A few weeks ago I had coffee with several friends to read Scripture and pray for each other. At one point, one of the guys opened up about a sin he’d been fighting that week. I was thankful for his honesty, but concerned about him having a cavalier attitude toward sin. So I warned him about the seriousness of the sin and pressed him on what he was going to do about it.
Later that afternoon, another friend who observed our interaction called me out for being harsh and legalistic. As I thought about it, I realized he was right. Instead of trusting God and pointing him to the gospel, I took matters into my own hands. My takeaway from that experience? Fighting sin, and helping others do the same, is never easy.
“There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.” These words were penned by John Owen over 300 years ago, but they remain true today. Killing sin doesn’t happen by trying harder; nor can we do it on our own with a self-help manual. It’s only when we, by faith, are united to Christ in his death and resurrection that the Spirit sets us free from sin’s bondage so that we are able to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
Jonathan Dodson understands this well. In his own struggle as a disciple of Jesus, there have been times he’s fallen into the legalism ditch on one hand and the license ditch on the other. Gospel Centered Discipleship is an accessible book that weaves together the author’s own experience and theological reflections to help the reader avoid both ditches as they seek to follow Jesus and help others do the same.
Click here to continue reading.
Check out our newest audio release: The State of the Southern Baptist Convention with Mark Dever, Danny Akin, Al Mohler, and David Platt.
This is a rountable discussion on the past, present, and future of the SBC. It was recorded at the first 9Marks at 9 event at the SBC a couple weeks ago.
What was the conservative resurgence? Why should anyone bother coming to the SBC? As seminary presidents, are Mohler and Akin competitors?
9Marks: How long have you, an American, been living in an overseas context?
Ed Roberts: I spent one year in Latin America and 19 years or so in Asia, mostly Central Asia.
9M: Can you generically describe the kind of places you've been living in?
ER: In Latin America, I lived in a huge city and also in a small village at the end of the paved road, literally. A kind of syncretistic Catholicism seemed to be the main religion with a growing Protestant minority, even in the villages.
In Central Asia, I've lived in one huge city (untold millions), one large city (4 million) and a smaller city of ½ million inhabitants. Multiple languages were spoken in one city where Islam had gone underground for 2 to 3 generations and the religious scene was mostly folk Islamic with some Sufistic influence. People were technically literate in one language but basically not good readers in any language.
In another city, all speak one language. Almost all (95%) profess Islam but religious practice and adherence to Islamic dress and customs varies greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Official and unofficial persecution of followers of Jesus and particularly leaders (including imprisonment) is the norm in one city, whereas in the two other cities, there are a few small churches meeting publicly, though without official legal status. The percentage of Christians in these Central Asian cities is less than 0.1%, or less than 1 per 1000 citizens.
As part of my work, I also interact regularly with workers from a wide variety of contexts in Central Asia where there are zero churches and only a handful of believers, if that.
9Marks: 9Marks has been thinking lately about the sufficiency of Scripture for church leaders in planting and growing their churches. So how important has this topic of contextualization been for you in your work?
ER: It's been an essential part of my work. Every time we try to communicate the gospel or plant a church we have already been involved in the task of contextualization. And in cross-cultural contexts one has to contextualize well or people will misunderstand what you are saying.
Contextualization is a complex process, but here’s a simple definition:
(Cross-cultural) Contextualization is the attempt to learn and listen carefully to culture(s) and so communicate clearly the message of the gospel and who Jesus Christ is and what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus in a context different from that of the Bible and/or that of the communicator.
Since we all contextualize, we might as well try to do it well! Or at least have the right goals in mind. Here are some suggestions for good cross-cultural contextualization:
1. Realize that our goal in contextualizing should always be to clarify the gospel and biblical doctrine. Our goal must not be to make others comfortable with Christianity or the Bible. It’s not to minimize persecution by minimizing the offense of the cross. And we do not want to confuse our culture with the gospel. We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord (2 Cor. 4:1-6).
2. Realize that all cultures are fallen and in need of transformation. Yet because of God's goodness and the image of God in all people, not every feature of a culture is evil and hostile to the gospel. Every culture will offer both barriers and bridges to the gospel. Learning and listening to a culture helps us identify which is which.
In Acts, we see how first-century Judaism contained bridges and barriers to the gospel. In Paul and John's writings, we see how common concepts could be a bridge to communicate the gospel, while certain pagan terms were barriers and had to be torn down and rebuilt with Christian meaning. Yahweh adapted certain elements of ancient Near Eastern treaty culture. David, too, adapted current poetic devices and filled them with godly content.
3. Realize that as the gospel message takes root in a particular culture it simultaneously confronts fallen aspects of that culture and the gospel messengers themselves. This is true for local churches also. Scripture is always confronting and challenging us in our local church communities, calling us to greater faithfulness to the Word.
4. Realize that we have to be patient in cross-cultural pioneer church planting. We will make mistakes. The first churches in a pioneer setting will need time and encouragement to become healthy. We have to teach and train. And we have to trust the local believers and the Holy Spirit at work in them. It is Christ's church, not ours.
5. Realize that we are all prone to confuse our application of biblical doctrine with the biblical teaching itself. In other words, the goal of cross-cultural contextualization involves the attempt to communicate biblical truth clearly while allowing believers of a different culture to apply or communicate the truth in ways different and even odd to us.
For example, we might think that a church that doesn't keep a membership list cannot be serious about membership. Well, perhaps. But perhaps there are only ten people in that local church and everyone knows one another very well, and knows who is a baptized insider welcome at the Table, and who is not. Do they have a list written out on paper? Who cares! They practice biblical membership!
9Marks: Where would you draw the line between wise and unwise contextualization?
Wise contextualizers embrace biblical goals for contextualization. They are humble and astute interpreters of culture, but they always start with Scripture and return to Scripture. Wise contextualizers are engaged in a kind of hermeneutical dance. They read, hear, and obey the Scriptures. They are increasingly aware of and adjusting (discarding?) their own cultural lenses so that they see the biblical truths more clearly. And they listen to the local context so that they may communicate and apply those truths more and more clearly. Wise contextualizers are not afraid to say, “I was wrong about that. This is what Scripture says—or doesn't say. And I didn't see that before.”
Unwise contextualizers operate independently. They disdain or ignore any cautionary questions from people outside their immediate context: “You don’t know these people like I do!” They don't listen to church history. Unwise contextualizers start with local context and culture rather than Scripture and its context. They listen well to the local culture and context, but do not hear the Scriptures as well.
Unwise contextualizers never seem to get around to confronting or challenging a culture with God's Word. Instead, they take all their cues from the culture. They only answer questions that the culture is already asking. But the Bible answers some questions that cultures may not naturally ask.
It can be difficult to draw that line between unwise and wise contextualization from afar because we often don't understand what people in a foreign culture mean when they do or say certain things. Here's a provocative example:
You are traveling in Central Asia and are introduced to a bearded man wearing flowing beige clothing and sandals. He speaks a little English. You have been told that he is a Christian, a former Muslim believer. His English is broken but you do catch him saying, “I love going to the mosque!”
Aha! One of those Insider Movement syncretists! But what the brother means is that he visits the mosque regularly to meet his friends and share the gospel with them. He never visits the mosque during the time of daily prayers and never performs the ritual prayers. He is part of a small church that meets in homes on Sunday nights. He tells others that Jesus is Lord, and that Islamic religion is not compatible with following Jesus as Lord. And for now at least, he is still welcome to chat and visit with his friends in the mosque.
An outsider who didn't take time to ask and probe might call that unwise contextualization. Or if we don't understand that mosques function like social gathering places, information centers, and even hostels in Muslim areas, we may think that every visit to a mosque is a religious observance. It is not.
9Marks: How does the topic of contextualization relate to the doctrine of Scripture's sufficiency?
ER: The Scriptures are sufficient to teach us everything we need to know about cross-cultural discipleship, but they do not address exhaustively every question that may arise in cross-cultural communication. Contextualization deals with culturally specific and often very local details that the Scriptures were not designed to address. The Scriptures do provide principles and doctrines that inform and control all of our life circumstances.
The Scriptures provide all the universal constants for the process of contextualization. But the particular application of those constants requires prayerful learning and dialogue in community. And we don't always get it right!
A proper understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture also helps cultural outsiders guard against imposing culturally specific details that are not inherent in the biblical truth or doctrine. So if Scripture is sufficient, then we won't insist that others have or not have membership lists, have or not have people walk the aisle, or insist that they stand and teach behind pulpits for not less than 45 minutes. We will insist that Jesus the Lord requires our full and exclusive religious allegiance, and that being a follower of Jesus precludes participating in any rival religious community.
9Marks: Now, I want you to be honest here. Does a "9Marks model" work in your context? What contextualizing adjustments need to be made? And if adjustments do need to be made, does that mean 9Marks is not so biblical after all?
ER: First, if contextualizing adjustments have to be made in applying a model cross-culturally, that does not mean the model is not biblical. The “nine marks” do not exhaust what the Bible says about healthy churches, but they are helpful core essentials.
I am very thankful for 9Marks and its emphases! As I understand it, 9Marks was itself initially designed to challenge unhealthy aspects of church culture in the West, particularly in the USA. So starting with Scripture, 9Marks has been a contextualized approach to applying scriptural practices in order to encourage more healthy church life. Healthy churches are also what we aim to plant here in Central Asia, but the context is sometimes very different.
9Marks’ model needs less adjustment in cultures that are literate and already have churches going and pastors pastoring and deacons deaconing and staffs staffing and so on. It works better in a place where there is very little persecution and considerable freedom of religious expression and assembly. I say this because the model arose within a very literate culture that gives space to the establishment and marketing of institutions and organizations.
Institutions and institutional churches are a good thing in many ways, but in Central Asia, we often don't have that freedom or opportunity, at least not yet. That doesn't mean the nine marks don't work in Central Asia. It does mean that the how of implementing the nine marks in Central Asia may require some adjustment.
For example, take a dirt-poor bi-vocational pastor with limited or no English and only one book in his house. How he can learn to preach expositionally or learn biblical theology? The answer is going to be different in some ways than it is for an urban full-time international pastor who speaks English and has internet access. Of course some advice is identical: read and re-read the text in context; pray the text into your own life first; and so on. And both individuals may end up doing very good jobs of teaching expositionally. But it may look different.
How do you teach “expositional sermon preparation and delivery” in a setting that doesn't yet have a complete Bible in translation, or has only the Bible and no other resources, or whose overseers have only a couple of hours a week to prepare for teaching, and who have precious few, if any, models of good teaching to observe? They might be easily discouraged by our answers to the how question if we answer only from our own resource-rich experience.
We all tend to replicate the methods that were useful to us in our training. We all have a tendency to view our application of the core as the core itself. But if your goal is to communicate a 9Marks model of “expositional sermon preparation and delivery” in a cross-cultural setting, you need to be aware of these temptations and make adjustments.
Another example: 9Marks teaches that churches should aspire to plural eldership with biblically qualified elders, and elders should be “able to teach.” But what that will look like will very from culture to culture, just as teaching methods and approaches will vary.
Or consider how churches should cultivate a culture of discipleship. 9Marks says this this is absolutely essential and biblical for healthy churches. I think that’s right, but how to do that and how to create that will vary across cultures, even though some aspects do not change. In Washington DC, discipleship might occur through reading a book with someone one. But that will not work so well in cultures where one-on-one conversations are extremely rare—and people don’t often read.
We all make mistakes in contextualization. But an important first step is recognizing the need for doing contextualization well, which means growing in our cultural self-awareness.
Wise contextualization works hard at communicating what's the biblical core and what’s up for grabs. The 9Marks answers to the how questions all communicate well with minimal adjustment in some contexts that are culturally similar, even in Central Asia. Urban, cosmopolitan areas where English is the lingua franca, or where international churches can afford full-time pastors and staff, reflect much less cultural distance to the USA than some places in Central Asia.
In cross-cultural settings, it is very difficult to know how to communicate clearly if we have not first listened and learned from those with whom we are trying to communicate. So if 9Marks wants to really make a lasting difference in cross-cultural settings where the church doesn’t exist, or where the culture is very different, it will need to be very intentional in how it approaches cross-cultural discipleship.
If the 9Marks model is in theory adjustable for these kind of culturally specific situations, and I think it is, then bravo! My hope is this: that diverse but biblically acceptable examples of how to apply the 9Marks model be repeatedly communicated in cross-cultural settings.
Ed Roberts has been planting churches in Central Asia for nearly twenty years.
I had been a pastor for just a few months when a faithful church member sought me out to discuss the use of media in the services. He had led previous pastors to incorporate video and sound clips, and he wanted to be of help to me. He started off with a question kind of like this:
“So, what do you think about movie clips in the services?”
“Well, I really hadn’t planned on using media in the services.”
“Really? I’ve been involved in worship for quite some time, and it’s a pretty effective way to communicate.”
“Yeah, I don’t doubt that. But I’m afraid it might distract people from the heart of the service, the singing, preaching, and praying of the Word.”
“I wouldn’t think of it as a distraction, more of an addition, it makes the whole service better.”
“You might be right, but I really want our focus to be on the power of God’s Word to engage and excite us, so I’m going to stay away from movie clips.”
That’s about how the conversation ended. We were two grown men who both love the Lord but with different viewpoints on what would most honor God and be helpful to this local church. If you were in my shoes, how would you have answered his question?
Over the years, I’ve been asked to weigh in on many such issues related to our Sunday morning service.
Should we have Independence Day bunting? I said no, after figuring out what bunting is.
Christmas decorations? I said yes.
Dramatic Scripture readings? No.
A children’s choir? Yes, a couple times a year.
A collection box in the foyer? No.
Movie clips? See above.
As you can probably tell from these examples, I came to an established church with its own customs and traditions. If you are planting a church, I suppose you are more likely to be asked your opinion on incense, an art gallery in the foyer, and cutting edge or even secular music.
I’m less concerned that you reach the same conclusion I have on any of these examples. What I do want you to realize is that Scripture is not silent about corporate worship.
FIVE GUIDELINES FOR MAKING GODLY DECISIONS
The regulative principle helps me answer these kinds of questions. The regulative principle says that Scripture regulates what is permissible to do in public worship. And those who hold the regulative principle will approach each question carefully, asking not merely “What will God allow?” but also “What does God prefer?”
The following five guidelines, rooted in the regulative principle, have helped me to address which practices appropriately honor God and help his people in our weekly gatherings.
1. Corporate Worship Is Word-Centered.
First, corporate worship is Word-centered. After Paul told Timothy of Scripture’s power to change lives (2 Tim. 3:16-17) he offered this simple exhortation: “preach the word” (4:2). My most important pastoral duty is to lay Scripture before my church, confidently knowing that the Spirit can apply it to people’s lives and produce spiritual maturity.
A Christian gathering should not be merely “biblical” in some general, abstract sense. It should be so saturated with Scripture that it is obvious to everyone that we believe God works powerfully through his Word, as we preach the Word, sing the Word, and pray the Word. I don’t want to endorse anything that will distract us from Scripture.
2. Corporate Worship Is Gospel-Centered.
Second, corporate worship is gospel-centered. Paul boasted in the fact that he preached Christ: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). To proclaim Christ means to unveil the gospel before the church. A dull saw can’t cut down a tree, and a gospel-less service can’t produce spiritual maturity. Corporate worship should lead every participant to revel in the accomplishment of Christ for sinners.
3. Corporate Worship Is Congregational.
Third, corporate worship is congregational. Once again, Paul gives clear instructions: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:18-19). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). I’m struck by the congregational nature of these commands. We, the church, are commanded to sing songs to “one another.” It reminds me of how the first chair violinist in an orchestra plays not only for the audience, but for the other violinists, and how the others listen to the first chair. So members of the congregation minister to one another throughout a church service, even as they pray and sing to God
4. Corporate Worship Is for the Church.
Fourth, corporate worship is for the church. Let’s face it, there’s a serious difference of opinion today about the primary purpose of a church’s corporate gathering, and that’s going to affect how you structure your service. Many churches stress that they exist for non-Christians. They tailor their music (secular) and their messages (short) to appeal to the lost.
Other churches, like mine, recognize that they will often have unbelieving visitors, but they focus on equipping the saints to reach the lost. And I believe we see the latter approach in Scripture. New Testament churches focused on edifying the body (1 Cor. 14:12, 14, 26), building unity in the body (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and encouraging members of the body (Heb. 10:24-25).
As someone leading our services, I try to make non-Christians feel welcome by explaining to them what’s happening throughout our time together, by addressing potential objections to Christianity in the sermon, and by winsomely and clearly sharing the gospel.
Nonetheless, when I think about what we should do when we gather as a church, I’m not fundamentally concerned with attracting unbelievers. The church gathered is to honor God by edifying the body of Christ. The church scattered is to honor God by evangelizing the lost.
5. Corporate Worship Is Led.
Fifth, corporate worship is led. Elders should shepherd under God’s authority without domineering over the flock (1 Pet. 5:2-3). Congregations should follow them, striving to make their jobs easier (Heb. 13:17).
What a gift godly leadership is (Eph. 4:8ff.)!
I’m thankful to lead with a body of elders who see our corporate worship service as part of the teaching ministry of the church. We know that the decisions we make may not always be popular. Some want a choir. Others want contemporary music. A decision must be made.
It is important, therefore, to find godly men who can think through what is most honoring to the Lord and most edifying to the congregation, and then to trust them to lead accordingly.
FIVE TEST CASES
It’s time to crawl into the batting cage to see a few of the pitches that might come our way.
1. Is it appropriate to have visual arts, like skits, in a morning worship service?
In the best-case scenario, a skit is a dramatization of a scriptural passage. In the worst-case scenario, it is a shameless attempt to grab the congregation’s attention. I would treat the latter like nuclear waste—don’t get near it! As for the former, I’m open but cautious.
The danger is that dramatizing a passage pulls the rug out from under the plain power of the spoken Word. Ravi Zacharias made a statement I’ll never forget: “In the beginning was the Word, not the video.” Congregations should rely upon the spoken Word because God has always used his Word to build his people and grow his church—this is obvious from Genesis to Revelation.
2. What about baby dedications?
Once a year, our church recognizes new parents during the Sunday morning service. As a church, we want to encourage parenthood and pray for the salvation of these little ones. Nonetheless, because corporate worship is congregational, we also ask the members of the church to publicly promise to hold these parents accountable to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
3. How much should we recognize cultural holidays like the Fourth of July?
I approach this question with the conviction that our gatherings are for the church, and the church consists of believers with one thing in common: salvation by faith in Christ alone. Therefore, I don’t plan services around cultural themes. Though I’m sure to thank God for religious liberty on the Fourth, and though I always pray for moms on Mother’s Day, I don’t lead us to have a Fourth of July or Mother’s Day service.
4. Should a congregation recite creeds together?
There are many good reasons to incorporate orthodox statements of faith and church covenants into our public services. They remind us that God has been at work for centuries, making his Word clear. And in a world where truth is considered relative, it’s helpful for congregations to go against the grain and publicly unite around biblical teaching.
If creeds are incorporated into a corporate worship service, it has do be done in such a way that the authority of the Bible is emphasized. A service leader might say something like, “This morning, we want to confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, joining with Christians throughout the centuries who have understood the Bible to teach that Jesus is, and always has been, God.”
5. Should we have multiple services divided by musical preference?
For example, should we have an early morning “traditional” service, mid-morning “contemporary” service, and late-morning “modern” service? Leaving the ecclesiological question of multiple services aside, I do have concerns about the prudence of dividing the congregation based upon musical preference. A gospel-centered service should bring believers together. If we are willing to divide over the style of music, what does that say about the power of the gospel to unite us? My fear is that it says the gospel is not enough.
FOR OUR GOOD, WE’RE NOT FREE
Not everyone is going to like how I swing at these pitches, and that’s okay. The nitty-gritty details of church life and corporate worship will undoubtedly vary from context to context and church to church. Those who hold to the regulative principle will undoubtedly disagree over some of the details.
Yet we need to keep in mind that we are not free to do whatever we want, whatever works, or whatever the people ask us to do. For our good, God has given us parameters. Corporate worship is to be Word-centered, gospel-centered, congregational, for the church, and led.
Aaron Menikoff is the senior pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
Encouragement for Today’s Pastors is meant for troubled and discouraged pastors. Hebrews 13:17 tells us to learn from the examples of faithful ministers, and Joel Beeke and Terry Slachter use the seventeenth-century Puritans as their exemplars.
They cover six different aspects of the Puritans’ theology and pastoral practice that we can learn from: piety, sovereignty, clarity, creativity and community, dignity, and eternity.
The book begins with the problem: pastors are leaving their churches because of the countless pressures on them. This includes self-imposed pressures, pressures from the congregation, and spiritual pressures. “Fifteen hundred pastors leave their churches each month due to conflict, burnout, or moral failure” (1).
Although the Puritans are not perfect, they provide good examples which pastors can imitate. As the authors say, “though this book is intended to strengthen the mind, it aims at ways in which the Puritans can strengthen the heart” (14).
Beeke is known as a go-to writer on the Puritans. In this book he summarizes and consolidates pastoral reflections on their ministries and lives, pulling out significant quotes to illustrate his points. The authors do not focus on one Puritan particularly, but employ many of them to tie different themes together.
Click here to continue reading.
A friend of mine was recently asked to take charge of the childcare ministry of her ethnic church. This ministry had long frustrated her, so she saw this as a great opportunity to implement reform. She decided to send out a survey to the church to see what areas of improvement were most needed. She was surprised by the response: The English-speaking congregation responded with all the same criticisms and frustration that she felt. However, the immigrant congregation responded with glowing reviews and positive feedback for that ministry. Change was not going to be as easy as she had hoped.
As many of our communities grow increasingly diverse, it should not be surprising that the same diversity is being reflected in our churches. As the gospel is preached to all, it is powerful to bring together those who otherwise have nothing in common. And yet, having brought these people into a church, how are we to pursue unity among such diversity? What does leadership in a culturally diverse context look like? These are the sorts of questions that Mark Lau Branson and Juan Martinez attempt to answer in Churches, Cultures & Leadership.
This book is split up into three parts. The first is “Theology and Context.” It engages the Bible’s teaching on the importance of diversity and culture. The second part, “Sociocultural Perspectives,” gives a number of different categories for understanding cultural differences. The third part, “Leadership, Communication and Change,” describes how to lead a church to and through greater diversity.
Click here to continue reading.
As Bible-believing Christians, we insist that everything we do be based on the Bible. And yet I’ll bet that of the decisions you made today, 99 percent of them were not direct applications of Scripture, but were pragmatic in nature. What color should you paint the church? Should you have lunch with Joe or with Tim? What words will best serve your wife when you walk through the door?
Does that make us hypocrites? No: one of the greatest gifts each of us has received from our creator—and for which we will one day give account—is our minds. “Pragmatism” can refer to an anti-supernatural philosophy, but it can also be just another word for “wise judgment,” which is commended in Scripture in the strongest terms. And with poor judgment, it is quite possible to root what we do in the Scriptures and still fail to serve God well.
If we decide that to be biblical means we must never be pragmatic, we are essentially rejecting the role of wisdom in the Christian life. And that’s just not how God has ordained things to be. He has given in his Word everything we need for faith and practice. But working these things out will often require a good deal of sanctified judgment. Or, to use that other word, a good deal of biblical pragmatism.
So how can we steward our pragmatism well? I think in two ways: (1) when we are pragmatic, we should ensure our pragmatism is biblical; and (2) we rightly discern when the Bible expects us to use wise judgment, and when we are commanded to simply trust and obey.
HOW DO WE MAKE OUR PRAGMATISM BIBLICAL?
First, how do we make our pragmatism biblical?
Pragmatism is not a problem until it begins to replace instructions that God has already given us. As a friend of mine puts it, we often approach decisions like we approach an empty whiteboard, entirely dependent on our good judgment to chart a path forward. But if we know our Bibles we know that there is already writing on that whiteboard, especially when it comes to leading a local church. God has given us guidance both about what we should do and how we should do it.
So how do we make sure that we don’t ignore what God has already written? Here are three ideas for you:
1. Examine Your Goals in Light of the Scriptures
First, examine your goals in light of the Scriptures. Wrongly pragmatic thinking often begins when we take a good and maybe even a biblical goal and use it to displace another biblical goal.
Let’s say you are a youth pastor who feels a biblical burden for your youth to hear and believe the gospel, but it is not happening through the families in your church. So you build your youth ministry to provide “full service discipleship”—from evangelism to biblical instruction to fellowship to mentoring.
This is a good goal, even a biblical one. The problem is that the Bible has another goal that you have ignored: Ephesians 6 implies that families, not youth ministries, are to be the primary disciplers of children. So in essence, your youth ministry is an elaborate system to help families evade their God-given responsibilities.
If you had thought more carefully about the biblical goal of a youth ministry—to assist families in discipling their children—you would have designed it very differently. And then all your good pragmatic thinking would have been aimed at a better goal.
One way we can help our pragmatism to be biblical is to think carefully about whether we are basing our goals on Scripture’s goals.
2. Explore How Specific Scripture Is—Whether Explicitly or Implicitly—about How you Do Things as a Church
Second, explore how specific Scripture is—whether explicitly or implicitly—about how you do things as a church.
If Scripture was utterly explicit that replacing the sermon with interpretive dance is evil (“Thou shalt not…”) then I hope we wouldn’t have much debate on this point. But the problem is that while some Christians see this as an obvious implication of biblical teaching, others aren’t sure that the Bible says much about what we do in our weekly gatherings.
So how do we determine how specifically Scripture speaks to our ministry methods? How do we know when God has already written something on the whiteboard? Obviously, we should become careful students of Scripture. But in addition to that, we can make use of disagreements with other Christians to pressure-test our thinking regarding how specific Scripture really is.
For example, not being a fundamentalist, I profited significantly by listening to a 9Marks interview on “Fundamentalism and Separation” with Mark Minnick, pastor and professor at Bob Jones University. Having had little exposure to principled fundamentalism, I was surprised at how carefully Dr. Minnick argued from Ephesians 5:7 (“do not be partners with them”) for what he termed the “doctrine of separation”: a biblical prohibition against partnering in any way with those who themselves partner with those who compromise the gospel. I’ll admit I wasn’t finally convinced by his argument. But hearing a brother defend the principle from Scripture has sharpened my thinking significantly as I lead my own church to partner with others.
So search out Christian friends or authors who see more binding principles in Scripture than you do, who see more black and white than shades of gray, who defend decisions from Scripture that you think are purely pragmatic. They will help pressure-test your own understanding of how precise Scripture is in its prescriptions—which will make your pragmatism more biblical.
3. Work from What Is Clear in Scripture to What Is Less Clear
Third, work from what is clear in Scripture to what is less clear. Sometimes we look at an impending decision, fail to see a corresponding command in Scripture, and decide the Bible has nothing to say about it. This is foolish. The Bible is not silent on your decision simply because it doesn’t speak to it directly.
Take a young man considering how to conduct his dating relationship. “Dating” doesn’t have an entry in his concordance—nor does “courtship.” So other than making sure he and his girlfriend don’t have sex outside of marriage, is there anything else in the Bible they need to pay attention to? How many conversations I have had like this as a pastor! What the Bible is clear about is marriage—which is the hoped-for destination for every dating relationship. And to be sure, Scripture’s clear guidance on within marriage (gender roles, imagery of Christ, communication, etc.) have many implications for dating.
When you’re struggling with a decision that is more specific than Scripture’s clear teaching, it is important to keep in mind the situation closest to yours where Scripture is clear.
DISCERN THE LINE BETWEEN COMMAND AND JUDGMENT
But being a good steward of pragmatism goes beyond simply making our pragmatism more biblical. We must also avoid making Scripture more absolute than it intends to be. In other words, we must discover the line between a direct biblical command and sanctified judgment.
For example, Hebrews 10:25 tells us to not give up the habit of meeting together. Does that mean that we excommunicate a brother in the military because his job takes him away from Christian fellowship for several months? Wouldn’t that be a clear implication of this passage of Scripture? To say “no” to this admittedly absurd question clearly depends on some level of pragmatic reasoning—on sanctified judgment.
Yet pragmatism, unbridled, can also lead too far.
So how do we discern where direct Bible application ends and judgment begins? Here are three suggestions for you.
1. Pay Attention to Context—Including Genre
First, pay attention to context—including genre. How many young married couples have argued themselves silly late into the night in an attempt to obey Paul’s command in Ephesians 4:26, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry?” Sometimes you need to simply get to a good stopping point, get some sleep, and then reconvene your discussion when rested minds can remove the heat from the argument.
Paul offers this statement in Ephesians 4 in the form of a proverb: something that’s generally true but that requires judgment to apply. That is clearly different from a categorical command, like “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14).
2. Carefully Determine when a Scriptural Example Is Normative.
Second, carefully determine when a scriptural example is normative. Very often, the way Scripture speaks to a situation—especially regarding how we conduct church life—is not through direct imperatives but through example.
In these cases, determining what is unique to a first century situation and what is normative for us today can be challenging. For example, I would argue that the biblical model is for churches to have multiple elders—because that’s the example I see in the New Testament. And yet I don’t insist on baking one massive loaf of bread for our church of 1,000 people to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, even though 1 Corinthians 10:17 seems to assume the idea of a single loaf in the Corinthian church.
How can we make sense of all of this? Because Jesus promised that his Holy Spirit would guide the apostles “into all truth” (John 16:13), we must believe that we can learn from what they did in addition to what they taught. Here are some questions to help you improve your application of biblical examples.
First, how consistent is an example across Scripture? For example, plural leadership in the local church shows up all through the New Testament, which gives us confidence that it is intended to apply to our churches as well as those first congregations.
Second, does the example you’re looking at affect the essence of the thing in question? For example, some Christians baptize immediately, as soon as a person converts. But I would argue that the speed of baptism is not essential to what baptism is. A few days or weeks of conversation about a convert’s understanding of the gospel doesn’t change what baptism is. And, in fact, that elapsed time can protect us from wrongly baptizing someone who hasn’t actually come to faith—which would make baptism into something it isn’t. On the other hand, it’s entirely appropriate to argue from scriptural example regarding whether we should baptize infants—because whether or not the person being baptized currently professes faith does change the essence of what baptism is.
Third, do you see any clear counter-examples in Scripture? Take the “one loaf” example of 1 Corinthians 10:17 that I referenced earlier. One might argue that “one loaf” is essential to what the Lord’s Supper is, because it symbolizes our unity in Christ. And yet we see evidence that the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem shared the Lord’s Supper together (Acts 2:42), which would have been impossible to do with a single loaf of bread and more than 3,000 Christians. So it’s safe to assume that Paul’s “one loaf” language is not normative across all churches.
THE WAR, NOT THE BATTLE
A final component of biblical pragmatism is patience. Focus on winning the war, not the battle. Even when Scripture is clear on what goal we should pursue, pragmatic patience in getting there can be wise.
For example, perhaps you’ve been convinced that the right practice of church discipline is an essential part of what it means to be a church—and your church doesn’t practice church discipline. As a result, you’re confused by an article on the 9Marks website entitled “‘Don’t Do It!’ Why You Shouldn’t Practice Church Discipline.”
Is 9Marks advocating that we disobey Scripture? The point of the article is that the goal of church discipline is the purity of the local church—and if we destroy the church in the process, we’re not accomplishing anything of value. It’s like killing the patient to cure him of cancer. Far better to teach patiently about church discipline until the church is ready for this step—so you end up with a church that is pure and alive.
To be sure, one could abusively apply this principle so as to completely jettison Scripture in favor of mere pragmatism. And there are times when a principle is so clear and important that it’s worth splitting a church over. But generally, we should keep the long view in mind.
Here are a few guidelines for when pragmatic patience may be wiser than a principled “hill to die on”:
- When a principle stems more from biblical example than clear biblical imperative, one should generally lean more toward pragmatic patience.
- When a principle depends more on an implication of the gospel and not the heart of the gospel, one should generally lean more toward pragmatic patience.
- When one has a clear plan to move toward greater biblical faithfulness, one can have more confidence that exercising patience is being wise and not lazy.
Some of us have far too strong a confidence in our own judgment, ignoring Scripture while we pursue what is “wise in our own eyes.” Others flee their responsibility for exercising judgment in favor of cut and dried “rules” because they fear that relying on judgment may lead toward unbiblical pragmatism. As is so often the case, we must understand which error we are most prone to, and we should work with other brothers and sisters to chart a course that is both faithful and wise.
Jamie Dunlop is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
It’s tough to imagine a society more fixated on sermons than colonial New England. And few sermons were more likely to be published and purchased than the type historians came to call the “jeremiad.”
Perry Miller first coined the term because of how often these glum sermons used texts from prophecies of doom like those in Jeremiah. Jeremiads were typically inspired by some natural calamity, impending war, or perceived decline in purity and devotion of an earlier generation. They evoked the terms of a special covenant and warned of disaster unless the people would repent.
In some ways, John Dickerson’s recent book fits comfortably into this venerable American genre, as one might assume given its title: The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare. Dickerson, a journalist-turned-pastor of a thriving Arizona congregation, believes evangelicalism in America is teetering on the edge of collapse unless believers wake up and change course. And he attempts to provide a “bold” and “fresh” program for reclaiming vitality (18).
These are dramatic claims, claims I'm not convinced are fully justified. But the questions are worth asking: Is American evangelicalism declining? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
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“They don’t teach you that in seminary.” Pastors, and especially younger ones, are all-too-used to receiving that admonition from their more seasoned co-laborers. Of course, it’s true: seminary can only give you so much. It might give you Greek, but it won’t tell you what to say to a couple whose infant just died. Seminary might tune all five senses for heresy-detection, but it won’t teach you how to run a rowdy member’s meeting.
Theology is only the beginning. Yes, pastors have to rightly divide God’s Word. But shouldn’t they also know how to navigate their way through the streets of practical ministry?
Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn think so, and they’ve written What Every Pastor Should Know to help. Stocked with 101 brief “rules of thumb” helpfully divided into 15 categories, What Every Pastor Should Know is an attempt at a brief encyclopedia of all things related to practical ministry leadership—from birthing small groups to planning the appropriate number of restrooms in your worship center. All the stuff they don’t teach you in seminary.
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The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture lies at the heart of what it means to be a Protestant. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism share much in common in terms of basic theology, such as a commitment to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. When it comes to matters of authority, however, there are major divergences. One of these is on the matter of Scripture: is Scripture sufficient as an authority for the church or not?
Scriptural sufficiency is, of course, a doctrine that stands in positive connection to a number of other theological convictions, such as inerrancy, the extent of the canon, and the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. All of these help to shape our understanding of sufficiency but are beyond the scope of this brief article. Thus, I will focus on the doctrine as generally understood by those who accept the Protestant confessional consensus on these matters, as reflected in the Second London Confession, the Three Forms of Unity, and the Westminster Standards.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT SCRIPTURE IS SUFFICIENT?
We do of course need to parse what we mean when we say that Scripture is sufficient. If my car breaks down or I am trying to work out who committed the crime in a particularly complex whodunit, I will not find the answer in the Bible. Nor will I find discussion of the human genome, the rules of cricket, or the wing markings of North American butterflies. In fact, the scope of Scripture’s sufficiency is neatly summarized in Question 3 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 3. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A. The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
In other words, the Scriptures are sufficient for a specific task: they reveal who God is, who man is in relation to him, and how that relationship is to be articulated in terms of worship.
Even with this definition, however, we need to be precise concerning the nature of this sufficiency. In some areas, the Scriptures are sufficient for teaching principles but not for providing specific details. For example, while they clearly teach that the church should gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, they do not specify precise times and locations. Neither my local congregation nor the time of our services are mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. Scriptural sufficiency is not jeopardized by this lack; Scripture was never intended to speak with precision to such local details.
The last observation is perhaps obvious. A more subtle point about scriptural sufficiency can be deduced from Paul’s pastoral epistles. When Paul writes these, he is laying out his blueprint for the post-apostolic church. It is thus significant that he does not simply tell Timothy and Titus to make sure there are copies of the Bible available to the church. If Scripture in and of itself were sufficient to maintaining the truth of the faith, surely that is all he would need to have done. Instead, he not only emphasizes the importance of Scripture but also says that there is a need for officers (elders and deacons) and for adherence to a form of sound words (a tradition of creedal teaching). So to say that Scripture is sufficient for the church is not to say that it is the only thing necessary. Officers and creeds/confessions/statements of faith (agreed forms of sound words) also seem to be a basic part of Paul’s vision for the post-apostolic church.
Given these factors, there is a sense in which we might say that Protestants believe in the insufficiency of Scripture: we acknowledge that Scripture is insufficient for many of the details of everyday life, such as motorcycle maintenance and cooking curries. It is even insufficient for the day-to-day running and good health of the church: we need elders, deacons and forms of sound words. What it is sufficient for, however, is for regulating the doctrinal content of the Christian faith and the life of the church at a principial level. That is Paul’s point in 2 Timothy 3:16. In other words, to speak of scriptural sufficiency is one way of speaking about the unique authority of Scripture in the life of the church and the believer as the authoritative and sufficient source for the principles of faith and practice.
WHAT IS SCRIPTURE SUFFICIENT FOR?
We can elaborate this. First, Scripture is sufficient as the noetic ground of knowledge of God. This means that all theological affirmations are to be consistent with the teaching of Scripture. The statement “God is Trinity” is found nowhere in the Bible; but its conceptual content is there; that is why it should be affirmed by all Christians. By contrast, “Mary was conceived without original sin” is not a concept found anywhere in Scripture. Roman Catholics who affirm the notion thereby reveal their view that Scripture is not sufficient as the noetic basis for theology, but needs to be supplemented by the teaching magisterium of the church.
Second, Scripture is sufficient for Christian practice. At the level of behavior, Scripture offers principles which guide believers in their day to day lives. This can be a complicated area: the advent of Christ demands that the Old Testament law codes be read in the light of his person and work, and this issue is beyond the immediate scope of this short piece. But the principle of sufficiency is clear: given the redemptive-historical dynamic, Scripture provides fully adequate and sufficient general principles which can be applied in specific ethical situations. For example, the Bible may not reference stem cell research, but it contains principles that should shape our attitudes to such.
Third, at the level of the church as an institution, Scripture is again sufficient for the principles of both organization and public worship. In terms of organization, I have already noted the fact that Paul sees both office-bearers and creeds/confessions as vital to the ongoing health of the church. As to office-bearers, Scripture also describes the kind of men who are to be appointed. As to creeds, my first point above—that Scripture is sufficient as the norming norm of the content of doctrinal statement—is clearly relevant.
Fourth, in terms of public worship, Scripture is sufficient for establishing its elements: singing of praise, prayer, the reading and preaching of God’s Word, the giving of tithes and offerings for the work of the church, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. As with creeds, Scripture is also sufficient to regulate the agenda and content of sermons, worship songs, prayers, what the money is spent on, who is baptized, and who receives the Lord’s Supper.
In short, one can tell a lot about how a particular church understands scriptural sufficiency by looking at her form of government, the content and emphases of corporate worship, and the way in which the elders pastor the congregation.
Carl Trueman is Paul Wolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, and is the pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania.