they should generally follow the elders in using them.
4. Earthly sanction vs. heavenly sanction: Institutionally speaking, the main difference between congregational authority and elder authority is that the congregation has an earthly sanction while the elders have a heavenly sanction. For instance, Presbyterians (e.g. James Bannerman) sometimes critique congregationalists by saying that the authority we give to elders is “no real authority” because it has no teeth. Not true. We give it heavenly or eschatological teeth. When Jesus tells you to submit to your elders, he means it. If you don’t, he will bring an eschatological smackdown. You will account for your disobedience—in some way—on the last day.
The congregation, like the state, has an earthly sanction ("Whatever you bind on earth..."). Where the state has the power of the sword, the church has the power of the keys. It its severest form, this means the state can take a life, while the church can excommunicate a person. The elder cannot excommunicate a person; instead, he must appeal to the church to make use of its authority to excommunicate a person. And the church, if it’s properly submissive, will obey.
5. The gathered assembly: Congregationalists also tie authority and the assembled people together. There is a geographic “boundary” of sorts to Christ’s kingdom. It’s the gathered people of Christ. The gathering is where the citizens of his kingdom “go public” in their corporate life together. This is the two or three gathered together in Christ’s name (Matt. 18:19-20; cf. 28:19). It is also where the keys are responsibly employed. For examples of this playing out, see 1 Cor. 5:4-5 and 11:18, 20, and 33. The idea of an extra-local assembly (like a regional presbytery) exercising binding authority over Christ’s eschatological assembly would present the picture of a dismembered body.
Church power is a ordinance of Christ, and to give that power to an extra-local body is to deny his ordinance. Also, as Hunter has put it, placing authority in an extra-local body bifurcates ruling and shepherding.
6. Secret congregationalists: Everybody, including Kevin, is secretly a congregationalist! They just call it “voting with their feet.” We who are open congregationalists simply think that Jesus gave the congregation the ability (and responsibility!) to get rid of a heretically preaching pastor without actually leaving the church to him.
7. Authority and responsibility: Congregationalism, in the final analysis, is not about voting on carpet colors and ornery members lording it over the pastors. That’s a caricature and an abuse of congregationalism, in the same way there are abuses of any system. Congregationalism instead is (i) an intermittent veto power for those occasions when the elders go off the rails, and (ii) the authority which is commensurate with the responsibility we in a congregation have over one another’s profession of faith. Take away authority and you take away, to some measure, the responsibility.
I don’t mean these remarks as a full-on explanation or defense of congregationalism, but simply an attempt to give a more careful treatment to the matter of authority.
This week millions of Muslims will descend on Mecca for the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage that Muslims are supposed to complete at least once in their lives. As Christians, we should pray that the Lord might mercy on these people by showing them Jesus, the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
If you or your church would like to pray for Muslims during Hajj, you can find a helpful guide to prayer here.
In Knowing God, J.I. Packer writes, under the heading “One can know a great deal about godliness without much knowledge of God”:
Whatever else might be said about this state of affairs, it certainly makes it possible to learn a great deal secondhand about the practice of Christianity. Moreover, if one has been given a good bump of common sense one may frequently be able to use this learning to help floundering Christians of less stable temperament to regain their footing and develop a sense of proportion about their troubles, and in this way one may gain for oneself a reputation for being quite a pastor. Yet one can have all this and hardly know God at all. (page 27)
I think he’s right. If you have some charisma and public speaking skills, it’s not too hard to be thought of as a great preacher. If you have a good library and head for books, you will probably be able to explain the Bible well and be thought of as a good teacher. If you are socially aware and observant, you may even prove to be a good counselor. But none of those things are proof that you actually know God.
So pastors should ask ourselves: what fuels my ministry? My skills and strengths? The things I know about God? Or a deep knowledge of God?
Packer suggests two things to those who desire this knowledge (page 32):
- First, recognize how much we lack knowledge of God. “We must learn to measure ourselves, not by our knowledge about God, not by our gifts and responsibilities in the church, but by what we pray and what goes on in our hearts.”
- Second, seek the Savior. “It is those who have sought the Lord Jesus till they have found him – for the promise is that when we seek him with all our hearts, we shall surely find him – who can stand before the world to testify that they have known God.”
Not so fast! That's my quick response to Kevin DeYoung's six-point post called "Putting in a Good Word for Presbyterianism."
It is always amusing for us congregationalists to engage our presbyterian friends. Hearing presbyterians magnanimously describe congregationalists reminds me of the Bugatti dealer conceding that the Ford Pinto has a surprising array of brown tones on offer. And sadly we sheepishly acknowledge we are the illegitimate step children of the Protestant Reformation. Many in the Reformed community view congregational history along these lines: “John Bunyan, going mad in prison, created a church polity that curiously survived the slings and arrows of eighteenth century revivals and was later sullied by the New Living Translation.” Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but if you cannot follow me here then ask an OPC pastor what he thinks of the PCA and you will get a sense of the plight of modern day reformed congregationalists.
In any event, I wanted to pen a brief response to Kevin DeYoung's recent post on Presbyterianism. Kevin was gracious in his comments, and I hope to be equally gracious in mine. These are great discussions to have, especially when done amicably! Jeremiah Burroughs once said of Thomas Edwards, the polemical presbyterian pamphleteer, “He would not dislike me so much if we were not so close together!” (my paraphrase). And indeed, reformed presbyterians and congregationalists share strong historical similarities.
A RESPONSE TO KEVIN DEYOUNG'S GOOD WORD FOR PRESBYTERIANISM
My goal here is not to provide a defense of congregational polity, but to simply address the points Kevin made on his blog. (Nor do I hope to ignite a series of polity rejoinders!) I simply want to say, “Not so fast.” Each of the six points below corresponds to Kevin’s six paragraphs here.
1) It is not entirely true that the congregationalists argue power resides only in the members of the church. Many of the Westminster congregational divines believed there was a unique power in the elders that came directly from Christ rather than being derived from the people. At the same time, many Presbyterians argued that all church power was first in the people, but the ability to exercise this power resided in the elders as their representatives. There was no reformed consensus on this point. True, the WCF argues that the keys are in the hands of the elders, but they were very careful in how they worded that point. In their debates, there was an extremely wide variety of opinions on the subject. In fact, just before the Westminster Assembly voted to affirm that the keys were in the elders, Charles Herle, the celebrated presbyterian, warned that they risked departing from a teaching many “fathers and schoolmen” had taught: namely, that the power the keys did in some measure also belong to the people.
2) A congregational divine could agree with this paragraph. Certainly men like Burroughs, Goodwin, Nye, Bridge, and, later, Owen, would have. Elders have authority given to them in the Bible. They should be obeyed. The problem is whether that paragraph says all there is to say about church power. If church members are to vote on their elders, and if church members have a right to vote in excommunication (which many Reformed divines, particularly some notable Dutch divines, argued for), then we must say that there is some church power in the congregation as a whole. But that does not by any means argue against the unique role of elders and the fact that the Bible commands churches to submit to their elders. Nor does this mean that people are mini-elders arbitrarily deciding when and where they actually submit to their leaders. If a church feels a tension there, then that is actually a good thing. The reformed divines certainly did.
3) As you say, this paragraph does not prove the point. It is factually not true that virtually every single reformed divine and confession believed “tell the church” only meant tell their officers. I could name several divines, both 16th- and 17th-century, that argued for a role of the people in church government. Indeed, the 1563 version of the Heidelberg catechism stated that discipline cases can be “complained of to the Church or to its proper officers.” Yet, the version used today for the by the Reformed Church in America—which I assume Kevin is using—states, “who after being reported to the church, that is, to those ordained by the church for that purpose.” That a is significant change from the 16th-century version. And it belies the fact that this was not an easily settled issue.
Certainly, neither version argues that you could complain to the entire “universal church,” which would be case if “church” meant (or even included) the universal church. The question is not only whether there were multiple churches in Jerusalem, or Antioch, or wherever. The question is, what kind of power did any assembly (if there were any) have over their churches? Did they have a binding power, or not? This is a crucial point. Many Reformed divines, even some widely considered Presbyterian, believed that presbytery could adjudicate matters, but they did not have binding power over a particular church.
4) The Westminster divines were by no means of one mind as to whether “church” referred to the sanhedrin. Certainly, Christ promised that he would build his church—meaning there was something genuinely new about the church.
5) Just because Christ does not mention “this extra step” of telling the elders first in Matthew 18 does not mean congregationalists are inconsistent (my word, not Kevin’s). After all, Christ makes no mention of elders in Matthew 18, and yet we believe they are part of the church. In Matthew 16 and 18 we are dealing with the first two instances of “church” in the NT, and therefore we should not expect a robust definition of how a church functions when it is still, as it were, in its embryonic form.
It is true some congregationalists fear elders because of the tyranny of the few, but on the other hand some presbyterians fear members involvement because of the anarchy of the many. But fear never leads to good polity. The question really comes down to this: Did Christ give any share of church power to the congregation? If so, then we must account for it.
If you had not heard elsewhere, I wanted to make sure you saw that the 9Marks at Southern Seminary talks are now online. The topic was CONVERSION. Great stuff.
- Session 1: David Platt on Ezekiel 36, "The Glory of God Centered Conversion: How God Saves People for the Sake of His Name. (Session 1 Panel)
- Session 2: Danny Akin on Ephesisans 2, "The Four Spiritual Laws of Conversion" (Session 2 Panel)
- Session 3: Tony Merida on Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son
- Session 4: Mark Dever on Acts 10 and the conversion of Cornelius (Sessions 3 and 4 Panel)
- Session 5: Thabiti Anyabwile on 1 Thessalonians 1 (Session 5 Panel)
- Session 6: Matt Chandler on Romans 8
As you already know, Jerry Sandusky was sentenced yesterday to a prison term of at least 30 years. This amounts to a de facto life sentence for the 68 year old man.
The public response has been interesting. I’m not aware of anyone who believes that Sandusky should ever be allowed to leave prison alive. And I haven’t seen anyone suggest that the sentence handed down by the judge won’t be effective in making sure that he spends the rest of his life behind bars.
But there is way in which the sentence doesn’t fully satisfy our human longing for justice. 30 to 60 years just seems like too small a punishment for a man who is guilty of such heinous crime, especially when he probably won’t live for a very long time. The judge in the case acknowledged that while he could have handed down a much longer sentence, it would have essentially been a meaningless gesture.
And I think there is something instructive in this public wrestling with the sentence. Could it be that this is something of the image of God and his holiness shining through in our public discourse? In situations like this, we see that no matter what we might say that we believe, we want a God who punishes people for their sins. There’s something unsatisfying about the notion that Sandusky can just die and thereby escape the consequences of his actions forever.
Granted, most people want a God who punishes monsters like Sandusky and Hitler, but not “good people” like you and me for our seemingly lesser crimes. But I think this is a useful moment to speak to friends and neighbors about their own sins against a God who will (thankfully) not let any wickedness go unpunished. And it’s a good time to point them to the one whose blood can wash the foulest clean, even Jerry Sandusky. And you. And me.
In his commentary on II Corinthians, John Calvin reflects on Paul's statement that a messenger of Satan (his "thorn in the flesh") served as God's means of keeping him from deadly pride.
Pauls writes: So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV)
Calvin comments: But what does this mean — that Satan, who was a man-slayer from the beginning (John 8:44), was a physician to Paul, and that too, not merely in the cure of the body, but — what is of greater importance — in the cure of the soul? I answer, that Satan, in accordance with his disposition and custom, had nothing else in view than to kill and to destroy (John 10:10), and that the goad, that Paul makes mention of, was dipt in deadly poison; but that it was a special kindness from the Lord, to render medicinal what was in its own nature deadly.
Praise the God who is able to turn Satan's poison into medicine for his people!
St Helen's Bishopsgate (www.st-helens.org.uk) is synonymous faithful expositional preaching, so I was pleased to hear that they have launched a new monthly video series designed to equip, inspire and encourage all of us who teach God's word.
The videos for the series, called "Preaching Matters", will be out on the first Monday of each month with the first one available today. I have watched a few of the videos and they are excellent.
You can find "Preaching Matters" on their website at http://www.st-helens.org.uk/
Vaughan Roberts is well known in British Evangelical circles for his strengths as one of the most gifted and faithful writers, preachers and church leaders in the land.
In a recent interview with Julian Hardyman Vaughan talks about how he has sought to live a godly life while struggling with same-sex attraction, and why he has decided to share his struggles more widely.
I pray that as he becomes known not only for his great strengths, but now also for a weakness, that the strength and wisdom of God will be made all the more evident in and through him, and that he would be a great encouragement both to those who struggle with similar tempations, and with those who seek to help them with those struggles.
Read the interview here.