More books and conferences under the banner of disciple-making are available now than ever before. As a result, believers are contemplating the implications of the Great Commission for their lives. With a better understanding of discipleship come questions of how to replicate the process. One important facet is how many people should be discipled together. The size of your discipleship group should be considered before approaching potential group members.
I have found that the most effective discipleship groups, what we call D-Groups, are gender-exclusive. Men should meet with men, and women should meet with women. Some topics and personal problems should not be discussed in a mixed group. While it is wonderful for couples to study God’s Word and grow spiritually together, the crucial dynamic of a D-Group is compromised when couples are involved, particularly in the areas of transparency and accountability.
FIVE REASONS TO DISCIPLE IN GROUPS
While the Bible never prescribes a particular model for discipling others, Jesus invested in groups of varying sizes. Larger groups learned from his teachings and miracles, while his closest followers benefited from personal discipleship and specific instruction. While one-on-one discipling is valid and has it purposes, I want you to consider five reasons to meet in a group of three to five instead of privately with one.
1. Avoid the Ping-Pong Match
First, a group of two can be like a ping-pong match: you, the leader, are responsible to keep the ball in play. “Mike, how was your day?” “Good,” responds Mike. The leader probes deeper by asking, “Any insights from your Scripture reading this week?” “I enjoyed it,” Mike briefly replies. The conversation progresses only as the mentor engages the mentee. The pressure to lead is lessened when others in the group join in on the spiritual journey.
2. One-on-One can be Challenging to Reproduce
Second, a one-on-one model can be challenging to reproduce because the person in whom you are investing has a tendency to look at you in the same manner that Timothy looked at the Apostle Paul. Mentees, after a year or two in a discipling relationship, have said to me, “I could never do with another person what you did with me.” Yet a group takes a journey together. It is worth noting that group members usually don’t feel ready to begin their own groups. Neither did the disciples. But Jesus left them with no choice. Remember, the discipling relationship is not complete until the mentee becomes a mentor, the player becomes a coach.
3. Group of Two Tends to Become a Counseling Session
Third, a group of two tends to become a counseling session, where you spend the majority of your time solving personal problems. Biblical wisdom for personal issues is certainly a part of the discipling relationship, but therapeutic advice every week must not define the group.
4. Jesus Discipled in Groups
Fourth, as mentioned earlier, Jesus utilized the group model. While he spent time investing in a group of twelve, he used teachable moments to shape three—Peter, James, and John—in a unique way. With the exception of Judas, all twelve faithfully followed the Lord, even to the point of death. But these three were the key leaders in the early years of the church.
Solomon, a financial genius and the Warren Buffett of his day, advocated the diversification of assets twenty-five hundred years before Wall Street existed (Eccl. 11:1-2). Wise people invest in a variety of stocks, bonds, and commodities. Jesus, too, believed in diversified investing and modeled it in his discipleship example. Joel Rosenberg and T.E. Koshy pose a thought-provoking question:
What if for three years Jesus had discipled only Judas? Despite his best efforts, Jesus would have wound up with no one to carry on his legacy and his message when he returned to the Father. Jesus didn’t invest in just one man. He invested in a group of men from a wide range of backgrounds, including fishermen, a tax collector, and a Zealot (a political revolutionary).
Jesus poured himself into twelve men, and taught us the importance of the group in disciple-making. Yes, there are times when a one-on-one mentoring relationship is beneficial, but in the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, it is not the norm.
Paul, in similar fashion, used his missionary journeys to train others. He rarely if ever traveled alone, always including Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Timothy, and others as gospel co-workers. When Paul charged Timothy in his final letter, he stated, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:1-2). Notice that Paul says, “Entrust to faithful men”—plural—“who will teach others.” Throughout his ministry, Paul modeled this practice.
5. Built-in Accountability
Finally, a group of three to five provides a built-in accountability system, as well as encouragement from others. In my first D-Group, two of the three men involved came prepared with a Bible-reading journal I had asked them to complete. But one, a skeptic of the system’s value, failed to make any entry. Prior to joining the D-Group, his excuse for not reading the Bible was, “It’s difficult to understand.” Using the other two men to motivate him, I countered, “Can you just try journaling for the next five days? Right now, you have no evidence to prove that it doesn’t work. By trying it, you will know if it works for you or not.” The next week, he arrived with a smile on his face, saying, “Let me share what I heard from God through his Word this week.” Watching the excitement of the others challenged him to contribute to the group, and to his own spiritual development.
What has been your experience in a discipleship group? Does size matter? If so, how?
Robby Gallaty (@Rgallaty) is the Senior Pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN and founder of Replicate Ministries. For more information on discipleship, you can visit replicateministries.org.
The gospels record Jesus ministering in 5 group sizes: the crowd (multitudes), the committed (the 72 in Luke 10), the cell (the twelve disciples), the core (Peter, James, and John), and the close-up encounters (one-on-one). Making disciples cannot be restricted to a particular group meeting; however, a regular gathering time is practically necessary for accountability.
 Joel C. Rosenberg and T. E. Koshy, The Invested Life (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2012), 87-88.
The "penal" in the doctrine of penal substitution, being tied to God's wrath, has long been a source of controversy inside the church and out. It's criticized as overly "legal" or "forensic." People want to look to the cross and talk about Christ's love, not his enduring the divine penalty.
But it's worth stopping for a moment and meditating on what is behind a penalty. What is behind wrath? I'd like to propose that God's wrath is equal to God's worth, and that the "penal" in penal substitution therefore reveals this very worth.
Wrath and worth are perfectly matched together. The former takes the measure of the latter and expresses itself accordingly. One is as precious as the other.
So drop the "penal" from penal substitution and you diminish God dramatically. Despise his wrath and you despise his worth.
To see this, it’s worth meditating for a moment on what the purpose of law is....
Read the whole article.
I’m convinced it’s better for your church to have an evangelistic culture than just a series of evangelistic programs.
In a church with a program-driven approach to evangelism, sharing the gospel can become something mostly for certain people at certain times, like when the evangelism team goes out visiting.
But in a church with an evangelistic culture, each member is encouraged to play a role within the larger church’s effort to reach the people around them with the message of salvation in Jesus. It becomes a part of every believer’s life.
THREE INGREDIENTS OF AN EVANGELISTIC CULTURE
If you are looking to create an evangelistic culture in your local church, here are three ingredients that may help.
1. The Gospel: the Fuel for an Evangelistic Culture
The gospel message is the fuel that feeds an evangelistic culture in a church. We all naturally share the things that excite our hearts. If the Philadelphia Eagles ever won the Super Bowl (I know…), you wouldn’t have much luck shutting me up about it. In the same way, if we want to create cultures in our churches where it’s natural for members to talk to about the gospel message with non-Christians, then we need to help our members fall deeply in love with the gospel.
That means they must understand the gospel message. It also means that the beauty of the gospel message must be put on display week in and week out in our churches. When Christians truly grasp the depth of their sin, the wonderful holiness of God, the perfection of Christ and the depth of his suffering for them, the power of his resurrection and the gift of eternal life for all who repent and believe, our affections for Christ will grow.
The gospel message also frees Christians from motivations that might lead them to dislike evangelism. The gospel says that we don’t have to evangelize in order to earn God’s love. Our position in God’s family isn’t dependent on how often or how well we share the gospel. Instead we can be certain of God’s love, which frees us from the overwhelming concern for the opinions of people around us that makes us afraid to speak up about Jesus.
2. Prayer: the Power of an Evangelistic Culture
Second, a church that is sharing the gospel must be committed to prayer. Evangelism seems a hopeless task. We are calling spiritually dead people to embrace life. How are we going to equip and encourage people for that work? It seems utterly futile.
That’s why an evangelistic culture must begin with a culture of prayer. In prayer, Christians go to the Lord with a confession of their insufficiency for the task of evangelism and his sufficient strength. God alone can make the seeds that we sow spring up to eternal life in our hearers, and so we must begin with prayer.
In our church, this particularly happens on Sunday evenings. We gather together as a congregation to pray that the Lord would spread his gospel through us. People share gospel conversations that they’ve had during the previous week, or opportunities that they hope to have in the coming week.
This prayer time serves a few purposes. First, it commits these things to the Lord, who normally has us ask before we receive in these matters (James 4:2).
Second, it involves the whole church in the work of sharing the gospel. It’s not a burden or a project that we undertake alone, but we have brothers and sisters to pray and encourage us.
Third, this sharing makes it clear that evangelism is the work of “normal” Christians. The people asking for prayer aren’t usually pastors or elders or gifted evangelists. They are just believers who have embraced their calling to share the good news with the people around them.
Finally, this prayer time gives people a good place to begin reaching out to their neighbors and co-workers. If people are nervous or uncertain about sharing the good news, we encourage them to begin with prayer. They can pray that the Lord would give them opportunities, and that he would bring people who need the gospel to their attention. That’s a much less intimidating first step than rushing out with a tract in hand.
3. Training: the Blueprint for an Evangelistic Culture.
A third ingredient is training, the blueprint for an evangelistic culture. Remember that the goal is for our churches to have evangelistic cultures rather than merely evangelistic programs. But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for church leaders to organize and equip people to share the gospel. In fact, a love for the gospel and prayer may not be enough to motivate Christians to a lifestyle of evangelism.
While evangelism will come naturally to some people in your congregation, there will be many people who love the gospel and pray faithfully but still need to be equipped to share the gospel. Here are a few ways church leaders can equip the congregation:
Recommend good books on the topic. J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and Mack Stiles’ Speaking of Jesus are two of my favorites. Read these books with the people you are discipling, give them away to people who will read them, or make them available through you church library.
Bring people with you when you have a chance to share the gospel. When I am invited to give an evangelistic talk, I bring a younger person from the church with me. It’s a good opportunity to model for them how to share the good news.
Address unbelievers in your sermons. Your people will grow from listening to you engage people who don’t know Jesus with the claims of the gospel. Take time to thoughtfully consider the questions or objections that an unbeliever might have to your sermon’s message, and then speak to those issues.
Run evangelistic meetings where people can bring friends and get help sharing the gospel. If your church can host an evangelistic coffee house meeting or a program like Christianity Explored, you will give opportunities for your people to invite their friends and observe how they can share the gospel as well.
BETTER THAN THE BEST PROGRAM
There is no program that can create an evangelistic culture in your church. Instead, it will require church leaders to teach, model, and pray until members of the church realize that sharing the gospel is their privilege and responsibility. A church with such a culture will be far more fruitful and effective than a church with even the most effective programs and strategies.
Mike McKinley is the senior pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia, and is the author, most recently, of The Devil Made Me Do It (Good Book Company, 2013).
The following two stories are true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
A SUCCESSFUL PASTORAL TRANSITION
Westside Baptist Church was blessed with a nearly 40-year ministry by the senior pastor Ken Perkins. His personal life was never in question, and while his preaching may have become a bit stale in the later years, he always brought a sense of security to the congregation. He had earned the respect of his people to the point where whatever he wanted to do, he could do. Ken knew that the day would come when Westside would need another pastor, so he kept his eyes out for a potential replacement.
Justin Davis had grown up at Westside Baptist, had recently finished his Master of Divinity, and was serving on the pastoral staff of a church across town. Ken knew Justin and knew his family, as did the church. Ken asked Justin to join the pastoral staff of Westside for the purpose of transitioning into the role of senior pastor in three years. During those three years Ken promised to decrease his pulpit time so that Justin could preach more. He also promised to let Justin lead staff meetings, board meetings, and other leadership meetings by the third year.
Ken communicated all of this to the other elders, who agreed to it. And he communicated it to the congregation, who, quite frankly, were glad to hear a younger voice, even though they respected Ken.
During those three years, Ken did exactly as he said he would. Justin was given regular and increasing opportunities to preach and lead. It wasn’t long before Justin was seen, accepted, and assumed as the man who would provide leadership for the church.
The time came for the formal transition. On that Sunday morning Ken presented the motion to the congregation to vote for Justin Davis as the senior pastor. Ken reminded the congregation that they had not only known Justin his entire life, but for the last three years they’d had the opportunity to sit under his ministry and be involved in his life. If they had any concerns or questions, there had been plenty of time to get those addressed. So he said, “All in favor of recognizing Justin Davis as the senior pastor of Westside Baptist Church effective today, please stand.” As you could imagine, every member (and even a non-member) stood.
Ken then told the congregation that as of that moment, Justin Davis was the new pastor. Therefore the congregation should call upon Justin to perform their weddings and funerals and visit them in the hospital, because he, Ken, would not. Besides, he was moving to Florida. And he did.
Meanwhile, across town…
AN UNSUCCESSFUL PASTORAL TRANSITION
Eastside Baptist Church was blessed with the 40-year ministry of Douglas Johnson. Between Doug’s careful preaching and the church’s impressive music ministry, Eastside became a well-known church with a prominent pulpit in the entire metro area. Doug was an institution. His habits of 40 years and gentle spirit endeared him to his people. He was an immaculate dresser, careful grammarian, and well-prepared speaker.
Doug, however, left the leadership of the church to the board. So, when it came time for Doug to step down, he retired with great recognition, but no transition plan. It was up to the board to find a replacement, and eventually they did.
Mark Engle had a good track record at the church he had pastored for six years. The church had experienced some growth during his ministry, and while Eastside had grown to be a dominant presence on the eastside, there was a clear lack of momentum in the last few years. The board thought Mark would bring that needed spark.
After a couple of weekends of meetings and preaching on a Sunday, Mark was presented to the congregation. The people were not really sure, but since the board thought it was good idea most of them voted for Mark.
It did not take long before it became clear that Mark really did not understand Eastside and Eastside did not really know Mark. A few off-the-cuff remarks that Mark made traveled through the congregation, while some ill-timed changes that he made drew the ire of many.
Meanwhile, Doug continued to attend Eastside, but it was difficult. He was constantly fielding questions and complaints from the people who loved him and longed for the “good old days.” Frankly, so did Doug. When it came time for weddings and funerals, the congregation’s lack of trust in Mark drove many of them to ask Doug if he would officiate. He found it increasingly difficult to support Mark, yet also discovered how quickly any criticism he made would get back to Mark and place even greater strain on their relationship. Mark quickly lost the good will of the congregation and many of them began to leave. After three tumultuous years, so did Mark.
Today, Westside Baptist Church is a healthy congregation that has planted four other churches in its area of the city. Justin has a few more pounds and a little less hair than he did 23 years ago, but he continues to provide his people with solid leadership. He has made a few changes along the way, but every change has come with a solid consensus from the congregation. There have been no splits, no crisis, and no embarrassments. As long as he was able, Ken Perkins came back about once a year to preach and enjoy the fruit of long-term ministry.
Today, Eastside Baptist Church no longer exists. A succession of pastors and programs did nothing to stop the bleeding. Now, another group meets in the former location and struggles to pay the utilities. The steeple only points back to days that have long since past.
There are a few conclusions we should draw:
- The longer the senior pastor serves, the longer the transition needs to be.
- Churches who love their current senior pastor need plenty of time and opportunity to develop affection for the man who will replace him. If a new man is given many opportunities to preach over a period of months or even years, the congregation will grow in affection and affinity with him, assuming he faithfully handles the text. Time allows the church to observe his life and family over time, the it protects them from the pressure of voting on someone they have only heard for two weekends as a candidate.
- Transition plans need to be established, communicated in detail to the entire church, and faithfully followed. This is a great opportunity to cultivate more trust in a church’s leaders. The transition plan should generally allow the new guy to assume more and more preaching responsibilities as well as leadership among the elders and the staff.
- A long-term senior pastor must take the leadership for this, and he needs to talk about it long before it happens. I tell parents that the moment they bring their newborn home from the hospital is the day they start preparing that little one to leave the nest. So, the day a man becomes the senior pastor, he needs to be thinking about how he prepares the church for the next guy. The senior pastor must love the church so much that he is willing to entrust the church to the care of someone else. He is in a unique position to be a mentor, then a cheerleader, and then a follower of the new pastor.
- A plurality of elders can be a wonderful help to minimize the inevitable personality change that comes from a transition of this nature.
- If there is a difficult situation that needs to be addressed, the long-term senior pastor must do it. It is cowardly and destructive to leave that to the next guy.
YOU WILL BE “OLD-WHAT’S-HIS-NAME”
This summer I took a mini-sabbatical and an uncharacteristic leave of absence from the pulpit for three Sundays. I was seated in my usual spot on the front row one of those Sunday mornings. At the conclusion of the service, one of the pastors invited some guests to meet Dave, the young guy who was preaching that morning, along with his wife. For over two decades the guests were always invited to meet me and Cathi. Now, in a matter of days, I was “Old-what’s-his-name.” I chuckled and thought, “Wow, that didn’t take long.”
The truth is, we are keeping the pulpit straight and true for the next guy. If he is faithful to the gospel, we will be “old-what’s-his-name,” and that is the way that it ought to be. If we care more about the church than we do about ourselves, we will work hard to ensure a smooth transition.
Therefore, even though I do not plan to change my role for another 13-15 years, I have already been discussing this openly with the elders for a couple of years. I have started to have other pastors preach a little bit more and have led the church into adopting a pastoral internship ministry so that we can help train from within the man who will replace me. Meanwhile, I have many years to prepare the congregation for the inevitable.
I do wonder if a long-term pastor has to leave the church that he has shepherded just because he is no longer in leadership. I would want the next guy to have all of the space that he needs to lead. If it would truly be for the better of the church that I serve, I must be willing to leave. However, I sure would miss these people and do not want to imagine life without them.
Bob Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.
The fifth and final reason we don’t disciple has been bubbling underneath everything I’ve written so far: our churches are too often ashamed of the gospel and therefore assume the gospel.
Not long ago, I was invited to speak at a church near London. Numbers had been dropping, so the church was going to significant lengths to attract young people. They’d added another service at a more convenient time, they were getting in guest speakers from all over the country, they were spending money on marketing, and they had paid a worship band to come from 100 miles away.
I got chatting to a delightful congregation member about the reasons for their flagging, elderly attendance. “This may be a sensitive question,” I said, “but how’s the preaching of the gospel going?” His response came with a knowing and faintly embarrassed smile. “Well,” he said, “we have to give people what they want.”
It brought to mind the words of Martin Lloyd-Jones: “If we cannot preach the church full [with the gospel], let them stay empty.” Why? Because a church that is made full by methodology, marketing, or music is not a church that is full of disciples.
It’s true that these things may bring short-term, numerical increase. But, as Mark Dever writes:
…the growth that we find talked of and urged and prayed for in the New Testament isn’t simply numerical growth. If your church is more crowded with people now than it was a few years ago, does that mean that yours is a healthy church? Not necessarily. (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 201-202)
“Growth” without the regular, faithful teaching of the gospel is growth without depth. Ocean-wide and puddle-deep. If we want depth as well as breadth, there’s no substitute for gospel-saturated preaching and conversation.
One final point. There is a danger that even self-proclaimed “gospel-hearted” or “gospel-centered” churches keep the gospel so close to the heart, so close to the center, that it is actually hidden.
We may name-check Jesus, mention “the gospel,” and quote God’s Word. But we may never get as far as actually reminding each other who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us. Fatally, we may assume the gospel instead of actually proclaiming it.
I hope it’s just me, but I’ve seen this again and again in churches which identify themselves as Bible-believing and evangelical. On a recent vacation in Wales, I had the privilege of joining a small group of believers huddled in a large and ornate congregational church. The welcome was warm and almost apologetic: “We don’t seem to get many young people these days, I’m afraid.” The pastor spoke from 1 Timothy 3 about the deceitfulness of wealth. What was said was faithful. But, oh, what was left unsaid.
D. A. Carson, writing in Basics for Believers, makes this sage observation:
In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. [My] colleague…Dr. Paul Hiebert…springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless. One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments. The following generation denied the gospel: the “entailments” became everything. Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.
This is not a subtle plea for … a gospel without social ramifications. We wisely reread the accounts of the Evangelical Awakening in England and the Great Awakening in America and the extraordinary ministries of Howell Harris, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, and others. We rightly remind ourselves how under God their converts led the fights to abolish slavery, reform the penal code, begin trade unions, transform prisons, and free children from serving in the mines. All of society was transformed because soundly converted men and women saw that life must be lived under God and in a manner pleasing to him.
But virtually without exception these men and women put the gospel first. They reveled in it, preached it, cherished Bible reading and exposition that was Christ-centered and gospel centered, and from that base moved out into the broader social agendas. In short, they put the gospel first, not least in their own aspirations. Not to see this priority means we are not more than a generation away from denying the gospel. (26-28, my emphasis)
If Carson’s observation is true, we not only have a responsibility to our current congregation, but also to future congregations.
In the 19th century, preacher Charles Spurgeon identified a similar issue:
I believe that those sermons which are fullest of Christ are the most likely to be blessed to the conversion of the hearers. Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the gospel. As for myself, brethren, I cannot preach anything else but Christ and His cross, for I know nothing else, and long ago, like the apostle Paul, I determined not to know anything else save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
People have often asked me, “What is the secret of your success?” I always answer that I have no other secret but this, that I have preached the gospel,—not about the gospel, but the gospel... (The Soul Winner, 35, my emphasis)
Brothers and sisters, in our discipling of others—whether from the pulpit, or in everyday conversation—are we merely assuming the gospel? Do we speak about the gospel without actually explaining what it is? Are we, functionally at least, ashamed of it?
The deep, wide discipleship we long for in our churches will only come when we stop assuming the gospel, and actually proclaim it.
Barry Cooper is the author or co-author of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, The Real Jesus, and If You Could Ask God One Question. He blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense and is helping to plant Trinity West Church in Shepherd's Bush, London.
Does the regulative principle demand exclusive psalmody?
I’d argue that the Psalms should be the backbone of the sung element of the church’s worship.
The Psalms are the word of God to man and the word of man in response. Fulfilled in Christ, Christ himself bases his message of grace upon them (Lk. 24:44-9). The Psalms are wide-ranging in content and immensely powerful. I almost always choose at least one Psalm for every service I plan.
But what about the argument that the sung element of church worship should consist exclusively of psalms?
This argument is based on a certain application of the regulative principle of Scripture, in which the principle is taken to mean that only what is explicitly commanded in Scripture is permitted. Since there is no explicit command to sing uninspired songs, the thinking goes, church worship must not include them. How does this position address the distinction between psalms and two other forms of music in Paul’s command to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18)? These three words are understood either as a reference to three parts of the Psalter, or as a hendiadys, where two or more expressions are used to mean one thing.
However, where in Scripture do we find an explicit requirement that churches must only do what is explicitly commanded? If Scripture requires explicit support for worship practices, we must assume it propounds the principle explicitly. Where in Scripture is the church explicitly commanded to sing from the book of Psalms and only the Psalms? What about hymnic passages in both the Old Testament and the New? Why are doxologies and other expressions of praise to be found in Scripture apart from the book of Psalms?
I’d argue that this Psalms-only principle simply isn’t found in Scripture, and that the argument in its favour also rests on a misguided interpretation of the regulative principle. Let’s examine that second point first.
CLARIFYING THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE
In order to clarify what the regulative principle does and doesn’t mean, let’s consider the Westminster Assembly’s classical statement of it, as well as the historical context of that statement.
The Westminster Assembly’s View of the Regulative Principle.
The regulative principle of worship is found in WCF 21:1. The relevant portion reads:
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
This must be assessed in terms of the Assembly’s doctrine of Scripture. In 1:6, the Confession states that the whole counsel of God is either set down explicitly in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence can be deduced from Scripture. The regulative principle, as expressed by the Assembly, does not reduce the Bible to a command manual whereby worship is to be shaped exclusively by explicit commands.
Historical Context of the Regulative Principle
The historical background in England significantly impacted the Assembly and its grasp of the regulative principle. Draconian regulations governed worship in the Church of England. Parliamentary legislation specified that all ministers were bound to use the services as written in The Book of Common Prayer. If a minister was convicted of willful disobedience by a court of law, he would forfeit all spiritual benefices and be imprisoned for six months. On a second offence, one year’s imprisonment was the penalty. For a third offence, he would suffer life imprisonment. If any person wrote or spoke against the Book, on a third offence he was to forfeit all goods and suffer life imprisonment.
Viewed in this context, WCF 21:1 is more liberating than restricting. Bound in its worship to the direction of the Word of God alone, the church is freed from the dictates of man, whether these are contrary to the Word or simply additional to it. The yoke of imposition is lifted!
Practice of the Reformed Churches to 1643
While the Confession refers to the singing of Psalms in 21:5, is this prescriptive of what is required or descriptive of what was currently practised? If the former, how are we to understand what the Assembly meant by “Psalms”?
Nick Needham has shown that the Assembly’s understanding of “psalms” was wider than the Psalms of David. Other songs were commonly accepted in Reformed church worship, although the Psalms were the main diet. He finds support from Richard Baxter, Zwingli and Bullinger, Calvin, and the French, German, and Dutch Reformed churches. The English Protestants in Geneva were not opposed to singing other Scriptural passages in worship, while the standard English Psalter by Sternhold and Hopkins contained a considerably greater number of non-Davidic songs and was definitive until 1696. While in Scotland, exclusive psalm singing was the rule, before the Assembly the Scots used the Gloria patri.
The upshot of all this is that the classical statement of the regulative principle in the Westminster Confession does not restrict corporate singing to the Psalms. Nor was exclusive psalmody the practice of Reformed churches across Europe at that time.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST EXCLUSIVE PSALMNODY
So that’s some historical perspective. Here now are two more direct biblical and theological arguments against exclusive psalmody.
The Scope of Revelation
First, the Psalms do not explicitly reflect the full range of trinitarian revelation: neither the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session of Christ, nor the gift of the Spirit to the church. It is strange that a principle requiring explicit biblical support for worship practices should require those practices to refer to the central truths of biblical revelation only implicitly. For this reason, if no other, the Psalms cannot be the sole diet of the church. If they were, that would truncate its worship and producing an imbalance in its theology.
What Exclusive Psalmody Forbids and Requires
Further, if you’ll allow me a reductio ad absurdum, consider what exclusive psalmody forbids and requires. Exclusive psalmody forbids the church to sing “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,” “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” However, it is explicitly commanded to sing “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” and Psalm 109:6-20 with its outpouring of curses and vituperation.
STILL, BETTER ALL PSALMS THAN ALL CHORUSES
So, in sum, I would argue that churches are not required to sing Psalms exclusively. However, if it’s a choice between exclusive psalmody and contemporary worship choruses, exclusive psalmody is a far better option.
Recent worship trends have given evangelical churches unbalanced content, appalling music, and often erroneous sentiments. The linear nature of Judaeo-Christian psalmody and hymnody has been replaced by cyclical repetition. In comparison, despite its untenable claims, I would far rather have exclusive psalmody.
Robert Letham (PhD University of Aberdeen), a Presbyterian minister of 25 years pastoral experience, is Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology.
Rob Rienow addresses two serious, common problems in his helpfully brief book, Reclaiming the Sufficiency of Scripture. The first is that too few people and churches believe the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The second is that too many people and churches say they believe it but fail to practice it.
Rienow’s survey of church history and contemporary practice adequately defines and illustrates both problems. His reminders of the deceptiveness of the human heart demonstrate the folly underlying our assumption that we can improve on biblical truth and methods. His reflections on relevant biblical passages construct a positive alternative that I would love to be able to recommend to pastors and lay leaders.
Unfortunately, I cannot. Though the foundation of Rienow’s work is commendable, its weaknesses are significant enough that the book will either be unpersuasive or create new problems. Rienow’s proposal will create those new problems because it simply doesn’t take into account enough of the biblical data.
Click here to continue reading.
You know how the apostle Paul sometimes boasted about his churches (see 2 Cor. 9:2; 2 Thes. 1:4; cf. Phil. 2:16). Will you let me boast for just a moment?
This morning I caught the bus and then the subway which take me to the office. Sarah, a member of the church, shared the same commute. Along the way, she told me about the work she and her husband did over the weekend caring for a homeless woman. They housed her for a night. They took her to collect her things from a troublesome man's house. They talked gospel throughout.
Stepping out of the subway, I stepped into a coffee shop for a scheduled meeting with Jason. Jason proceeded to tell me about he's been sharing the gospel with two co-workers. One of them has been coming to our church recently, and is grateful for how patient Jason is with him. The other co-worker hasn't taken that step yet, but he's interested, too. Jason and I then talked about how we could better love our wives.
Arriving at work, I found an email from Drew to me and several other brothers. In the email Drew shared about his quiet time this morning in Hebrews 11 and several George Herbert poems and how they had encouraged his "poor dejected soul" (a Herbert phrase).
Just another morning in the life of my church--and, I trust, in many other churches around the globe. This is the new normal for the saints. We pour out our lives for the downtrodden. We share the gospel. We make ourselves vulnerable in our relationships. What non-Christian, in the first two hours of his morning, gets to experience three life-giving conversations like these? Three testimonies of God's transforming grace?
Okay, it's really the Lord I'm boasting in (2 Cor. 10:7; Phil. 3:3). Can you not see how he is transforming our churches into the new humanity?! How he is turning our congregations into embassies of light?! Persevere, brother pastors. And give him praise for the supernatural work he has already begun to do in your congregation. We'll all get there together, and celebrate one day soon!
Follow Jonathan on Twitter.
One Sunday after our church service, the senior pastor extended his hand to greet my dad, one of his fellow elders. Yanking his hand away, my dad jetted past him. I sometimes question why God let that instance from six years ago sear my memory. Frankly, I don’t know.
But I do know that like this memory, God used my dad’s excommunication for good. I hope this testimony shows that. I hope it encourages churches to not shirk what God requires for their good and, most importantly, for his name’s sake (see Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5).
I suspect many pastors fear obeying Jesus’ command in this area because they dread the strife that could result. Judging by what happened with my dad and the reactions from my church, my family and myself, I understand that fear. But I hope this testimony will help you overturn that fear and embrace faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands.
I love my dad. Though I’ll reference hard memories, I won’t dwell on his sin here.
Given problems in my family at the time, some church members questioned if my dad should still serve as an elder (see 1 Tim. 3:4). He eventually left the church because he didn’t think these charges were properly handled. Refusing to reconcile with my church and my family, my dad, one of our church’s longest-serving and most-beloved elders, was eventually excommunicated.
The church was split over my dad's discipline. Some members argued that it was right, some argued it was wrong, and others ranged between these two ends. Disunity struck my family, too. Some of us were confused, others angry. As life went on, God brought my siblings to different schools and places. With some of them went resentment for the church and the situation.
I—the baby among five children—was confused. I had no idea what excommunication was. I blamed it for splitting my family and my church. To me, church discipline wasn’t just cold, harsh and unexpected: it was disastrous. It was an iceberg; my family and my church were the Titanic.
A DISASTER REDEEMED
Years have now passed, and today I can tell you that the church made the right decision. I can also tell you some ways God used the decision for good.
Through my dad’s discipline, my local church protected Christ’s name for its members and the watching world.
Through my dad’s discipline, God drew most of my family members closer to himself.
Through my dad’s discipline, my desire to pastor a local church continues to grow.
MY LOCAL CHURCH: ALL HANDS ON DECK
Church discipline is painful. Though I’m tempted to stew on the negatives, I’m humbled when I reflect on how the church came together to support my family during this time. Because we were church members, we were a part of the church’s family; we were one body. Though not always perfectly timed or expressed, church members did their best to love my family. They mourned with my mother and prayed for our family—including my dad. Though my family and my church were sinking, all hands were on deck.
This unity through suffering matched the picture Paul paints of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:26. Even though this painting looked messy when it began, it’s turning out masterfully. Indeed, church discipline drove this church to her master, Christ, for refuge. My dad’s sin spread division through the church like cancer. God’s corrective surgery—which in this case was formal church discipline—removed that spreading division. As with any surgery, wounds ran deep and scars remain. But ultimately that local body, now healed and strengthened, better displays God’s holiness, love, and name.
God didn’t only bless my church family through my dad’s discipline. An example from my biological family shows that.
MY FAMILY: REPENTANT & REJECTING
Through my dad’s discipline, God matured the godly women and men in my family. They now share a stronger love for God and his church. By bringing them through this trial, God allowed most of my family members’ faiths to be proved genuine. He let them experience the ministry of the churches they currently submit to. He taught them to trust his faithfulness.
One of my sisters told me how she felt about my dad’s discipline for a couple of years after the fact. With her eyes locked on mine, she said, “Isaac, I was mad at God, and I hated the church.”
Yet in his goodness, God led her to repentance by bringing her to another healthy local church. At first, she felt as though she could not trust any church, and though she joined, she kept a wrongful distance from the church. But for years that congregation rallied, spurring her on in the faith, just as Hebrews 10:24 calls us to.
Where she once saw judgment in the local church, my sister now sees redemption. She now serves that church as a deaconess. How good is the Father who took his church-hating daughter, used the church to restore her trust in the church, and now has her serving this church so that through it the gospel may more brightly shine.
I wish I could say my dad’s discipline led to all of my family members’ salvation, but that’s not the case. Some of them still feel wounded by the church because they do not see what it did as loving. Instead of praising God for what happened, they mistakenly blame and reject his church. They seem far from God.
But he remains faithful, and my own desire testifies to that truth.
MY DESIRE: A RIGHT REFLECTION
God used this discipline to show me that elders are precious gifts to local churches. In the few years after the discipline, God led me to godly men in other healthy local churches. These men taught me the value of the gospel and the dire importance of rightly representing it corporately and individually. Using my dad’s failures in church leadership, God showed me the immense potential an elder has to either reflect or deface Christ’s love for the church. Having seen it defaced, I hope that I—by God’s grace—will rightly reflect Christ’s love and humility. I hope I will always have elders surrounding me who do the same.
A BETTER SEARING
I opened with a memory that seared my brain. But it’s a different searing that my dad and I enjoy now. Every month, we grub at a seafood joint. We love seared shrimp.
This past month, we talked about reconciling with the church. Now we’re studying through Scripture together to see what this should look like. Though it’s just a step in the right direction, how can I doubt our God’s faithfulness at this point?
Isaac Adams, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, works as Administrative Assistant for Together for the Gospel and CROSS conference. You can follow him on twitter.