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.

Black Spirituality and Reformed Spirituality, a Comparison (Full)

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Recently, I’ve finished a blog series which compared the spirituality of traditional, devout Black Christians to Reformed spirituality. The goal of this mini-series was to answer the following question: Why aren’t there more Black Reformed Christians? The central thesis of this series is that diverging views of Christian spirituality is the essential reason why devout Black Christians generally are not in Reformed churches. In other words, the mode and nature of traditional Black spirituality is quite different than Reformed spirituality. In the blog series, I addressed the commonalities and differences between traditional Black spirituality and Reformed spirituality. This post breaks up that series into six basic parts.

Part I: Points of Agreement

Part II: Points of Disagreement

The Sacraments in Black Spirituality

In regards to our previous discussion on traditional Black spirituality, the second commonality with Reformed spirituality is a high view of the sacraments. In other words, a point in which Reformed and Black Christians both hold is that a person cannot truly be spiritual and grow in the Lord if they perpetually neglect the sacraments. In regards to the sacraments, Chapter 28 of the 1689 LBCF states that:

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church to the end of the world. These holy appointments are to be administered by those only who are qualified and thereunto called, according to the commission of Christ.

Thanks to the writings of the 17th century Particular Baptists (as well as modern Baptist writers), many Reformed Baptists today have come to understand the importance of the sacraments in the life of the Church. Moreover, due to rediscovered writings from 17th century Particular Baptists, many Reformed Baptists have developed a covenantal view of the sacraments, which sees the sacraments as a means of grace. As a consequence, many Reformed Baptists understand the deep connection between Christian growth and faithful participation in the sacraments. Naturally, this leads to a deep reverence and respect for the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

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This deep reverence for the sacraments is also a key mark in Black spirituality as well. Traditionally, most Black churches take communion once per month (typically on the first Sunday of the month) and for many congregations, there is a sense of expectation for Communion Sunday. In the church that I grew up in, a significant portion of the service on Communion Sunday was dedicated to preparing for the Supper. There was a heightened sense of seriousness as everyone knew that something very importance was about to happen. The solemnity of the event was particularly on display as the deacons distributed the elements with white gloves, which was always meant to be a symbol of respect for the ordinance. Before the congregation partook of communion, there were serious warnings given to those who took the Supper in an unworthy manner. After these warnings, the congregation partook of the elements together, as a symbol of their unity.

As many Reformed writers have written, there are many facets and layers of meaning which pertain to the Supper. In my experience, the two dimensions that are most prominently displayed in many traditional Black churches are the Eucharistic dimension and the covenantal dimension. In the Eucharistic dimension, we see that the Lord’s Supper is a holy and solemn feast of praise and thanksgiving to God for His lovingkindness. Here the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is intended to bring us to the adoration and praise of God; it moves us to render thanksgiving to God for his infinite goodness and helps us to recognize the grace which God has so generously poured out for His people. In many Black churches, this dimension of the Supper has led to the composition of various hymns that have sometimes been called “blood songs”

I Know it was His Blood – Mahalia Jackson

The Blood Will Never Lose its Power – Andrae Crouch

Calvary – Richard Smallwood

The Blood – James Hall

These above songs also indicate that another central aspect of the Supper in traditional Black churches is the concept of a memorial. Here, it is understood that the recipient should do more than simply remember what Christ has done, but the recipient is making a public confession and commitment to Christ at the Supper. In essence, these “blood songs” are a recounting of the saving acts of God. This fits very much with Calvin’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:26

But this knowledge [of the saving acts of Christ] ought to move us to praise Him openly, so as to let men know, when we are in their company, what we are aware of within ourselves in the presence of God. The Supper is, therefore, if I may say so, a kind of memorial which must always be maintained in the Church until the final coming of Christ. John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:26, Commentary on First Corinthians, p. 250

In many Black churches, there is also a sense of the covenantal dimension. A very popular African-American spiritual called Let Us Break Bread Together on our Knees (lyrics) which is typically sung on Communion Sunday illustrates this. Here the stress of this hymn is the mutual fellowship that we have with other believers at the Table. It’s at the Supper that we understand how we are united to Christ and to each other.

The ordinance of baptism plays a similar role in many Black churches as well. Article XIV of the Articles of Faith from the National Baptist Convention states that Christian baptism is “prerequisite to the privileges of a church relation.” In the churches that I grew up in, this meant that a new convert was sufficiently questioned before baptism by the pastor. After being sufficiently questioned, the new convert made vows based on the membership covenant of the local church (here’s an example) and was baptized. After being baptized, the new convert was given the right hand of fellowship, which emphasized the covenantal union of the member to the local church. Thus, a “true Christian” is one who was properly baptized and received the right hand of fellowship into the church. This pattern is observed not just from Black Baptist churches, but also AME and Pentecostal denominations as well.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a sharp distinction between the modern trends in Black churches and the traditional black church in which I grew up. It has been well established that modern evangelical churches are de-emphasizing the role of the sacraments in the life of the Church. This trend is entering the more modern, non-denominational Black Churches in which the role of the sacraments are often underemphasized, neglected, or at times, completely disrespected. Few modern Black churches “guard the table” from unbelievers and give no sense of warning towards those who receive the Supper with an unbelieving heart. In other cases, there have been churches that baptize virtually any child that attended a vacation bible school (which has been described as a position of de facto infant baptism). There have been numerous conversations in which older Black Christians have complained and have been offended by the casual (and at times, disrespectful) attitude of many churches regarding this sacraments. This attitude is also shared with Reformed believers who understand the significance of these ordinances. Thus, traditional Black spirituality and Reformed spirituality affirm the necessity of the sacraments in the life of the individual Christian and in the life of the Church.

For the next blog, we will address another strong commonality, particular with Reformed Baptist: a high view of the local church.

Why Mark Jones Is Right… and Wrong

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Mark Jones

Let me be the first (perhaps not) Baptist to admit that Mark Jones was spot on in many regards in his post “A Plea for Realism”:Are Presbyterians Christians? It seems to me that Mark Jones is simply calling for a little intellectual honesty from us Baptists. Well, allow me to humor him.

I certainly agree that, if we do not allow unbaptized believers to take communion, that should include those who have been “baptized” in a way that we believe to be unbiblical and, thus, no baptism at all. If a paedobaptist came to my church who refused to be baptized post-confession due to having been sprinkled as an infant, we would not allow him to be a member, so why would we allow him to take communion? Baptism, in every Christian tradition, has historically preceded communion. Baptism preceding communion is both a historical and a biblical view. On this point, most Baptists and Presbyterians agree.

Therefore, for me to dissuade my Presbyterian friends from taking communion in my local church, I am not saying they are not Christians so much as that they have not followed biblical mandate in regard to the order of the sacraments. That is, baptism precedes communion. On this point, they would obviously disagree with me, because they hold to a different understanding of baptism. However, for Baptists to cave on this issue and allow for unbaptized Presbyterians (and that’s what we think they are) to take communion, we would be going against our confession’s definition of true baptism.

However, we are not alone in this stance. Presbyterians must take issue with at least some Baptists taking communion in their churches. Just this week, I listened to a somewhat refreshing episode of Reformed Forum in which Jim Cassidy admitted that Baptist parents are in sin who do not baptize their infants in keeping with a Presbyterian view of baptism. I think this is the only consistent Presbyterian view and, as such, I don’t see how Baptist parents can take communion in Presbyterian churches, unless Presbyterians encourage people in open, unrepentant sin to take communion.

ctc-album300Either way, both traditions have an issue when it comes to what Jones calls “catholicity” and baptism. Neither one of us can deny that we see the other as being disobedient to our Lord’s ordinance of baptism. Are Baptists inconsistent to call their Presbyterian friends Christians? Not quite as inconsistent, I would argue, as those Presbyterian churches that allow consistently Baptist parents to take communion.

So, perhaps the proper way to respond to our Presbyterian friends when they try to corner us on these issues is not to bend over backward to try to be ecumenical. Perhaps, the best response is to affirm them where they are correct, but demonstrate how they have to answer the same questions regarding their sacramentology. None of us are immune. At a certain level, each believe the other (credos and paedos) is disobedient at a certain level, and that must stand as a guard to the communion table at some point.

See also Tom Hicks’ response to Jones’ article. Michael Haykin has also chimed in, and Jones has offered his critique of Haykins’ response here.

The Baptist Catechism – Questions 93-104, The Ordinary Means of Grace

Q.93: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper; all which means are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

( Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:42, 46-47 )

 

Q.94: How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

( Nehemiah 8:8; Psalm 19:8; Acts 20:32; 26:18; Romans 1:15-16; 10:13-17; 15:4; 1Corinthians 14:24-25; 1Timothy 3:15-17 )

 

Q.95: How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?

A. That the Word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.

( Psalm 119:11, 18; Proverbs 8:34; Luke 8:15; 2Thessalonians 2:10; Hebrews 4:2; James 1:25; 1Peter 2:1-2 )

 

Q.96: How do baptism and the Lord’s Supper become effectual means of salvation?

A. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper become effectual means of salvation, not for any virtue in them, but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of the Spirit in those that by faith receive them.

( Matthew 3:11; 1Corinthians 3:6-7; 12:3; 1Peter 3:21 )

 

Q.97: What is baptism?

A. Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament instituted by Christ, to be unto the party baptized a sign of his fellowship with Him, in His death, burial, and resurrection; of his being engrafted into Him; of remission of sins; and of giving up himself unto God through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.

( Matthew 28:19; Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12 )

 

Q.98: To whom is baptism to be administered?

A. Baptism is to be administered to all those who actually profess repentance toward God, faith in and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, and to none other.

( Matthew 3:6; 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:37-38; 8:36-38 )

 

Q.99: Are the infants of such as are professing believers to be baptized?

A. The infants of such as are professing believers are not to be baptized, because there is neither command nor example in the Holy Scriptures, or certain consequence from them to baptize such.

( Proverbs 30:6; Luke 3:7-8 )

 

Q.100: How is baptism rightly administered?

A. Baptism is rightly administered by immersion, or dipping the whole body of the party in water, into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, according to Christ’s institution, and the practice of the apostles, and not by sprinkling or pouring of water, or dipping some part of the body, after the tradition of men.

( Matthew 3:16; 28:19-20; John 3:23; Acts 8:38; 10:48; Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12 )

 

Q.101: What is the duty of such who are rightly baptized?

A. It is the duty of such who are rightly baptized to give up themselves to some particular and orderly church of Jesus Christ, that they might walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.

( Luke 1:6; Acts 2:41-42; 5:13-14; 9:26; 1Peter 2:5 )

 

Q.102: What is the Lord’s Supper?

A. The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the New Testament, instituted by Jesus Christ; wherein by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to His appointment, His death is shown forth, and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of His body and blood, with all His benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

( Matthew 26:26-28; 1Corinthians 10:16; 11:23-26 )

 

Q.103: Who are the proper subjects of this ordinance?

A. They who have been baptized upon a personal profession of their faith in Jesus Christ, and repentance from dead works.

( Acts 2:41-42 )

 

Q.104: What is required to be worthy of receiving the Lord’s Supper?

A. It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon Him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience, lest coming unworthily they eat and drink judgment to themselves.

( 1Corinthians 5:7-8; 10:16-17; 11:28-29, 31; 2Corinthians 13:5 )

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Twenty-Nine, Of Baptism

1. Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.
( Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2;12; Galatians 3:27; Mark 1:4; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:4 )

2. Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance.
( Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36, 37; Acts 2:41; Acts 8:12; Acts 18:8 )

3. The outward element to be used in this ordinance is water, wherein the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
( Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 8:38 )

4. Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance.
( Matthew 3:16; John 3:23 )

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Twenty-Eight, Of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

1. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church to the end of the world.
( Matthew 28:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:26 )

2. These holy appointments are to be administered by those only who are qualified and thereunto called, according to the commission of Christ.
( Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 4:1 )