Why Church Membership

As mentioned in the previous blog, God visits and dwells with His people in a special way within your local church. However, our anti-institutional age has convinced us that we can piece together all of what we need from the local church through 21st century technological advances. Consider the number of ways in which technology can replace the elements of worship at any local church

  • If you want to sing as a form of worship to God, then you can listen to your favorite Christian artists on your phone. If you like traditional hymns and sacred music, you can listen to RefNet or Lutheran Public Radio or any number of other stations.

  • If you want to hear preaching, then you can click on SermonAudio.com, SermonIndex.net, or listen to any number of your favorite preachers on their ministry page.

  • If you want to have fellowship, you can join a local community group or join an online forum of likeminded individuals

  • If you want to hear pastoral prayer, you can read The Valley of Vision or read excerpts from The Book of Common Prayer

  • If you want to receive the sacraments, you can receive “drive-through communion” at certain locations.

If you are tech savvy enough, then you can, in essence, piece together your own liturgy. Moreover, these technological advantages give the impression that you can enjoy the benefits of church while ignoring its inevitable drama. While there are providential hindrances that may require some Christians to use these alternative resources outside the church temporarily, the reality is that much of this arise from a more sinister motive. In many cases, the “church-a-la-carte” mentality comes from a heart that rejects authority. Mark Dever has helpful words to address this mentality

It would seem that rejecting authority, as so many in our day do, is shortsighted and self-destructive. A world without authority is a world were desires have no restraints, cars have no controls, intersections have no traffic lights, games have no rules, lovers have no covenants, organizations have no purpose, homes have no parents, and people have no God. Such a world might last for a little while, but how quickly it would become pointless, then cruel, and finally tragic.

Regardless of how our culture views authority, the difference between what people call “community” and what the Scriptures calls the “church” comes down to the question of authority. In an attempt to escape this reality, many have simply walked away from the institutional local church. However, the New Testament clearly established that the governing authority of Christians belongs to the local church (cf. Matthew 16:13-20; 18:15-20; Hebrews 13:7,17; 1 Peter 5:1-5).

The local church is not just a fellowship of friends; in the local church, we are committed to another in a covenant/vow of membership. This is why participating in the life of your local church is mandatory. We are held accountable to each other through the vows that we take at membership and through the oversight of our elders. This is why gathering together with Christian friends does not provide the same level of genuine accountability as a true church. As a governing institution, the local church preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments, and exercises oversight and discipline to all of its members.

However, the cultural milieu in which we live provides Christians with a multitude of excuses for their lack of commitment to the local church. Some stay away from the local church because they are afraid of getting hurt (or being hurt again). While we must never minimize the pain that many have felt within local churches, a good dose of honesty is needed. Pain is never an excuse for disobedience to God’s Word. The local church was created for our sanctification and God’s glory, not for your convenience. Furthermore, if you are united to Christ, then He has given you spiritual gifts that are designed for the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10). Therefore, staying away from the local church means that you are burying the gifts that God has given you in the ground rather than using it for the sake of the local church (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).

Some stay away from the local church because they believe that most pastors are crooked. This is perhaps the most pervasive lie that our culture constantly promotes and it is the lie that most people believe about the church. First, we are told explicitly in Scripture that false teachers will arise (cf. Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 2 Peter 2:1-3) and therefore, we are told to be discerning. More importantly, the reality is that most pastors (within our country and around the world) labor with diligence and godly integrity in relative obscurity with congregations of less than 100 people. These pastors will never receive media spotlight because they are performing the basic task of the ministry. These are men who do not come with flattering speech, nor with a pretext for greed, nor by way of deceit, but these are men who have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:3-7). Dear Christian, have you believed Satan’s lie that there are only a few good pastors doing their job?

The local church is not just a group of believers at a park; it preaches the gospel and possesses the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing through the ordinances (cf. Matthew 16:17-19). This means that it is the task of the local church who declares who does and does not belong to kingdom. This statement grinds against our modern sensibilities, but a question must be raised: if you refuse to be part of a local church, how do you know that you’re saved? If you have walked away from the local church, then who’s inspecting the fruit of your life? Gathering a few friends at the park and “doing life together” is no substitute for the objective evidence which is biblical church membership.

The Beauty of the Local Church

When considering the role of the church in our lives, it’s always important to consider the age in which we live. As discussed in the previous blog, I believe that it is self-evident that we live in a deeply anti-authoritarian age. Outside the church, this is often observed within national politics where disrespect and irreverence towards government officials has become commonplace. Within the church, this anti-authoritarianism rears its head in our skepticism for the church. In other words, the anti-authoritarian culture outside of the church has produced an anti-institutional and anti-polity culture within the church.

There are a large number of trends which have conspired together to produce this culture. Mark Dever provides a useful list

  • Since the dawn of the seventeenth-century Enlightenment, the Western mind has been trained to doubt all external authorities.

  • Since the middle of the nineteenth century, scholars in theology departments of elite European universities have assumed that the churches of the New Testament were in a state of flux, their polities were inconsistent, and they offer no normative model for today. And when biblical norms vanish, pragmatism steps into the void.

  • Church leaders in the twentieth century, therefore, found themselves enticed and eventually intoxicated by the methods of the booming American marketplace.

  • Beginning in the 1950s, the so-called neoevangelicals separated themselves from their separatist and fundamentalist parents by establishing their own seminaries, magazines, evangelism organizations, publishing houses, and other parachurch institutions.

We can also add other modern influences such as the Internet, social media, and MP3 sermons-on-demand, but the net result is that we have inherited a significant amount of historical baggage that has trained us to view the institutional church with a matter of indifference. It’s tempting to start this series by blaming crooked prosperity preachers, CEO-style megapreachers, and fundamentalism for the trends that we see, but that would be nothing more than blame shifting. It’s best to look at ourselves in the mirror first.

Lord’s Day Worship

The Lord called me to Himself about 16 years ago in an old-fashioned tent revival when I was in high-school. I was born and raised in a Pentecostal background in which my individual religious experience (which was called the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”) was prized above all others so it should not be surprising that this was the essential lens in which I viewed Christianity during my younger days. All of my spiritual disciplines were geared towards obtaining this experience, including corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. In those days, I didn’t consider myself as a member of the covenant community that gathered together to worship our Triune God; rather, I saw Lord’s Day worship as the best time to have my personal experience with Jesus.

Over the course of my young life, I’ve realized that although very few individuals would assent to the core tents of Pentecostalism, I’ve learned that many Christians have adopted this basic idea of seeking their “personal Jesus”. This has led to two polarizing and unbiblical responses to Lord’s Day worship: the first is to neglect public worship since you can “meet Jesus” at home and the second is to use public worship to “get what you need for Jesus”. The writer to the Hebrews give us a beautiful picture of what goes on in public worship.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

Dear Christian, is this how you view the church? The church is called Mount Zion because it is beloved of God, chosen by Him, and is the place of His habitation. It is within the church that His word and ordinances are administered. It is within the church where He communes with His covenant people – not in a “personal Jesus” manner. Do you see the church as “the perfection of beauty and the joy of the whole earth”? The church is the city of the living God, which is built on Christ. As John Gill describes, the church is

… pleasantly situated by the river of God’s love, and by the still waters of Gospel ordinances; it is governed by wholesome laws, of Christ’s enacting, and is under proper officers, of his appointing; and is well guarded by watchmen, which he has set upon the walls of it; and it is endowed with many privileges, as access to God, freedom from condemnation, adoption, and a right to the heavenly inheritance.

The church is His building because He dwells, protects, and defends her. Hence, we are not just speaking about the church as an organism, but we are speaking of her as an institution.

Now, it’s important to understand what the writer to the Hebrews is specifically referring to. These words can be applied to the universal church, but his context is the local church. Yes… it is your local church that is place of His habitation; it is your local church in which we partake of ordinances and enjoy communion with Him. I must emphasize this because we have romanticized the universal church, while neglecting the local church. We have warm feelings in our heart concerning the church triumphant as seen throughout the book of Revelation, but that same raptured joy is not expressed towards our own local church today. Do you realize that your local church is the dwelling place of the Prince of Peace and is being encamped about by “myriads of angels”? When you gather with your local church, you are gathering also with “the spirits of the righteous” made perfect and at the table, you are communing with the risen Lord Jesus.

This is what actually occurs in the gathered worship of the local church, but our culturally-trained anti-institutional skepticism blinds us from seeing the glory of God’s local church. Until we love the local church and see her as she truly is, we will continue to drift away from her.

How Much Do You Need the Church?

leaving-arriving

To the reader of this blog, may I ask you some questions:

  • Do you love the church?
  • Do you believe that the church is still necessary or has the church become merely a convenience in your life?
  • Do you believe that church attendance is a necessary component of your sanctification?
  • Do you prize the local church or do you treat her like other commodities that you shop for?
  • Do you love your leaders or do you criticize them because they aren’t your favorite preachers?
  • Do you believe that you can gain more spiritual nourishment at home rather than at the local church?
  • Do you see the church as the bride of Christ purchased by His blood or is the church here merely to fit your agenda?
  • Does taking holiday vacations mean that you take vacations from the church?
  • Do you love the members of your local church or are they a burden to you?
  • Is corporate worship the high point of your week or do you treat it as part of your weekly to-do list?
  • Do you believe that sporadic church attendance harms your growth as a Christian?
  • Do you believe that you need pastors and elders who keep watch over your soul?
  • Have you blamed the church for the problems within our modern society?
  • Are you a “church shopper” because you are easily offended by the members of your local church?
  • Have you stopped praying for your local church and your elders?
  • Do you need a vacation from your local church in order to find God?
  • Do you love corporate worship on the Lord’s Day or is the gathered worship merely a “pick-me-up” for the week?
  • Have you stopped financially giving to the church because pastors are “crooked”?
  • Do you believe that you will eventually out-grow the need for the local church?
  • Do you merely endure the members of your local church so that you can get what you need from God on the Lord’s Day?
  • What is it about the church that you love?
  • Are you committed to the local church and its mission or are you seeking for a better deal?
  • Have you dismissed these questions because you believe that you aren’t the problem?

I’ve posed these questions not to bring shame, but to raise important heart issues. There have been wonderful books written that have expounded on the doctrine of the church and its importance in the life of the Christian. However, in spite of these works, many professing Christians continue to drift away from the local church and others reject the local church itself as a valid institution. George Barna’s research testifies to these contemporary attitudes towards the organized church. He writes that evangelicals

… are less interested in attending church than in being the church … [and] we found that there is a significant distinction in the minds of many people between the local church – with a small ‘c’ – and the universal Church – with a capital ‘C’. [They] tend to be more focused on being the Church … whether they participate in a [local] church or not.

This raises the question on whether one can actually love the universal church if they have ignored the local church. Barna goes on to write:

A common misconception … is that they are disengaging from God when they leave a local church. We found that while some people leave the local church and fall away from God altogether, there is a much larger segment of Americans who are currently leaving churches precisely because they want more of God in their life but cannot get what they need from a local church. They have decided to get serious about their faith by piecing together a more robust faith experience. Instead of going to church, they have chosen to be the Church, in a way that harkens back to the Church detailed in the Book of Acts.

Barna’s opinion seems to fit the ethos of our day because we live in a deeply anti-institutional and anti-authoritarian world that honestly believes that we can “piece together a more robust faith experience” outside the church. The purpose of this blog series is to challenge our understanding and commitment to the local church. This series will not be a scholarly exposition of the doctrine of the Church (since there are many good works on this topic), but it will be a series in which we search out our motives and uncover our hidden presuppositions regarding our view of the local church. If we aren’t careful and discerning regarding the influences within the age we live in, then even confessional Christians will gradually drift away from the local church.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part VII – 1 Corinthians 11

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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As mentioned in the previous blog, Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church in order to address several issues within the Church. We now move into a section in which Paul address an issue that directly intersects with our society today: gender and sexuality. Within the Church, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 has been discussed extensively and the text has been central to numerous debates (such as the egalitarian/complementarian debate and the debate regarding head coverings). However, this passage has much to teach us regarding the meaning of gender and the relationship between the sexes.

The Foundational Analogy

We begin with v. 2-3

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:2-3, NASB)

We begin with the first statement that Christ is the head of every man. This affirms the truth that since Christ is the Creator and Preserver of all men, he must therefore be the head (or master and ruler) of mankind. Christ is the head of all men in that all gifts are derived from him and as the Lord of the nations, all are subject to Him. Moreover, He is the head of all believers since he is the head of the Church. As John Gill writes:

Yea, he is a natural head, or is that to his church, as an human head is to an human body: he is a true and proper head, is of the same nature with his body, is in union to it, communicates life to it, is superior to it, and more excellent than it.

In an analogous way, the head of Christ is God. This is not a reference to the divine nature of Christ because they are one in nature and essence. However, as to the human nature of Christ and the office that He fulfills, Scripture is abundantly clear that Christ hoped in God, believed and trusted in Him, loved Him, and was obedient to Him, even to the point of death. Christ voluntarily performed these tasks as our Mediator and voluntarily submitted to the Father. Therefore, it is proper to say that God is the head of Christ, in His humanity as the Mediator.

The Interdependence of the Sexes

In an analogous way, Paul states that man is the head of woman. Just as God is the head of Christ and Christ is the head of mankind, so is man the head of the two sexes. Paul grounds this argument based not on the Fall, but based on the order of creation. Since the man was formed first (v. 7) and since the woman was made for the man (v. 8), this implies that man must be the head and chief of the mankind.

However, it’s important to note that this statement is an analogy, not an identity. In other words, although man is the head of the two sexes, his headship is not identical to the headship that Christ has over mankind or the headship that God has over Christ. This point should be emphasized in order to prevent the historical error of believing that women are essentially inferior to man in all matters (whether within the Church or within civil society). Man exercises his headship in ways that are analogous to Christ’s headship over mankind. As the head of the woman, man is to provide and care for her, to nourish and cherish her, and to protect and defend her against all insults and threats. Therefore, there is a sense of authority and rule within the context of headship, but the connotation of the term is properly attached to beneficent governance.

It’s also important to note that although man is the head of his own wife , both man and woman are dependent upon each other (v. 11-12). Consider the following commentary on this passage from 19th century pastor F.B. Meyer:

No soul is complete in itself. The man is not complete apart from Christ, as the woman is not complete apart from man… But it is very interesting to notice that while the Gospel so clearly insists on the divine order, it has elevated woman to be man’s true helpmeet, and has caused her to be honored and loved as the glory of man. Neither society, nor family life, nor woman herself, can be happy unless she attains her true position. On the one hand she finds her completion in man; on the other she is his queen and he ministers to her in all gentleness and tenderness and strength.

The Consequences

This statement is worth emphasizing because of the historical error of undervaluing women (within the Church and within civic society). Contrary to popular belief, it was the proclamation and spread of the gospel that liberated women and elevated their worth because it is God who defines and determines the purpose of His creation. Insofar as  we reject God’s intention for the creation both sexes as complements to each other, we diminish and devalue their value.

One of the evidences regarding the growing secularism of our society involves the confusion of God’s purpose for creation. In the 20th century, we saw the rise of early feminism with regards to the fight for woman’s suffrage; however, the influence of second wave and third wave feminism has brought the discussion of biblical sexuality to the steps of the American Church. It was the influence of the second wave feminism of the 1960s that began to associate the “subjugation of women” with broader critiques of patriarchy, normative heterosexuality, and the woman’s role as wife and mother. Furthermore, it was during the second wave of feminism in which sex and gender were differentiated from each other. In the 21st century, we are now in the position of observing the next evolution of third wave feminism. This current wave of feminism stepped onto the public stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization, and defining feminine beauty for themselves (not as object of male patriarchy). Whereas second wave feminism separated sex and gender, third-wave feminism has asserted that the very notion of gender discourages experimentation and creative thought. This has led to the commentary from many secular sources that we are creating a society of feminized men and masculine women.

 

Fortunately, the Word of God has not left us in the dark in addressing this issue. Throughout 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, Paul grounds his argument for headcoverings based on observable realities about the differences between man and woman. This means that Paul assumes that the Corinthian church understood that there are substantive differences between men and women (i.e. differences that extend beyond customs and cultures). Hence, in Paul’s mind, the audience of his letter already knew that sex and the modern concept of gender cannot be separated. Because God is the Creator, He alone has the prerogative to determine the purpose of His creation and this passage clearly teaches that woman was created for man (v. 9) and that woman is the crowning glory of man (v. 7). Hence, the modern idea of blurring the distinctions between men and women is a movement that is in rebellion against God’s original intention for woman to be the complementary pair of the human race.

Not only does God determine the original intention for woman and her relationship to her own husband , but He also determines feminine beauty. Consider Paul’s argument in v.13-15. Paul argues that special revelation is not needed to determine whether or not long hair is a woman’s glory. It is clear to all that long hair adorns a woman and is fitting for her sex. In modern terms, a woman’s biological features are consistent with her identity as a woman. This reiterates the point that it was never God’s intention to separate one’s sex (i.e. the biological construct) with one’s gender. Rather than seeing one’s biological makeup as a potential form of subjugation and oppression (which is becoming a common perspective among third wave feminists), God designed woman in such a way to fulfill her role as her husband’s  helpmeet and complement.

The Lord’s Supper

Paul concludes chapter 11 with a discussion of the Lord’s Supper. In this discussion, Paul gradually begins to return his readers to the discussion of love. He focuses the Corinthian church back on their attitudes toward one another, and he tells them yet again to stop being selfish. They were hosting love feasts but, ironically, they were not conducting them in a loving manner. As a result, Paul told them that they were partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Given that our present this section does not have any immediate implications for our study of Public Theology, we will not explore it further here.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part IV – Romans 13

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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As we round out our discussion of Romans note that, in our last three articles, we highlighted Paul’s desire to preach the gospel to the church at Rome. Paul’s mention of his desire in Romans 1:15-17 functions as the thesis statement of the letter:

So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith,’ (Romans 1:15-17; NASB).

In the first two articles on Romans, we noted four themes in this thesis statement: a gospel for the church, the gospel as God’s power unto salvation, salvation to all without distinction and how, in this way, God will save all His chosen people. These four major themes help us to understand why Paul takes both the first eight chapters of Romans explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ and the following three chapters explaining the relationship between Israel and the church. Since the thesis statement of Romans 1:15-17 sets the framework for all that follows, we are in our present study using it as the lens through which we examine the rest of the book of Romans. In our last article and this one, we are focusing on the theme from faith to faith. Last article, we examined what chapters 12 and 14-16 taught on the matter. This article will focus exclusively on on how the theme is addressed in Romans 13.

In  chapter 13, Paul turns  the church’s gaze to the government and encourages them to see it as a minister of God for justice. He does not tell them to take the government by the reigns and wield its sword for the cause of social justice. Rather, more radically, he encourages them to submit to the government in all things lawful.

Paul sets the context of this passage in the preceding chapter , which discusses the characteristics of a true Christian lived “from faith to faith.” In Chapter 12, Paul addresses how Christians should conduct themselves in society and in the Church. In this chapter, Paul continues to address the characteristics of a true Christian by discussing how a Christian should conduct themselves with respect to the governing authorities. Furthermore, it’s important to note to whom Paul is writing. He is addressing Christians who are living under the Roman Empire during the 1st century. In some sense, Paul is exhorting the Roman Christians to apply the precepts of Romans 12 to the governing authorities. Finally, it’s important to note that Romans 13 does not contain all of the Bible’s teaching on this topic nor does Romans 13 only speak about the Christian’s conduct in regards to the State.

On Submission to Governing Authorities

Paul opens Romans 13 with a very clear imperative:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2; NASB).

Paul did not write this as a suggestion for the believer; rather, it is a command to all Roman believers and it has application to all Christians at all times.  Paul grounds this command in the sovereignty of God. According to Paul, all authority is derived from God, and therefore, if an authority is in power, it is because God has instituted that authority. In other words, rebellion against authority is rebellion against the One who instituted the authority. Paul’s essential exhortation is that the default Christian position towards governing authorities is submission.

This is a point worth emphasizing because for many American Christians, the default Christian position is skepticism or contempt for authority. When many Christians read this passage, the instinctive response is to discuss the limits of governmental authority, rather than considering Paul’s first exhortation concerning our submission to authority. The Christian must submit to God’s authority because it is God Himself who instituted this authority (cf. Num. 12:1-16). Moreover, God does not establish an authority arbitrarily; rather He has a goal in mind and the Christian is called to humble himself before the Lord and His plans.

This posture of humility and submission not only applies to our response to the government;  it is also observed throughout  Scripture for other institutions in which God has established authority. Within the home, the wife is called to submit to her husband’s authority (cf. Ephesians 5:22) and children are called to obey their parents  (cf. Ephesians 6:1). Within the local church, members are called to submit to the authority of the elders (cf. 1 Peter 5:5; Hebrews 13:7, 17). Hence, Paul’s command concerning submission to the governing authorities is not unique to the government.  This command regards every institution that God has established. Just as it would be sinful and unacceptable for children to disobey their parents and wives to disrespect  their husbands, it is sinful for Christians to rebel against the authority that God has established in the government. Finally, it’s also important to note that Paul does not ground this command based on the worthiness of the authority figure. In other words, governments do not have to prove their worthiness before we agree to submit to them. A beautiful summary of the posture that Christians ought to have towards the government is expressed in the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 127:

Q: What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?

A: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

On the Exercise of Authority

In discussing the exercise of authority, Paul continues

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Rom. 13:3-5; NASB).

In this section, Paul describes the nature of governmental authority and how this authority is exercised. First, it should be noted that essential purpose of governmental authority is to punish evil. According to the above passage, the governing authorities are the means by which God punishes evildoers within society. In particular, it is through the governing authorities that fear is struck in the hearts of evildoers. It’s also important to note that this passage explicitly indicates that the government (not the Church or any other institution) wields the sword. This statement gives a very practical prescription for the purpose of government:  government must be a terror to bad conduct and plays an important role in the life of any given society.

This positive prescription tells us that those who hold positions in governing authority are responsible for carrying out their job description. The government’s essential duty is to initiate force against evildoers and to be an avenger against evildoers. This responsibility is not limited to theocratic Israel or a hypothetical Christian society, but it applies to all governing civil authorities that will ever exist. However, it should be noted that the wrath poured out on evildoers by the civil authority is punitive in nature. The purpose here is not to reconcile God and man (since God’s wrath against those who have offended Him is yet to come), but rather it is meant to bring restitution. Civil officials ought to be “devoted to this task” (13:6). It does not have the right to “wield the sword” towards good behavior nor do they have the right to permit bad conduct. This essential purpose of government was understood by previous generations and it gave rise to the rule of law within Western societies. The presence of fixed and respected laws in society (which commends good behavior and punishes bad behavior) tends to curb the actions and whims of tyrannical civil authorities who call evil “good” and good “evil”.

On the Support of Authority

From this job description, a question naturally arises. It is clear to all that there are different standards of good and bad behavior. We know that governing authorities will always wield the sword towards evildoers. What if the governing authorities create its own standards for good and evil, in contradiction to God’s Word? It is at this point in which Christians are best equipped to support the civil authority. First, because Christians are charged to maintain a humble and submissive posture towards the civil authority, this implies that Christians are charged to be good citizens, giving “tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear is due; honor to whom honor is due” (13:7). Second, because Christians are commanded to love their neighbor with words and deeds, this implies that Christians will “do no wrong to the neighbor” (13:10) and defend those who have been defrauded or wronged by evildoers.

Thirdly, because Christians possess the perfect standard of right and wrong (as expressed in the Scriptures) and have the moral law written about their heart, Christians are best equipped to inform civil authorities of their role and responsibility and society. This also suggests that God may use His children within the Church in order to serve their fellow man (and thus love their neighbor) by serving as a civil authority. However, it should be emphasized that when a Christian serves as a civil authority, he is not serving in an attempt to fulfill the Great Commission (which is a task given to the Church); he is fulfilling the Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (13:9)

Furthermore, because Christians are given the proper perspective on the role of government, Christians ought to be best equipped in providing checks and balances to the expansion of government power beyond its proper bounds. Just as it is possible for the local church to extend its influence beyond its proper bounds and engage in “mission creep”, it is also true that the government can also engage in “mission creep”. The civil authority is not given the charge to care for the poor, to educate its citizens, or to do a number of other things that is responsibility of families and individuals. We can say that a Christian’s submission to the government is unconditional yet limited to its proper bounds. It is only when the civil authority oversteps its bounds (by commanding what God forbids and forbidding what God requires) that the Christian can (and must) appeal to authority, confront authority, and, perhaps, flee from authority. In this way, Christians can engage with the civil authority without becoming the civil authority or without rebelling against the civil authority.

It should also be noted that, as Americans, we have both the privilege and responsibility of living within representative form of government. This form of government is a relatively modern concept and contrary to any form of government that is observed in Scripture. In particular, within our Constitution, citizens have the protected right to petition the government. Moreover, since we elect our officials (rather than having our civil authorities imposed upon us), we have a form of government in which the civil authorities answer to their citizens. Therefore, if we were to apply the precepts of this chapter to our current society, Christian citizens must know what are the essential responsibilities of civil magistrates . Just as civil authorities will be held responsible for fulfilling their job description, citizens will also answer to God for how they have chosen their civil authorities. Hence, American Christians, as members of the American ruling class, should provide a practice check on the influence of governing authorities first by respectfully confronting authority when it exceeds its proper domain and second by electing civil authorities who will fulfill their essential job descriptions.

Our Final Hope

Paul concludes Chapter 13 with an exhortation regarding the future hope of believers. Christians are called to conduct themselves in a godly manner with respect to the world and the civil authority because “salvation is nearer to us than when we believed” (13:11). In much of our discussion regarding the Christian’s engage with the culture, it’s important to never forget the ultimate end – our full and final salvation. The gospel is proclaimed, not only because we desire to see the evil of this present age curbed; rather, it is proclaimed because “the night is almost gone, and the day is near.” The day of our salvation as well as the day of eschatological judgment is near. We proclaim the gospel and engage with our culture and the civil authorities because we desire that they would know the salvation that has been purchased with Christ’s blood.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Ministry of Paul, Part II

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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In the previous blog, we began our discussion on the public theology of Paul in Acts by examining the events during Paul’s first and second missionary journeys. We observed how Paul confronted the idolatry present in various Gentile cities from Lystra to Athens. We also observed how Paul’s ministry of preaching not only affected the individual lives of converts, but it also affected social activities within various cities such as Philippi and Ephesus. The last quarter of the book of Acts deals with Paul’s journey from Jerusalem to Rome. Unlike his previous missionary journeys, Paul’s primary audience was not the crowds, but specific rulers themselves. This section gives us particular insight on how Paul interacted with authority and how Paul wisely took advantage of his Roman citizenship.

Paul Before the Roman Tribune and the Council

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21, he is quite aware that he is going to face hostility from the Jewish people. When he enters the temple, he addresses the Jewish crowd in the Hebrew language, explaining his testimony and how the Lord commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 22:1-20). Once Paul mentioned his calling to the Gentiles, the crowd stopped listening and shouted for his death. The Roman tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging to find out why they were shouting against him like this. At this point, Paul asked a question to the officer, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (22:25) Since Paul was a Jew (who was currently in a low station in life), the Roman officer questioned how he obtained so valuable a distinction; Paul told him that he was born a Roman citizen (22:28-29). Clearly, this is part of God’s wise providence. Paul’s status as a Roman citizen gives him privileges that many people did not have – namely he was exempted from all trials and punishments which might force him to confess himself guilty. Therefore, the Roman officer unbound him and brought Paul before the Sanhedrin.

Paul’s interaction with the Sanhedrin gives us insight into how one should interact with authority. When Paul addressed the Sanhedrin, the high priest commanded those who stood by to strike him on the mouth. Not knowing that he was addressing the high priest, Paul retorts in a very disrespectful way (22:3). Upon learning that he was addressing the high priest, Paul replies,” I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ” Paul receives a firm rebuke for addressing the high priest in a disrespectful manner and Paul accepts this correction. This scene illustrates that Paul’s natural disposition towards leadership (whether godly or ungodly) is that of submission. Thus, when Paul seeks to defend himself for the sake of the gospel, he does so not out of defiance to authority, but by appealing to authority.

Paul Before Governors and Kings

When Paul is brought before Felix at Caesarea, the Jews laid their case against Paul as “one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Giving due respect to Felix, Paul cheerfully makes his defense. He claims that no one found him disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd (24:12-13). Moreover, when Paul entered the temple, they found him purified in the temple without any crowd or tumult (24:17-19). After his defense, Felix gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody (with some liberty) in hopes that Paul would bribe Felix (24:26). In spite of this, it is said that Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” to Felix (24:25). In all, Felix left Paul in prison for two years.

When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Festus. As Paul is brought down to Caesarea, he continues to assert his rights as a Roman citizen by appealing to Caesar (25:6-12). After some days had passed since Paul’s appeal, King Agrippa greeted Festus and agreed to hear Paul’s case. Paul’s defense before Agrippa is an example of the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:17-20:

“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (ESV).

In his appeal, Paul tells of his conversion and preaches the gospel. This indicates that Paul’s primary intention is not his own integrity, but the proclamation of the Word. He states directly that he stands on trial “because of my hope in the promise made by God to our Fathers” (26:8; ESV) – namely the resurrection of Jesus. In explaining his conversion, he concluded that he was disobedient to the heavenly vision, but first declared to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles that “they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.”

After hearing Paul’s defense, Festus is convinced that Paul has lost his mind, whereas Agrippa is persuaded to hear more of his case. These events lead to Paul’s trip to Rome in which he can make his appeal directly to Caesar. The book of Acts concludes with the following words:

“He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30-31, ESV).

Concluding Thoughts

What conclusions can we derive from Paul’s interactions with Roman officials? The most important principle that we should derive concerns the principle of appealing to authority. Paul’s disposition towards authority is expressed well in The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 127:

Q. 127. What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?

A: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

In other words, men in authority ought to be given due honor and respect because of the position in which they hold. Thus, it would be considered sinful to stubbornly resist and to make any display that brings shame and dishonor to their person and authority. This is expressed well in The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 128:

Q. 128. What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?

A. The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government.

This answer implies that our first response to any authority in which we may disagree should be to appeal to authority, not to defy or rebel against it. Appealing to authority implies that we have certain rights as citizens and to appeal properly, we must persuasively take our case to the authorities. This concept of respecting and appealing to authority will be elaborated on in much more detail as we discuss the public theology found in the Pauline epistles.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Ministry of Paul, Part I

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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In the previous blog, we examined the public ministry of Peter and John in order to develop an understanding of the public theology presented in Acts. As most readers of this blog know, the primary figure in the narrative of Acts switches from Peter to Paul after Acts 13. In this blog, we will begin our discussion on the public theology of Paul as presented in Acts. In particular, we will focus on four events during Paul’s first and second missionary journeys.

Paul at Lystra

We begin by examining the events surrounding Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas. In Acts 14:8-18, Luke records the account of a lame man being healed by the hands of Paul (much like the healing of the lame beggar in Acts 3). However, the major difference between Acts 3 and Acts 14 was the audience. In Acts 3, Peter is largely addressing a Jewish audience who has the same essential worldview that he does; however, in this scene, Paul is addressing a Gentile audience whose worldview is thoroughly influenced by the religious pluralism of the Roman Empire. The miracle astounded the crowd and the crowd believed that Hermes and Zeus have appeared in the likeness of Paul and Barnabas, respectively (v. 11-12). This illustrates that the Lycaonians were not intellectual philosophers like the Athenians, Corinthians, or Romans. They were most likely simple villagers who gave a spontaneous instinctive response consistent with their adherence to Greek mythology and superstitions. Based on the belief of the crowd, the priest of Zeus brought animals to Paul and Barnabas (v. 13). As individuals who believed in strict monotheism, Barnabas and Paul found this to be blasphemous and idolatrous. Paul used this example of clear paganism and heathenism to preach to the crowds.

Paul directly confronts the Lycaonians by calling their gods, nothing more than vain idols (v. 15). Here, we see that the preaching of Christ directly conflicted with the religious worldview of the Lycaonians. In other words, Paul’s preaching confronts the idolatry of the Lycaonians and calls them to repentance. Instead of give obeisance to Zeus and the various other gods accepted in the Roman system, Paul calls them to turn to the living God – the Creator of all things (v. 15). Here, we see the general pattern of Paul’s message: the call to repentance and the call to faith in Christ.

Paul at Athens

Some readers may think that Paul’s approach to the Lycaonians is based upon the pretext that he is addressing a religiously primitive people, which would be very dissimilar to a 21st century post-Christian culture. When Paul enters Athens in Acts 17, he enters a city which is renowned for its learning, philosophy, and fine arts, which would be much more similar to our culture today. However, he also observes that the Athenians are functionally just as superstitious as the Lycaonians because the city was wholly given to idolatry and philosophical speculation. In other words, the Athenians fit the description of fallen man as described in Romans 1:22-23

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

As Paul observes the idolatry around him, his spirit was provoked within him, until he could not forbear to speak any longer (v. 16). He immediately begins to reason and debate with Jews, devout persons, philosophers, and all others who would hear him concerning Jesus and the resurrection (v. 17-18). When he was finally brought to the Areopagus, he now gets to opportunity to address the seat of the venerable supreme court of Athens.

First, he directly addresses their superstitions since they have an altar built to the “unknown god” (v. 22-23). Second, he proclaims to them the one, true living God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Third, he directly confronts their folly in believing that “the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (v. 29). In each of his points, Paul is directly assailing their worldview of the Athenians. He then calls them to repentance because of the testimony of the resurrection. In many respects, Paul’s commentary to the Athenians (who are known as highly educated and philosophically sophisticated) is not much different than his address to the simple Lycaonians.

Paul at Philippi

Not only did Paul’s proclamation of the gospel confront the idolatry of his day, but it also interrupted the commerce in the cities that he visited.

One of the first cities that Paul visits in his second missionary journey with Silas was Philippi. After receiving the Macedonian vision in Acts 16, he begins to preach the gospel in Philippi, which is a major city in Macedonia and a Roman colony. Paul initially preaches the gospel on the Sabbath to god-fearing women who had come together for a time of prayer and the Lord opened the eyes of Lydia in order to pay attention to what was said by Paul (v. 13-14). At this point, it appears that Paul’s preaching did not disrupt the normal activities of Philippi. However, Paul’s consistent preaching of the gospel in this town eventually interrupts commerce in the city.

While preaching in Philippi, Paul and Silas were met by a slave girl who possessed by an evil spirit. Because the slave girl was disrupting the preaching of the gospel, Paul commands the unclean spirit to come out of the girl. This is important for at least two reasons: (1) The casting out of evil spirits is evidence that the kingdom of God is present among the Philippians (cf. Luke 11:20) and (2) The slave girl was believed to have a spirit of divination, which implies that she brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling (cf. Acts 16:16). In other words, men could tolerate varieties of worship or the speculations of philosophers, but they were roused to madness by that which threatened their business. Consider Albert Barnes’ notes on this section:

The charge which they wished to substantiate was that of being disturbers of the public peace. All at once they became conscientious. They forgot the subject of their gains, and were greatly distressed about the violation of the laws. There is nothing that will make people more hypocritically conscientious than to denounce, and detect, and destroy their unlawful and dishonest practices. People who are thus exposed become suddenly filled with reverence for the Law or for religion, and they who have heretofore cared nothing for either become greatly alarmed lest the public peace should be disturbed. People slumber quietly in sin, and pursue their wicked gains; they hate or despise all law and all forms of religion; but the moment their course of life is attacked and exposed, they become full of zeal for laws that they would not themselves hesitate to violate, and for the customs of religion which in their hearts they thoroughly despise. Worldly-minded people often thus complain that their neighborhoods are disturbed by revivals of religion; and the preaching of the truth, and the attacking of their vices, often arouses this hypocritical conscientiousness, and makes them alarmed for the laws, and for religion, and for order, which they at other times are the first to disturb and disregard.  

Paul at Ephesus

The above commentary from Albert Barnes also explains the events which occurred during Paul’s missionary journey in Ephesus. When Paul arrived in Acts 19, he initially preached the gospel and the kingdom of God in the synagogue and due to the opposition of the Jews, he was forced to continue preaching in the hall of Tyrannus (v. 8-10). Unlike many other regions in which he traveled, Paul stayed in Ephesus for two years, which means that the Word of God (accompanied with various signs and miracles) went forth throughout the entire city for an extended period of time. God used the preaching of the Word to bring many of the Ephesians to faith (v. 21). At this point, there is no controversy concerning Christianity within Ephesus; however, as Luke narrates, a number of believers who formerly practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all (v. 18-20).

The preaching of the word of God not only affected the private lives of believers, but it also affected the local commerce in the area. In particular, the spread of Christianity in Ephesus affected the craftsmen who profited from religious pluralism of the day (v. 23-27). Consider Matthew Henry’s commentary of the section:

Persons who came from afar to pay their devotions at the temple of Ephesus, bought little silver shrines, or models of the temple, to carry home with them. See how craftsmen make advantage to themselves of people’s superstition, and serve their worldly ends by it. Men are jealous for that by which they get their wealth; and many set themselves against the gospel of Christ, because it calls men from all unlawful crafts, however much wealth is to be gotten by them. There are persons who will stickle for what is most grossly absurd, unreasonable, and false; as this, that those are gods which are made with hands, if it has but worldly interest on its side. The whole city was full of confusion, the common and natural effect of zeal for false religion.

The threat of the gospel to the business of the merchants eventually leads to a riot in Ephesus (v. 28-41).

Concluding Thoughts

What might we conclude about Paul’s interactions with the public on his first and second missionary journeys? First, we must realize, as Henry van Til famously quipped, that culture is religion externalized. In other words, the conscious or unconscious relationship to God in a man’s heart determines all of his activities, such as philosophy, morality, aesthetics, and other cultural activities. This means that we should observe the culture around us as it truly is – as implications of a society’s religious worldview.

Second, we should reject the notion that any culture (or sub-culture) is religiously neutral and we should engage and confront the people of any culture with Christian truth and the worldview that is consistent with Christian truth. Whether we live in a primitive culture (like the Lycaonians) or a philosophically sophisticated culture (like the Athenians), the preaching of Christ challenges all human cultures because ultimately all human cultures have the same existential problems, which is sin and depravity.

Third, we should note that when God transforms and saves any person, it does not simply affect one’s personal, private life, but it affects the whole person. In other words, we expect that when the word of God transforms the individuals inside of a culture, it cannot be fully contained within the private life of the individual, but rather it will affect his cultural activities and how he relates to a given culture. It’s important to note that Paul did not have to preach on all of the various cultural issues of his day in order for there to be discernible changes within a given culture (such as commerce within Philippi and Ephesus). Paul focused his attention on the preaching of Christ and it was through this preaching that the private life of individuals and the social life of various cities were changed. Therefore, we should not be naïve to believe that public opposition to Christianity is based purely upon philosophical or intellectual reasons. If Christians live in the Kingdom of man as salt and light, then it will have a direct effect on public affairs (with a direct emphasis on dishonest businesses).

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Ministry of Peter and John in Acts

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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In the previous blog, we provided an introduction to the public theology within the book of Acts by examining the historical setting of Acts and by examining how the content of the apostles’ public teaching produced significant clashes with the pluralistic society of the Roman Empire. In this blog post, we will focus our attention on the public ministry of Peter and John after Pentecost. In Acts 3:1-10, Luke records the account of a lame beggar being healed by the hands of Peter. Like all of the miracles performed by the apostles, this healing was done publicly to verify and authenticate the gospel message which Peter preached in Acts 2. The miracle caused all of those who were present to be utterly astounded and this presented Peter with the opportunity to address the Jewish crowd (3:10-11). With this opportunity, Peter deflects attention away from himself and preaches the gospel (3:11-26).

Peter’s Message to the Nation

For the sake of this blog, it is important to note the content of Peter’s message. First, we note that Peter denies that his own power and piety healed the beggar (v. 12), but rather, Peter draws attention that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob glorified Jesus through this healing (v. 13, 16). Second, we note that Peter places the blame of the death of Jesus – the Author of life – at the feet of the Jewish nation (v. 13-15). Third, we note that Peter also proclaims that although they acted in ignorance, the sufferings of Christ were foretold by the mouth of all of the prophets (v. 17-18). After exposing the guilt of the Jewish nation, he calls them all to repentance so that “times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send the Christ appointed for you” (v. 20). In other words, the absolute necessity of repentance was solemnly charged upon the consciences of all who desire that their sins may be blotted out so that they may share in the refreshment of God’s pardoning love. According to Peter, there is no other option for the people, for Jesus is the great prophet who was prophesied by Moses (v. 22-24). Finally, Peter indicates that Jesus has been raised from the dead and ascended into the heaven until the time of restoration as foretold by the prophets (v. 21). The Jews who heard Peter’s message would have been brought under deep conviction because they knew that they delivered up the Christ – God’s anointed – whom they have been anticipating for numerous generations. Hence, many of those who had heard the word believed.

It’s important to note that Peter’s message was confrontational and it was primarily soteriological in its intent. Any reference to the political impact of the gospel was aimed at eschatological concerns, in which the blessedness of the eternal state and the final judgment was briefly discussed. However, since the ministry of the apostles was done openly and publicly, there was outright opposition against the message. The first group who opposed the apostles was the Sanhedrin, which was the supreme council of the Jewish people. The origin of this assembly is traced back to the seventy elders whom Moses was directed to help him in the government of the Israelites (cf. Numbers 11:16-17). As mentioned in Acts 4, the Sanhedrin appears to be constituted of chief priests, elders, and scribes. This indicates that the Sanhedrin served both a judicial role as well as a religious role to the Jewish nation.

Peter’s Message to the Leaders

After imprisoning the apostles for their teachings, the Sanhedrin inquired by what authority do the apostles perform their works. It’s important to note that a similar disingenuous question was asked of Christ by the same council (cf. Matthew 21:23), which probably indicates that the tone of the question was that of contempt. Instead of being intimidated by the Council, Peter directly addressed the leaders. It’s very important to note that Peter does not change the content or the tone of his message as he addresses the leaders. He proclaims that God glorified Jesus in the healing of the beggar (4:10), calls the council into account for delivering Jesus to death (4:10), and proclaims that there is no other name in which salvation is found (4:12). Moreover, Peter declares that “this Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has becomes the cornerstone” (4:11), which is the same condemnation given to the Sanhedrin during Jesus’ earthly ministry (cf. Mark 12:1-12).   

Instead of responding with faith and repentance, the Sanhedrin added to their guilt by charging Peter and John not to speak at all in the name of Jesus (4:15-18). The response of Peter and John has many applications to us today. First, we should note the tone of their response. Peter and John did not treat the council with flippancy, but addressed them properly in accordance with the authority given to the council. Second, their words assert the right of conscience, recognizing that human authorities must be resisted when it opposes divine authority. The apostles are compelled by divine authority to proclaim the gospel. Third, the apostles are willing to accept the punishment that comes from following conscience. In particular, we should note that the disciples rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus (cf. 5:41). Fourth, they acknowledge their human weakness by praying to God to give them boldness to continue to speak His Word in spite of the opposition (4:23-30). The prayers of the apostles were answered as they continued to perform signs and wonders among the Jewish nation (5:12-16). The apostles continued to preach the Word with boldness and they continuously faced opposition from the Jewish leaders. They were imprisoned numerous times and yet God delivered them so that they would continue to preach the Word (5:17-26). Their message to the Jewish authorities remained constant: we must obey God rather than men. This is the same disposition that was found from the OT prophetic witness (cf. Daniel 3).

Summary and Conclusions

What can we draw from the public ministry of Peter and John today? First, the message that the apostles were entrusted with (and thus, the message that the Church is entrusted with) is the gospel. It’s a simple, obvious point, but it is a point that many are drifting from today. When it comes to confronting the numerous cultural issues of the day, we must remember that the Church has no other message to proclaim but the gospel. If the Church does not herald this message and explain its implications, then our witness in the world is useless (cf. Matthew 5:13). In emphasizing the centrality of the gospel, it’s also important to recognize the need for law preaching both in the public sphere and in private conversations because the Law, when proclaimed rightly, is the tutor that leads others to Christ. Apart from the Law, the gospel loses its brilliance. This is evident by noting that Peter and John always calls their audience into account for delivering Jesus to death before proclaiming the forgiveness of sins promised in Christ.

Second, we must realize that the message of the gospel applies to every person in every station of life, even if it’s a public official. In other words, the confrontational nature of law and gospel preaching from the Church should not be diluted for those who are public officials. If we are willing to call our neighbors and friends to repentance and faith in Christ, then the same message should be given to our leaders. Third, if we are willing to proclaim this message, we should expect sharp opposition. In other words, the message of the gospel itself will always be opposed because it addresses the common existential problems of all peoples and societies. For some individuals, this opposition may come in the form of physical persecution, but for others, it may come in the form of imprisonment, ostracization, and mockery. Like Peter and John, we should expect this opposition and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that God counts us worthy to suffer dishonor for Christ. Finally, we need to pray for boldness so that we will continue to proclaim the Word. Praying for boldness is a clear and humble acknowledgment that we are prone to fear and intimidation from the world around us. We should pray that we will not fall into temptation of passivity and assimilation in confronting the world around us.

In the next blog, we will focus on the particular interactions of Paul in his public ministry.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: Introduction to the Book of Acts

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

After examining the continuities and discontinuities associated with the incarnation of our Lord, we will now further ground our discussions on public theology by examining the behavior of the apostles in the book of Acts.

In Luke’s first book (i.e. the Gospel of Luke), Luke reported “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (cf. Luke 1:1); therefore, the implication is that Luke’s second book (i.e. the Acts of the Apostles) will carry the narrative forward, showing what Jesus continued to do and teach after His ascension to heaven. He continues to act through the presence of His Holy Spirit and through the ministry of His apostles (cf. Acts 1:2). This means that the book of Acts is a retelling of the continuation of redemptive history, in which the ministry of the apostles was done openly (cf. Acts 26:26).

Background: Roman Empire and Christianity

Because of the expanse of the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire became a very pluralistic society in which numerous religions existed alongside each other peaceably. During the apostolic period, the non-Roman religions were divided into religio licita (“licensed worship”) and religio illicita (“unlicensed worship”). However, while this distinction officially existed, the Roman Empire was generally very tolerant to other foreign religions. Generally speaking, any people settling at Rome were permitted the liberty of its own native worship in so far as the exercise of it did not interfere with the peace of the state or corrupt the morals of society. Roman citizens soon discovered the fascination of oriental and Greek mystery religions, and devoted themselves to foreign gods while maintaining the necessary formalism towards the religion of the state. Consider the commentary from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

It should not be forgotten that the original moral elements had fallen out of Roman religion, and that it had become simply a political and military religion for the welfare of the state, not for the salvation of the individual. The individual must conform to certain prescribed rites in order to avert calamity from the state. This done, the state demanded no more, and left him a large measure of freedom in seeking excitement or aesthetic pleasure in the warm and more social foreign mysteries. Thus, while the Romans retained the distinction of religiones licitae and illicitae, they seldom used severity against the latter. Many unlicensed cults were never disturbed. In fact, the very idea of empire rendered toleration of non-Roman religions a necessity. Practically, though not theoretically, the empire abandoned the idea of religions illicitae, while it retained it upon the statute-book to use in case of an emergency … Not only the government was tolerant, but the different varieties of religions were tolerant and on good terms with each other. The same man might be initiated into the mysteries of half a dozen divinities. The same man might even be priest of two or more gods… 

This is the background into which the Holy Spirit was poured out among the church at Pentecost. In some respects, our current society’s attitude toward religion is similar to the Roman Empire. Practically, all religions are socially permissible in our society as long as it does not disturb the public order. Perhaps, more accurately, any faith is permissible (or even commendable) as long as it is fully privatized. This is the concept of the “freedom of worship” that has become popularized with the past decade.

Despite the general toleration of religions within the Roman Empire, it was well-known that Christians were persecuted within the Roman Empire. This persecution initially began with the Jewish authorities which providentially forced the apostles to take their message to the Gentiles. The persecution then grew locally and regionally in Gentile regions until it became officially mandated in the reign of Domition. This background and this concept lead to the following question: if the Roman Empire instituted such a universally mild and tolerant policy toward various gods and cults, why was Christianity strongly persecuted? It could not be because it was a religio illicita because other unlicensed religions grew in the empire without persecution. It could not be simply because Christianity believed in proselytism because other religions (like Mithraism) were militant and aggressive and yet were tolerated. In my view, the answer to this question is based on the content and proclamation of the apostles’ message.

The Message of the Apostles

First, it should be noted that the apostles were unequivocal in asserting that the society for which they were waiting and laboring was a kingdom. Note that Luke summarizes the forty days of final instruction from Jesus to His apostles before He ascended: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (1:3). Moreover, this is the content of the teaching by Philip in Samaria (8:12) and Paul in Ephesus (19:8; 20:25). Luke ends the book of Acts with this account of Paul’s stay in Rome:

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:30-31)

It’s important that we don’t forget how dangerous such a message was in the Roman Empire. This point wasn’t missed by an angry crowd in Thessalonica who complained that the believers were causing trouble all over the world and that they were defying the decrees of Caesar by proclaiming Jesus as king (17:7). Much like the apostles did initially, the Roman Empire likely interpreted the Kingdom of God primarily in political terms rather than in redemptive and eschatological terms.

Second, the apostles refused to render formal obedience to the religion of the state, which incensed the Roman governors. This was done by proclaiming Christ as both Lord and Christ (2:36; 5:30-31; 10:36; 11:20; 17:7; etc.). Calling Christ Lord was an affront to the religion of the state (which required the confession Caesar is Lord). Like the prophets before them (such as Daniel), the apostles refused to privatize their faith; rather, they must “speak of what we have seen and heard” (cf. 4:20). Coupled with the preaching on the Parousia of the Lord, this led many (including some Christians) to believe that a new society as a kingdom was to be set up upon the earth with Christ as king, which would in essence overthrow the Roman government.

Third, the apostles were not content with an uncompromising withdrawal from the practices of heathen worship – they also actively assailed the pagan cults by proclaiming that the worship of idols is vanity (cf. 14:15-17; 17:16; 17:23-21; 19:25-27). The apostles clearly disturbed the cozy relationship between all of the various religious cults based on the content and claims of their message. From the Roman point of view, the Christians were considered atheists and since religion was a political concern for the welfare of the state, atheism was likely to call down the wrath of the gods. Thus, when disasters began to fall upon the Roman Empire, the blame was laid upon the Christians. This is part of the reason why Paul was expelled from various Gentile cities.

Conclusion

To summarize what has been said, the apostolic ministry is a ministry of witness. The apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ Jesus and were recipients of the Spirit’s outpouring on the Church. This witness was spread worldwide (i.e. to Judea, to Samaria, and to the end of the earth), was inclusive of all kinds of people (i.e. Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, Samaritans, pagan Gentiles), and was often accompanied by various signs and wonders. The witness to the gospel always called for a response and this is why the ministry of the apostles was a public witness. Because of the claims of the gospel and because of the public nature of the apostolic ministry, it would have been impossible NOT to have the opposition from the surrounding the world.

The same essential message applies to the Church today. When the Church performs the Great Commission, it is always a public ministry. In other words, it is impossible for Church to maintain its faithful witness and character while retreating from the public sphere. We must never assimilate into the religious customs of our day – in which we called to privatize our faith If we are to follow in the footsteps of the apostles, then we must proclaim His Word publicly.

In the next blog, we will focus on the particular interactions of the apostles in their public ministry.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Prophet Amos

In the last blog, we examined the public theology of John the Baptist who was the last Old Testament prophet. A question that we asked concerning our discussion was: Did John the Baptist operate according to the principles outlined for us in these days? In other words, are John the Baptist’s actions in the gospel accounts normative for the Church? In our article, we argued that there was much that we, as the Church, can learn from John the Baptist’s interaction with the religious leaders and the Roman leaders of his day. In this blog, we are going to examine another Old Testament prophet who dealt with numerous matters of social injustice in his time – the prophet Amos. This blog will primarily answer three questions: (1) How did Amos respond to the culture in his day? (2) Is his response to the culture normative to the church?

A Word of Caution

We must first start this discussion with a statement of caution. With regards to Amos, we must keep in mind that Amos is writing in a time when Israel was still supposed to function as a theocracy within its borders, both geographical and ethnic. In other words, Israel was still formally under the Mosaic covenant as the moral law and the law of the land. This fact governs our interpretation and application of the prophet Amos. This point is discussed in Chapter 19, Paragraphs 3-5 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession:

  1. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away. (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:14, 16, 17; Ephesians 2:14, 16 )

  2. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use. (1 Corinthians 9:8-10)

  3. The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

Paragraph 4 is most relevant to our discussion. Based its scriptural justification, Paragraph 4 suggests that the general equity of the civil and ceremonial law applies most pointedly to the covenant community of the church, not unbelieving civil magistrates, since Christ’s first advent. However, Paragraph 5 states that moral law binds all persons, whether it is the church or unbelieving magistrates. Whatever principles we apply from the prophet Amos to the culture at large must keep these considerations in mind.

The Background

Amos was a shepherd from a rural area in Judah whom God called to preach at Israel’s royal sanctuary. His prophesying took place during the reign of Jeroboam II and lasted only a few days. Amos found in Israel great social extremes of comfortable prosperity and abject poverty. His message was against the wealthy. The poor were being exploited and cheated. Merchants were greedy and dishonest. The judicial system was corrupt. There was religious arrogance, as well, and even the attempt to corrupt some of the religious leaders. In essence, affluence had lulled the wealthy into such apathy that they refused to recognize the sickness of their society. Amos’ warning to the worshipers at Bethel was that, because of their sins, destruction was coming upon them from both Egypt and Assyria, a prophecy all the more bold because the international scene was relatively quiet, and Assyria was still in a period of decline. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, made it clear to Amos that he was not welcome and that he should go home to his own country. Amos refused to back down, explaining that he was not a professional prophet, but he was there solely because God had sent him.

The Judgments on the Nations

Before addressing the sins of the covenant community, Amos delivers a series of six oracles from God, showing that no one can escape the consequences of his action. Hence, the major theme of the nations is the universal justice of God.

Amos pronounces his first oracle to Damascus in 1:3-4. In using the picture of separating grain kernels from their hulls, Amos says that Syria has treated the people of Gilead as though they were nothing but a pile of grain, crushing them to the ground. For this ill-treatment and extreme cruelty of the people, the Syrians were being sent back to where they started (Kir) with nothing to show for the intervening years.

The next three oracles deals with how the surrounding nations dealt with the capture and sale of Israelites during the reign of Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:16-17). Amos pronounces his second oracle to the Philistines in 1:6-8. The Philistines are condemned for selling a whole population of Israelites into slavery. In his third oracle, Tyre is accused of the same inhumanity as the Philistines in 1:9-10, but it is considered more heinous because they repudiated the covenant of brotherhood with Israel. In his fourth oracle in 1:11-12, Edom is judged for their perpetual and implacable anger, which extended at least as far back as Israel’s journey from the wilderness to the plains of Moab.

The next two oracles demonstrate the fact that the judgments on the nation is not due to ethnicity, but on the basis of the universal judgment of God. In the fifth oracle, the Ammonites are accused of a horrific human rights atrocity – they have “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead that they might enlarge their border”. This particular atrocity was also practiced by Hazael of Syria (2 Kings 8:12), Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15:16), and Assyria (Hosea 13:16) with the intended goal of eliminating descendants who might try to reclaim the land. In the sixth oracle, Moab is accused of burning the bones of the King of Edom, which seems to be a sign of special contempt for the Edomites.

In all of these oracles, God brings judgment through the Assyrians via exile or death. From the prophet Amos, the picture is abundantly clear – no person, king, or nation escapes the judgment of God.

The Judgments on the Covenant Community

At this point, one can imagine that Amos’s Israelite hearers were very pleased with his message since he was reinforcing exactly what they believed. The “Day of the Lord” was coming to the godless nations. However, the last, and by far the longest opening oracle is addressed to Israel. Israel is guilty of gross social injustice and sexual immorality.

First, Israel is accused of “selling the righteous for silver and the need for a pair of sandals.” This appears to be a direct reference to the corruption of Israel’s judicial system in which judges are willing to convict the innocent upon payment of a bribe. In the Law, the Lord placed a special concern for needy so that their basic rights are protected (Exodus 23:6; Jeremiah 5:28). However, because of the corruption of the judicial system, the needy are being sold into slavery even for insignificant debts (i.e. “a pair of sandals”). The point here is that Israel committed the same sort of social injustice as the surrounding neighbors and as a consequence, they will also be judged.

Second, Amos decries unbridled sexual immorality in Israel. In Israel, a “man and his father go into the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned.” Such behavior is contrary to the sexual ethics defined in the moral law (Genesis 2:21-24; Matthew 19:4-6) and would be otherwise forbidden through the Mosaic law (Leviticus 18:6-18). Their sins of sexual immorality are compounded in that they have slept on clothing taken as pledges for loans to the poor (Amos 2:8). According to the Mosaic Law, such garments are not to be kept overnight (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:12-13).

After addressing Israel’s guilt and punishment, Amos turns his indictments to the wealthy citizens of Israel. Amos provides an extensive cataloging of their sins, which includes

  • The matrons of the wealthy Samaritans oppressing the poor and crushing the needy (Amos 4:1).
  • Trampling on the poor and exacting taxes of grain from them to build the own houses of luxury (Amos 5:7, 11).
  • Taking a bribe to afflict the righteous and turning aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12).
  • Living in luxurious ease without concern for sin and evil in the land (Amos 6:4-6).
  • Using false balances to unjustly profit from the poor (Amos 8:4-6).

It’s important to note that although each of these social injustices is definitely addressed within the Law of Moses, these sins are not peculiar to the nation of Israel (unlike the sins described towards Judah in Amos 2:4-5) – rather these are basic sins against humanity. These sins are violations of God’s moral law and thus are applicable to all peoples at all times. In particular, it is sinful for any judge to use their position of authority for self-aggrandizement and for their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure. It is required that we should all act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships with our fellow human beings so that we give to all what they deserve, rather than exploiting them. Moreover, we are to make restitution for anything we have unlawfully acquired from its rightful owners. Finally, we must do our best, by all just and lawful means, to acquire, preserve, and increase our own and others’ possessions.

Our Response

Many of the social injustices described in Amos occur within our American society and in our world in general. The basic question is: how should Christians respond to this? I think we can learn much about how we should respond by examining how Amos responded to these things. Amos did not simply call for judgment, but he pleaded with the judges and wealthy.

“Seek good, and not evil that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate,” (Amos 5:15).

And again

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (Amos 5:24).

Amos’ response was to address the sin directly and to call the guilty to repentance. Amos is compelled to directly address this sin – “The Lord GOD has spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). Even when Amaziah the priest tells Amos that he should go back to his own country (Amos 7:12), Amos remains resolute in his call. This is similar today to the idea that Christians should keep the law of God and the Scriptures out of the public sphere and only speak about them among other Christians in church (i.e. the so-called “freedom to worship” vs. “religious liberty” debate).

Some may say that it is not enough to simply call out the gross sins of our culture and to call them to repentance – there must be tangible social activism attached to it. It is at this point in which we can learn much from Amos. Amos is not a professional prophet, nor is he a wealthy Israelite. Amos was simply “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs” who was called to prophesy to Israel. In dealing with the great social evils around him, Amos realizes that the only weapon that he has is the prophetic Word. He doesn’t have a coalition of faithful Israelites around him who can rally to the cause – all He has is the prophetic Word which he proclaims. Amos reproves the guilty and labors to persuade them of their guilt by the prophetic Word.

The same basic principle applies to the Christians in the public sphere. If we were honest, we would acknowledge that we hold a minority position in our culture. Today, we are not only considered backwards and outdated in our beliefs, but today, our views are considered immoral within our culture. We don’t have tactical allies that we can pull together to change the hearts of people; the weapon that we have is the prophetic Word, which is the written Word. We have the full counsel of God in the written Word – the Law and the Gospel. It is through the Law that we expose the sinfulness of man in the public sphere (such as the social evils that is discussed in Amos); however, it is through the Gospel that we found our deepest motivation to confront our society and that we call men and women out of darkness and into His marvelous light. It is only through the Gospel that lives are transformed by the grace of God. Since Christ is the Great Prophet, the Church is the steward and guardian of both messages and it is His Word that we proclaim, admonishing and warning every man. We confront, exhort, reprove, and persuade every man through His Word, relying on God to accomplish His purposes through it.