Book Review: Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church, by Donald S. Whitney
Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church: Participating Fully in the Body of Christ. Moody Publishers, 1996. 207 pages.
“Every pastor I know eventually preaches this sermon.”
He said it almost as a side comment in our conversation, but my ears were immediately riveted to the sentence that followed: “God desires more for his people to worship him congregationally than personally.”
My pastor-friend was referencing a semi-famous (or infamous, depending on how you see it) sermon by Puritan pastor David Clarkson. Clarkson was John Owens’ assistant minister near the end of his life and succeeded Owen in the church where he served. On one occasion during his ministry, Clarkson preached a sermon on Psalm 87:2: “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.” His main point, which was captured by my pastor-friend in his comment, was “public worship is to be much preferred over private.”
Now, to be clear, Clarkson was not arguing for one over the other. We know from other places in Scripture that the quality of our congregational worship is affected in large measure by the personal worship of the individual members who gather. Colossians 3:16 says we are to teach and sing to one another with thankfulness in our hearts to God. Such thoughtful thankfulness doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It requires intentionality. It comes from “letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly” throughout the week (3:16), which happens by setting our minds continually on Christ (3:1-4), putting sin to death (3:5-11), and pursuing holiness (3:12-15).
With that said, Clarkson’s point is important. Whether or not you agree with the exegesis that gives rise to his premise, we must not imbibe the belief that our pursuit of God is exclusively (or even mainly) an individual pursuit.
Spiritual Disciplines Are Ecclesiastical Disciplines.
One of the books that brought the necessity of an individual’s pursuit of God to the forefront was Don Whitney’s book, Spiritual Disciples for the Christian Life. In his book, Whitney gives Christians guidance on how to pursue a life of devotion to Christ through the ordinary means of grace: the Word, prayer, fasting, etc.
However, in writing this book, Whitney also recognized the consumeristic tendencies of culture invading the Christian’s engagement with the church. He was aware his book might produce an inappropriate application, namely that Christians would think they don’t need the church to live the Christian life. And so a follow-up book was in order. That book is Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church. In the introduction, Whitney writes:
Spirituality is seldom considered in the context of the church body. But the personal spiritual disciplines are not intended to make us spiritually self-absorbed evangelical monks. The church is a community in which Christians are to live and experience much of their Christianity. Too many believers isolate themselves from life with the family of God, deceived by the notion that “me and Jesus” are all they need in order to be all that God wants them to become and to savor all He has for them (13-14).
And, so—for 13 chapters—Whitney supplies the reader with spiritual disciplines for within the church and why such disciplines are essential to a true pursuit of God.
Ecclesiastical Disciplines Are Relational Disciplines.
Whitney walks the reader through the disciplines of gathering with the church, baptism, membership, listening to preaching, worship, witnessing, serving, giving, praying, learning, and more to illustrate how one cannot “obey everything that [Jesus] has commanded them” (Matt. 28:19) without the church.
In chapter after chapter, Whitney shows us what it looks like to pursue the person of Christ in and with the body of Christ.
- Regarding the need to pray with the church, Whitney writes: “If you long for more of the blessing of God upon the preaching of the Scriptures and the ministry of your church, and for more of God’s grace on your own life, then meet with your fellow believers and pray for it” (175).
- Regarding the need to learn with the church, he writes: “None of us has all insight, all understanding, or all spiritual gifts. As a result, many of the terms, doctrines, meanings, and applications of Scripture may remain indecipherable without the ‘codebreakers’ God has provided in the church” (186).
- Regarding the need to witness with the church, he writes: “We need to recover the evangelistic power of loving relationships. Ask yourself, ‘How can I be part of a group showing unity and love in ways that non-Christians can see?’” (100).
Simply put: we can’t be devoted to Christ without being devoted to his church because God hasn’t made every path to seek him an individual path. Whitney writes, “If you can miss church and not miss church, then something is absent from your heart and faith” (18).
Relational Disciplines Are Essential Disciplines.
In the end, Whitney agrees with Clarkson.
- “In ways that He does not do when we worship Him alone, God blesses us with strength, instruction, and encouragement when we come together at church to worship Him” (25).
- “God delights in the devotion of every individual and in each moment of private worship, but we ascribe greater glory to Him when we join our hearts and voices together in a symphony of worship” (78).
- “Congregational worship is more edifying to you and others than solo worship. . . God can be experienced in church worship in ways that He cannot in solitary worship” (83).
Do you agree? Do the people in your church agree? If not, it might be time to buy several copies of Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church and hand them out to members of your congregation. Perhaps create a Tuesday morning reading group where you gather for breakfast with members of your church once every week or two to discuss and apply. Or use the book in a Sunday School class, covering one chapter each week over the course of a 13-week quarter. This book would also make a great supplemental book to give away to all incoming members of a new membership class.
As my pastor-friend told me, “Every pastor I know eventually preaches this sermon.” Whether that actually happens or not, I can tell you for certain that every Christian I know would benefit from eventually reading this book.