Monday, June 20, 2022

Theological Essay:

The Gospel in Ruins 

by Rev. Dr. Andrew W.G. Matthews

The outlook for Christianity in western societies is looking pretty bleak. Christians and Christian values are repeatedly being cancelled in the workplace, schools, and government. Even churches are now watching their backs as they come under attack for their historically orthodox beliefs on personhood, sexuality, and marriage. In countries long acquainted with Christianity the gospel is either advancing only slowly or retreating. There has not been a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit in bringing revival and mass conversions in over a century. The apostle Paul boasted that the gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Why then is the gospel in our day seemingly weak? Did Paul overestimate the gospel’s power or has our generation been preaching a faulty gospel? Certainly the latter. The gospel of Christ that is taught in many Christian churches today is similar to some of the castle ruins in Scotland. What once were majestic, powerful fortresses have been reduced to mere shadows of their former glory—some broken-down walls and an eroded citadel. Similarly, this gospel has a few elements of the original-- salvation and heaven-- but much of the glory is lost. If the Christian church wants to see the glory of Christianity restored in our lands we need to rebuild from the ruins our gospel message and start proclaiming the whole counsel of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Distorted Gospels

The term “the gospel” is used in the New Testament to represent the core message of the good news about Jesus Christ, but the content of that message has been distorted. In the apostle Paul’s day there was already a “different gospel” being offered which diverged from the real gospel that Paul and the apostles preached (Gal. 1:6-9). Our day is rife with distorted gospels. Liberal churches for years have been preaching a gospel of the love of God and the brotherhood of mankind. The Son of God's coming to earth and dying shows how much God loves you, so be inspired and live a good life! The gospel of Christ effectively disappears as there is no need for people to be saved. In some churches a moralistic gospel teaches people to follow Jesus the good teacher in his cause against the moral ills of the day. If you are an old-school Fundamentalist, you stayed away from drinking, smoking, and dancing. If you are a Social Justice Warrior you oppose poverty, sexism, racism, phobias, and global warming. The prosperity gospel is still rampant across the globe where God exists to make people healthy and wealthy. Such a gospel is simply repackaged paganism where the gods are worshipped in order to grant material blessings, the kind of temptation that Jesus rebuffed from Satan (Luke 4:5-8). A just Jesus gospel demotes the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and simply looks to Jesus of Nazareth, the sympathetic counsellor who exists to guide, comfort, and affirm you during life’s difficulties. The worst false gospel though is the perversity gospel. The book of Jude warns about teachers who“pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Don't worry about sinning, God's grace has you covered. People boast in a perverse way that they are "glorious ruins." Instead of being ashamed of sin, they revel in their "brokenness." They reason that since Jesus gets glory through grace, “Why not do evil that good might come?” (Rom. 3:8) Paul responded, “Their condemnation is just!” These kinds of gospels don't actually bring salvation but entrench the lost in their sins. What is consistent with all of these distortions is that there is little to no call to personal repentance and discovering the true transformative grace of God in Christ (Titus 2:11-12).

Diminished Gospels

These false gospels are anathema to the true gospel, but in our day we have a number of diminished gospels which retain much of the essential gospel message but lack the fullness and power of the whole gospel. In the main, the evangelical church still proclaims that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, that his death and resurrection accomplishes forgiveness of sin, and that through faith in Christ one obtains eternal life. However, this lowest-common-denominator gospel falls short of the whole gospel preached in former days. The standard gospel of our day is what could be called a just justification gospel. The just justification gospel identifies that forgiveness of sins and justification by faith are the critical elements of salvation. The point of this gospel preaching is to get people "saved," which is primarily a pardon for sin and a place in heaven. Once that has been locked in the gospel carries little relevance to the Christian. Faith is limited to what Christ did 2,000 years ago and results in little expectation of Christ’s active rule over the church and world today. Faith is not exercised to see the kingdom come or experience personal change, instead the gospel simply reassures believers of their salvation. Just-justification preachers predominately or solely focus on "resting" or "abiding" in Christ. They instruct people to rely solely on Jesus' past faithfulness, and they down-play obedience and personal faithfulness to God. Is it any wonder that the world is not impressed with the lives of church goers?

Our poor presentations of the gospel inhibit the gospel from being powerful. In many cases there simply is no presentation of the gospel at all, or churches only subtly allude to the gospel lest they offend someone. Sermons encourage the hearer to "follow Jesus," with no mention of sin, redemption, or call to repentance. Jesus is some kind of guide on your "faith journey." Other references to the gospel seem to imply that since Christ atoned for sin, salvation automatically applies to all people. If you happen to be in the church when the gospel is mentioned, redemption is conferred upon you. The truth has been lost that sinners must experience a personal and actual conversion unto Christ. Other more bold evangelicals are good at presenting a plan of salvation (see the Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, or the Roman Road). In this manner salvation is achieved when a sinner understands and agrees with the plan. Plans are helpful, but you are not saved because you believe that Jesus died for you. You are saved when you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for you. Salvation is not found in a plan but in a Person. 

Dynamic Gospel

We need to return to a more robust gospel message that proclaims the full work of salvation that God accomplishes through our eternal Prophet, Priest, and King, the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is the message about the person and work of Christ who has affected a redemption that includes four main facets:  forgiveness of sins, transformation of self, rule by a King, and hope for eternity.

Forgiveness of Sins: The fundamental truth of the gospel is that God in his grace redeems and forgives sinners. Sinners can't save themselves through good works or religious observance. God delivers sinners from their bondage to sin (redemption). Jesus' death atones for sin and satisfies God's justice, and by faith in Christ’s work for us God forgives our sins (justification). Once justified we are free from condemnation and become God's children (adoption). This initial act of salvation delivers us from all the penalty and guilt of sin and gives us peace with God. 

Transformation of Self: Christ’s redemption of sinners does not stop at merely forgiving them, he intends to completely transform them. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in a person whereby Christ completely remakes them to reflect his holy image. At the point of conversion, the Holy Spirit regenerates (“be born-again,” John 3:3) a person wherein they are actually given a new holy nature. From that point onward they are progressively transformed to be less sinful and more righteous. The power of sin over a person has been broken and their new identity in Christ defines and governs their life. Now more than ever this generation is crying out for a new identity, real transformation, and true liberty. 

Rule by a King: The gospel declares that after Jesus rose from the dead he ascended to the right hand of the Father and was crowned “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). By his work of redemption the Son earned the right to rule. The prophetic promises of the Old Testament looked forward to a time when God would set up his Christ as the Lord who would govern the world in righteousness.  From his enthroned position in heaven (Christ's exaltation) all rule and power in this age is made subject to him for the sake of his church. The great promise and mystery of the gospel is that God would no longer just be a king over one nation (Israel), but through the Lord Jesus Christ God would rule over every nation. The OT prophetic promises looked forward to a day when the nations would stream to the "mountain of the Lord" (Isa. 2:1-5) and that "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9). By a powerful combination of kingdom and covenant, Christ the Lord provides all protection and blessings needed for his children to live in a fallen and dangerous world. 

Hope for Eternity: The gospel finally declares that through Christ the curse of death has been broken and eternal life is open to all who trust in him. The hope of heaven is good news for the Christian for it will be the compensation for all the trials and tribulation experienced in this present evil age. When Christ appears in glory the bodies of believers shall be immortally and incorruptibly resurrected, rejoined with their perfected souls, and they will live with God in a perfected new heavens and earth. Christ will reward believers for their faithfulness during their mortal existence with abundant treasures which “neither moth nor rust can destroy” (Matt. 6:19). In contrast the wicked will receive a just retribution for all their evil deeds and be cast out into eternal darkness and torment away from the presence of the Lord. 


Powerful Hope

If our society is crumbling, it is because the church has already crumbled. Since "judgment begins at the household of God" (1 Pet. 4:17) we need to get our house in order. If we want the gospel to be powerful once again we need to rebuild the gospel from its present ruin. With solid truth and pure hearts let us restore its broken walls and turrets. When the gospel makes a life-transforming impact on a believer--or the church at large--in turn it impacts the wider world. A resurgence in robust gospel proclamation will bring new converts into the faith. Transformed lives will confirm the truth of Jesus Christ. A renewed vision for Christ's kingdom will inspire social action and missions. Lastly, our eternal hope of reward in heaven will fuel our faithfulness on the earth.

Not only preachers from pulpits but every Christian ought to be able to articulate these truths to anyone. The biblical gospel is enough to justify the "reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15). Our post-Christian societies are hopeless and dying because the thinkers of our day are saying that there is no absolute truth, all people are basically good, we can define ourselves, all types of sexual activity are okay, the earth is doomed, and that there is no ultimate meaning to life. In the midst of this vacuum the gospel must enter. Christians have real hope to offer the lost. The word of God is the source of infallible and absolute truth. "None are righteous" but all can experience "the righteousness of God" (Rom. 3: 10, 22) in Christ. Amid gender confusion and sexual depravity Christ can restore a true and pure humanity in both body and soul (Eph. 4:24). The world is not coming to an end, because Christ "upholds the universe by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3). Lastly, though we cannot comprehend fully the ultimate meaning of our lives, we "know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). These are the truths that give us hope and made our Christian lands blessed. Therefore, we must once again boldly and unapologetically proclaim to the world, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry,... blessed are all who take refuge in him." (Ps. 2:12).  

Monday, March 21, 2022

Theological Essay:

Done with Dunking

by Rev. Dr. Andrew W.G. Matthews

“The dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” —Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 28:3

I’m done with dunking. I will never again perform an immersion baptism for a Christian, but will henceforth be true to the biblical and confessional standards of my Presbyterian faith. To say this is the final step on my long sacramental journey from being a credo-baptist to being fully Reformed. I myself experienced an immersion baptism in a charismatic Methodist church a year after my conversion, and spent the first decade of my Christian life in churches that only did immersion baptism. As a Presbyterian minister I once borrowed the baptismal facilities of a Baptist church in order to immerse a family of teenagers who attended my church. In my last Presbyterian parish in the country I was willing to accommodate the preferences of Baptists in my church and go down to the local lake to immerse their believing children. I’m done with that now. 

The Baptist belief is that immersion (the total submerging of the person under water) and emersion (the coming up out of the water) is necessary in order to have a true baptism. Presbyterians hold an immersion baptism is valid before God when it meets the essential criteria of water applied by a minister in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that it is unnecessary. The correct administration of baptism actually is “by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” For me, to practice immersion baptism is to replace a superior mode with an inferior one and to endorse error.

The Baptist contention that the only valid mode of baptism is by immersion rests upon three flawed lines of argumentation: the meaning of the word “baptism” itself, New Testament accounts of baptisms, and the imagery of death, burial, and resurrection. First, Baptists hold that the Greek word baptizo, “to baptise,” exclusively means “to dip” or “to immerse,” thus all baptisms must be by immersion. As with most words, baptizo has a range of senses, one of which is “to dip.” Baptists argue that “to dip” is the core meaning of the word which controls every use. I will spare you an exhaustive exposition on semantic theory, etymology, and every example of baptizo in the Bible and ancient literature and simply state, in contradiction, that baptizo primarily conveys the senses of  wash, cleanse, or unite which can take place through dipping, pouring, sprinkling, or wiping. The main point is to apply water to something or someone to cleanse it. The Baptist might say then that only bathing or immersion truly conveys the cleansing of a person, and that sprinkling or pouring water over the head does not cleanse the body. Really? In that case, we should get rid of all our bathroom showers and commit to taking baths everyday. Using showers, faucets, and basins and towels, as well as bathing in rivers and lakes, has been used to wash bodies for millennia. Jesus seemed quite satisfied with a few wet tear drops and some long hair when his feet were cleansed (Luke 7:44).

Secondly, the supposed New Testament accounts of immersion baptism in the Gospels and Acts are examples of the use of sloppy eisegesis. When Jesus came “up from the water” (Matt. 3:16) or “up out of the water” (Mark 1:10) he was not necessarily emerging from beneath the water but walking out of the water or up from the river bed. The same action is enacted with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch who saw water and stop the chariot. The text says “they both went down into the water” and then “they came out of the water.” (Acts 8:38-39). Did Philip perform a tandem baptism by both going beneath the water?  Obviously not, they both walked down into the pool of water and then both walked out. In both the cases of Jesus and the eunuch they could have stood or kneeled in the water while water was poured over them. It is supposed that John the Baptist chose the desert of Aenon near Salim because the “much water” or “plentiful water” provided deep water for immersion (John 3:23). A better reading is that these many springs of waters were where people gathered to retrieve water—and were usually quite shallow—but the springs also served John’s purpose for baptising. Other baptisms in the book of Acts were more likely accomplished by applying water than by immersing people. The three thousand at the feast of Pentecost could have been baptised using the lavers of water used in Old Testament ceremonial cleaning. Paul and Cornelius and his Gentile guests were baptised inside houses where it was uncommon to have a deep bathtub. Within the house of Cornelius the question, “Can anyone withhold water for baptising these people?” (Acts 10:47) implies that water would be brought to the new converts. Lydia’s baptism does allow for an immersion baptism in a river (Acts 16:13-15), but the Philippian jailor was present in his house, not the river, when he and all his household heard the word of God and were baptised (Acts 16:32-33). The New Testament Christian baptisms simply do not prove a case for exclusive, immersion-only baptism, but instead demonstrate the probability of a pouring or sprinkling mode. 

Thirdly, and most importantly within the Baptist perspective, the act of baptism supposedly depicts the imagery of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The go-to verse for Baptists to prove that baptism is essentially an immersion and emersion act is Romans 6:3, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” When the convert goes down into the water his old man dies with the crucified Christ, but then he rises up out of the water as a new man with the resurrected Christ. This up and down imagery is so vital to Baptist thinking that I once heard a Reformed Baptist professor teach that if there was not sufficient water available for a baptism he would replace the water with straw in order to recreate the burial-resurrection motif. Being buried and resurrected was more important than using water! However, the attempt to make baptism fit with this image is like trying to make a round peg fit in a square hole. Jesus died on the cross not in the grave, and he wasn’t buried underground; he was placed in a tomb. In order for the imagery to match, a baptised person would have to also depict Christ’s death on the cross as well as his burial and resurrection.

Baptists make a fundamental error in mistaking the essential meaning and imagery of the two sacraments of the Christian church. The Lord’s Supper depicts the saving work of Christ on the cross—redemption accomplished. Christian baptism depicts the saving work of the Holy Spirit—redemption applied. Baptism thus focuses on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in joining a believer to the finished work of Christ. The primary imagery of baptism should not depict the death and resurrection of Jesus—the elements of the Lord’s Supper point to that. Instead baptism depicts Christ “pouring out” the Spirit upon his sanctified church. The Lord’s Supper was instituted on the day of Christ’s death and the first Christian baptism occurred on the day of the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost. The symbolism of each sacrament correlates to the two roles the 2nd and 3rd Persons of the Trinity perform in perfecting our redemption. These two distinct sacraments serve as a perpetual reminder to the church of how God saves his covenant people.

If Christian baptism portrays the Holy Spirit’s role in sanctification, the right mode of baptism is pouring or sprinkling. At the day of Pentecost Peter proclaimed to the crowds that after Jesus was raised and exalted he had received from God the promised Holy Spirit whom “he has poured out” (Acts 2:33). Peter explained that this was a fulfilment of the Joel prophecy that God would “pour out” his Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18). This sanctifying work of the Spirit fulfilled other prophecies that the Spirit of God would sanctify God’s people by “sprinkling” them with water to cleanse them of their uncleanness and give them a new heart to obey God (Ezek 36:25-27). The Ethiopian eunuch beseeched to be baptised because he had just been reading about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 who would “sprinkle many nations” (Isa 52:15; Acts 8:32-37). The mode of sprinkled blood was the primary means by which the Old Testament temple was ceremonially cleansed. The writer of Hebrews picks up on this truth by arguing that just as the blood of bulls and goats purified the temple, priests, and worshippers, the sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ purifies Christian worshippers (Heb 9:12-14; 10:20-22): “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” The superior “sprinkled blood” of Jesus serves as the basis of the new covenant (Heb 12:24). The baptismal sign ought to signify the pouring out of the Spirit and the sanctifying effect of Christ’s sprinkled blood on his people. The additional sanctifying images of  Christ’s baptism by “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11; Acts 2:3; see also Mal. 3:2-3) who came down in flaming tongues upon the people at Pentecost and the concept of the anointing of the Holy Spirit like poured-out oil upon the head support the imagery of top-down instead of down-up. The pouring or sprinkling of water on a person which symbolise this sanctifying work of Christ by the Spirit is to be preferred over the misappropriated imagery of death and resurrection.

How then should we interpret the correlation of baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ to which both Romans 3:3-4 and Colossians 2:12-13 allude? Each of these texts refer to the experience of regeneration within a believer tied to the finished work of Christ. When a person is actually regenerated by the Holy Spirit, Christ is applying his atoning work on them. Christ died as a “sinner” but then was made alive. Likewise when Christians are sanctified by the Holy Spirit they experience the “circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11) whereby their old sinful man dies and the new spiritual man comes alive. This experience correlates to their new birth by the Spirit. The primary focus is still on how Christ applies his accomplished redemptive work onto believers by the Holy Spirit, thus the main image of baptism is still purification by the Spirit.

From a practical and worship stand-point it is not a good idea for Presbyterians to perform immersion baptisms. Unlike established Baptist churches, our buildings are not built for immersion baptisms. Instead of using our basin to sprinkle the person in the church during the regular Lord’s Day worship service, we then have to reassemble at some later time by a lake, beach, river, or swimming pool. Weather permitting, the participants descend into the water wearing a bathing suit or wet-suit; this is not a good look on a middle-aged minister, and doesn’t a wet-suit defeat the idea of being thoroughly washed? Our family attended a friend’s baptism by the ocean as part of a charismatic church. When the pastor attempted to lower the boy down into the ocean, the surf went out and he only went down to his waist. Someone cried out, “He didn’t go all the way under!” The pastor laughed and asked the boy, “Should I baptise you again?” He didn’t, and it was finished. So, from a Baptist perspective, did it really count? This amusing example simply illustrates the truth that the Lord has not complicated the governance of his church with impractical and burdensome rites. Why would God initiate a sacrament to be administered across the globe that requires deep pools of water? Give a Presbyterian minister a go-bag containing a Bible, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a flask of water and he has every element needed to conduct a complete worship service anytime and anywhere for the people of God. 

The Baptist position on the mode of baptism is exclusive, erroneous, and detrimental to the unity of the wider church. According to Baptist ecclesiology—and I include all credo-immersion-baptistic evangelical churches in this category—if a Christian has not experienced a post-conversion baptism by means of immersion their baptism is not valid. Though not stated explicitly, the Baptist position implicitly holds that in order to be designated as a true Christian and a member of the church sprinkled babies or adults must be baptised again. [Though in a Baptist’s eyes they never were really baptised the first time.] Thus Baptists do not recognise the validity of the baptisms performed in Orthodox, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican churches. Such a view undermines the ancient Nicene confession: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Presbyterian church is more accommodating to Baptist practice than Baptists are to them, but it is time to take a stand on how we do baptism. Has it not dawned on Presbyterians that Baptist beliefs delegitimise the Presbyterian church? By accommodating or affirming baptist practices in Presbyterian churches we are undermining our very existence as a denomination. I experienced the truth of this in my former parish when I discovered the baptismal fount in a back storage room covered with dust and cobwebs. This country Presbyterian church was so populated with Baptists, Brethren, and Pentecostals that the practice of pouring or sprinkling had been abandoned. Instead of continually accommodating Baptists in our church, now is the time for Presbyterian ministers to courageously correct. Don’t allow the “pastoral approach” or “being peaceable” justify your unwillingness to instruct your people in the right way to do baptism. It is time for Presbyterian ministers, along with elders, to affirm their ordination vows by using the right and biblical administration of baptism. As for me I am done with dunking, and I will boldly proclaim that “baptism is rightly administered with pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.”

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Expeditious Expositions: Luke 9:57-62

Three Flawed Followers

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” -Luke 9:57-62

Christ calls all his disciples to follow him along a difficult path. Though we might think we are up for the task, Jesus will expose in us areas of profound weakness. In Luke 9:57-62 Jesus confronts three men who express a willingness to follow him but who exhibit flaws that will hinder their obedience to Christ. Jesus’ words, though harsh sounding, are effective to cut through the hardness of the human heart. You should identify with these men, as Christ exposes your own flawed expectations, obligations, and attachments that hinder you.

The first conversation in 9:57-58 reveals how Christ crushes our false expectations. The man pledges to follow Jesus “wherever” he goes. The word “wherever” has the ring of a false confidence or boast about his ability and determination to follow Jesus. People often have an inflated sense of their own inherent ability to walk with Christ. The harsh realities of suffering with Jesus often destroy such arrogance. Jesus challenges this man to not expect a good life now. Often people presume that coming under our Father’s sovereign and benevolent care will result in a comfortable life. Jesus crushes that fantasy by saying that, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” If the perfect and powerful Son of God is subject to deprivations in this life, you ought to expect it too. Jesus aims to spare people of the painful disillusionment that comes when God fails to meet our false expectations of earthly blessings. Let us remember that in Paul’s contentment list he only mentions two items—food and clothing, but never housing (1 Tim. 6:6-8).

The second conversation in vv. 59-60 is the only one where Jesus initiates a command to “Follow me,” in so doing Christ exerts his authority over all human obligations. The calling of Jesus to follow is not optional, but mandatory. When confronted by Christ’s command, the man pledges a delayed obedience,“Lord, let me first…” He gives priority to a competing obligation that he presumes trumps Christ’s call. Whether his father had actually died or he intended to care for his father as long as he lived, Jesus corrects him with a stinging reproof, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This man did not have to be the one who completes the responsibility of  “burying the dead.” Let spiritually dead people do these earthly tasks, but spiritually alive people are commanded to advance Christ’s kingdom.

In the third man in vv. 61-62, Christ has to strip him of his worldly attachments. He offers to follow Jesus, but he desires first to say goodbye to his family. Though it seems like a reasonable request, Jesus’s penetrating gaze reveals that his attachment to family will hinder his obedience. He will have a hard time releasing this source of goodness and happiness. Not just your family, but everything that is familiar in your life has an unyielding grip upon you. Jesus calls this man to an unknown future, and warns him that he should not look back,“no one who puts his hands to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Whether it be our clan, country, our culture, Christ calls us to put it behind us and always look ahead. In the area of sanctification we need to also let go of who we were, and lay hold of whom Christ is making us to be.

You might identify with one of these men in particular, or you might see yourself in all three. Either way your weaknesses don’t disqualify you from discipleship, but they will be a hindrance. Every Christian is a “jar of clay” in which Christ inserts his treasure (2 Cor. 4:7). May we all take an honest look at ourselves, listen to these challenging reproofs, and respond in a way that makes us more fit to serve in Christ’s kingdom.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Theological Essay:

With, For, or Against Christ: Forging a New Militant Ecumenicalism

by Rev. Dr. Andrew W.G. Matthews

John answered, “Master we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”—Luke 9:49-50

As we read the news we see Christians under attack across the globe. Whether it be Christian schools, bakers, artists, doctors, web-designers, counsellors, academics, or pastors, all are facing increasing persecution from every side. The persecutors do not discriminate against any particular brand of Christian. In the world today there are countless religious groups that are called “Christian,” but are separated by differences in doctrine and practice. Satan would have us emphasise our differences, so that he can divide and conquer us. When the church faces hostility from the world, however, it often comes together. In Luke 9:49-50 Jesus lays down a paradigm of Christian fellowship that posits the world at war with his kingdom. You are either fighting together with Christ or fighting against him. Hitherto, pacifistic ecumenicalism stressed, “Let us be at peace with one another,” the times are now calling for a new militant ecumenicalism that cries, “Let us go to war alongside one another.” 

Not With Us

As Jesus and the disciples were traveling along the road, the apostles spotted a man who was in the process of casting out a demon. Even though this man was invoking the name of Jesus the disciples tried to hinder him. The basis for their opposition to him was that“he did not follow with us” (ESV). He was not one of the twelve apostles and probably not a part of the next circle of seventy-two disciples sent out later (Luke 10:1-24). He was clearly a man on the margins of the larger mass of followers called “disciples" of Jesus. Nonetheless, he was invoking the name of Jesus Christ. The most fundamental unity of Christ-ians is that they are all called by the name of Christ. When the church makes disciples she baptises them “in the name [singular] of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). The message of the gospel declares that “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In fact, all the early creeds in the first five centuries of the church focused on defining the truths concerning the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—defining this God whom we serve. The first point of unity among all Christians is that they proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.

The apostles opposed this man because he was not one of them. John explained to Jesus that“he does not follow with us.” The NIV translation conveys the gist of John’s concern more clearly: “He is not one of us.” This guy did not belong to the twelve apostles or their recognised wider circle of associates. The apostles were the closest to Christ. Since the Twelve actually were taught by Jesus, they were the most trustworthy representatives of what it means to follow Christ. So who was this maverick, thinking he could do works in Jesus’ name? Humans are cliquish by nature. We define our groups—who is in and who is out. We create tribes and camps, and we distrust those who do not belong to our group. Since they are not part of our group we question their legitimacy. This is the natural tendency of humans, and we need to guard against dismissing other Christian denominations simply because “they do not follow with us.”

Over the course of two millennia, the Christian church has splintered into various groups  that practice the faith differently. Many bemoan these distinct denominations, but it is actually a wise and necessary outcome. When Christians have an irreconcilable difference on a point of doctrine, the most peaceable way forward actually is to separate. You could call it achieving a “seperate peace.” Otherwise, they will perpetually fight with each other until one side subdues the other or forces them to leave. Antithetical beliefs on issues are often impossible to maintain within a single Christian group, such as the validity of infant baptism and the structure of church government. As a result, different groups have formed over the ages. They find it better to be at peace apart, instead of at war together. Though they are no longer formally together, they can still recognise each other as carrying the name of Christ.

What do we do when we are required to stand with fellow Christians whom we perceive as having an inferior understanding of the faith? No doubt the twelve apostles had a more accurate and intimate knowledge of Christ than this man on the margins. Who knows what flaws this bloke had in his theology? It is natural that we look critically on the differences and deficiencies of other Christian groups. Though each group assumes they are accurate, some are more accurate than others (Acts 18:25-26). Without apology, I can assert that the corpus of doctrines found in the classical creeds and Reformational confessions that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches uphold is the most accurate representation of biblical Christianity in the world. Any divergence from this produces an inferior version of Christianity. We may be tempted then to disdain or not associate with other Christians we deem inferior. However, to do so undermines the thrust to collaborate with others in Christian ministry and come to their defence when they are attacked.

When the Australian rugby player Israel Folau came under attack by the media and Rugby Australia (RA) for his views on repentance and homosexuality, Australian Christians by and large came to his defence. Subsequently, articles came out about some of the flaws in his church’s Trinitarian theology and some questionable practices in his church. Doubts began to creep in that maybe this athlete was not worthy of our support. Instead of standing with Israel Folau, an excuse was given to stay distant from him. This is a dangerous response. Let us be careful to recognise that just because someone is of another group and their beliefs may have flaws, to the extent that they uphold the name of Christ and the truth of his Word let us continue to assert that, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). And let us confess as the Nicene Creed declares, “we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”.

For You

After John defends their obstruction of the man’s exorcism efforts, Jesus corrects his disciples by arguing that though he may not be “with you,” he still is “for you.” This man is on their side. The man was engaging in an act of spiritual warfare. He was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, the very same actions that Jesus and his apostles had been doing in their ministry. All of them were involved in the same spiritual warfare. Though we long for the church to be at peace, in this age the church is always at war.“Since the days of John the Baptist till now, the kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12). Theologians refer to the church in this world as the church militant. One day in heaven we will be a part of the church triumphant, but now we are in a perpetual war. The problem comes when Christians do not realise that they are in a spiritual conflict, or do not want any part of it. Very few Christians have been involved in an actual demonic exorcism, but every Christian conversion is an attack on Satan. Jesus said he was the “stronger one" who had bound up the “strong man” and was stealing his possessions (Luke 11:21-22). The proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a declaration of war against the world and the domain of darkness. Every Christian who proclaims this message of salvation is engaged in a spiritual battle. If we think that as long as we “stick to the gospel” or “focus on Jesus,” and avoid all those controversial topics like God, sin, salvation, idolatry, sexual immorality, heaven, and hell we are playing it safe, we are fooling ourselves. We have now moved into a new phase where the gospel itself is “hate speech,” because the gospel proclaims that Jesus saves sinners. What message could be more offensive to this generation? 

This man on the margins was fighting the same spiritual fight as the apostles, thus he is “for them.” He was one of their allies in Christ’s war against Satan. There ought to have been a camaraderie in their mutual conflict. To the extent that any Christian church is engaged in gospel ministry proclaiming the salvation found in Christ they are allies. Likewise, to the extent that any denomination teaches the Biblical doctrine of how a Christian ought to live godly and faithfully in this age, they are allies. The church needs to look for and identify all Christians who are fighting the good fight of faith. Unfortunately, because this man was not following with them the apostles “tried to stop him.” Hence, Jesus had to reprove them, “Do not stop him.” Instead of hindering his work they ought to have supported his work. The warfare of this age has innumerable fronts and battles, any one group can not be engaged in every battle. The overall scope of the work to reach every corner of the world and every people group for the gospel, coupled with the countless varieties of Christian works of service addressing the manifold temporal miseries of this age, require a level of supportive cooperation among all genuine believers to advance the kingdom of Christ. 

Like this man who was attacking the domain of darkness, we need to identify whoever is doing a faithful work and support them. And when they come under attack we need to stand with them. Sadly, too often when Christians are attacked they end up standing alone. We see a brother or sister being assaulted by the fiery darts of the evil one, and we desert them lest we too come under fire. When the Queensland Christian school, Citipointe Christian College, was assailed by the media, politicians, and Christian pastors for upholding a biblical ethic on sexuality, it resulted in the retraction of their policy and the resignation of their principal. Instead of rushing to their aid, the overwhelming majority of the Christian community played it safe and hid in the shadows. The warfare we are facing requires us to identify our allies and be faithful to stand with them in the fight. Oh, may it not be said of us what Paul said of his contemporaries, “At my first defence, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me,” (2 Tim 4:16-17).

Against You

Jesus gives a simple definition of those who are “for you”—they are the ones who are“not against you.” An apology to the woke ideologues of our day, but Jesus sees the world through a blatantly binary lens. “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30) and “The one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). Jesus frames the world as a battle between his kingdom and the kingdom of Satan. The battle lines are drawn, and you must choose a side. Since the entrance of sin into the world in Genesis 3, there has been enmity between the offspring of Satan and the righteous offspring of Eve. Christians will know their opponents because they will be fighting against them. Who is attacking Christians throughout the world? Militant Communism, Militant Hinduism, Militant Islam, Militant LGBTQ+, Militant Atheism. Nationalist Hinduism has expelled many Christian ministries out of India. Atheists and secularists are excluding Christianity from the public square, our schools, and our prison system. And the LGBTQ+ crowd is seeking to cancel Christians from all participation in society while shouting, “No room for bigots!” 

 Though these groups maintain many antithetical beliefs, they seldom attack each other while they share a common enemy in Christianity. These strange bedfellows generally work together in opposition against Christians. Radical feminists issue warnings that the election of a Christian politician will end women's rights in society, yet they are eerily quiet about the overt oppression of women under Sharia-law in Muslim-majority countries and communities— i.e. female circumcision, child-bride arrangements, unjust retribution, divorce, rape, and child-custody laws, employment, education, and driving restrictions, et cetera. The infamous atheist Richard Dawkins attacks the Bible and the God of Christianity, but he seldom challenges the Koran or the Allah of Islam. When Haneen Zreika, who plays for the Greater Western Sydney Giants in the Australian Football League Women's (AFLW), refused to wear a gay pride jersey due to her Islamic faith, her teammates (some of whom were lesbians) supported her, and media commentators defended her decision saying she showcased the league's commitment to diversity and inclusion. In contrast, when Christians express their religious commitments they are deemed worthy of exclusion—witness the termination of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia or the Christian doctor Jereth Kok whose medical licence was suspended by the Medical Board of Australia. Why is there such solidarity among these seemingly contradictory groups? Jesus explained it simply, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (Matt 12:25-26). They are all on Satan’s side. These opponents are aligned with each other against Christians, because they are all ultimately opposed to Christ.

Identifying those who are not “with Christ” can be easy, especially if they do not identify as Christians or openly oppose the church, but there is a more insidious enemy— the enemies among us. There are people who carry the name of Christ, supposedly follow Christ, but are actually opposed to Christ. Let us not forget that one of those original twelve apostles, Judas, instead of casting out Satan became possessed by him. Time and time again, Satan infiltrates the church with wolves in sheep's clothing and attacks the church from within. It is not enough that a person is a baptised member of a Christian church or a duly-ordained minister of the gospel, if they support the agenda of the world they“do not gather with me [Jesus] but scatter” (Matt 12:30). Like a soldier in the midst of a firefight who turns his weapon on his fellow soldiers, are Christians who side with their enemies and fire upon fellow Christians. When professing believers from within the Christian community no longer maintain the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and the biblical ethics of godly living, it is incumbent upon faithful Christian leaders to identify them and hold them to account. 

The apostle Paul said of living in this world, “Redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). Indeed, the days ahead are looking very evil. The Christian communities in all the post-Christian countries need to prepare for the upcoming onslaught. We need to take note of those fighting on behalf of Christ, whether they be of the Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox strands of the Christian church, or within Protestantism—Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, or Pentecostal. We are entering a time when true Christian ecumenicalism is not about “birds of a feather flocking together,” but “bands of brothers fighting together.” Those who uphold the veracity of the Scriptures, the creation of male and female after God's image, the person and work of Christ, biblical sexual identity and morality, the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, the preeminence of the triune God in public worship, and the eternal hope of redemption will need to stand together. New battle lines are being drawn around these issues, and Christians who stand on the wrong side should no longer be seen as being "for Christ." In the fires of adversity, we may be surprised by new friends from unexpected quarters and shocked by old friends who turn against us. As we stand together for Christ may our new alliances forge even sweeter bonds of Christian fellowship.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Expeditious Expositions: James 4:13-17

Arrogant Planning

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"-- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. — James 4:13-17

Being rich is risky business. It’s not just because wealth carries with it more responsibility, but that the pursuit of riches is a dangerous occupation for the soul. Jesus said that, “it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Money matters have a particular emphasis in the teachings of Jesus as seen in the Sermon on the Mount, the parables of the kingdom, and in Jesus’ rebukes of worldly leaders. James has a decidedly negative view of rich people throughout his epistle. In James 4:13-17 the main sin of these industriously rich people is their arrogance over their presumed control of their life. 

James takes these rich people to task for boasting over their business plans. He says, “Come now you who say…” James’ rebuke is not of their planning, but their boasting. You can have a calendar, schedule appointments, and organise future endeavours without defying the reign of God over your life plans. The main problem is not the plans but their evil boasts. These rich people are boasting that they will be successful in wheeling and dealing for a whole year and will assuredly make a profit. This is not a humble prediction. James calls them out and says, “you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” The sin in their hearts was that they saw themselves as being in control over their lives, so they can determine whatever outcome they wished. They were certain that their plans would come to fruition.

Slapping these rich people upside the head, James applies themes from the book of Ecclesiastes to show how insignificant they are.  First, he confronts them on their assumption they are going to make a profit. “What does man profit by all the labour in which he labours under the sun?” (Ecc 1:3) is a key refrain throughout Ecclesiastes. Second, he challenges them on their lack of knowledge of the future, “you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Third, he refers to their life as a “mist” that vanishes, an allusion to the “breath, vanity” (hebel) prime motto in Ecclesiastes. Though these people see themselves as captains of industry they are really only fleeting breaths that are ignorant and impotent concerning their futures. 

Instead of boasting over their plans people need to acknowledge that all human plans fall out in accordance with God’s master plan. They should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” The “God-willing” attitude affirms God’s absolute control of life and our submission to his plan. To not affirm this reality is “sin” and “evil,” for it reveals an arrogant heart of autonomy and self-determination. Christians might give lip-service to God’s sovereignty, but to really believe this reality one has to learn it the hard way. After all your plans have been scuttled by God, then you realise he is in control. As Christians make plans they should write them in pencil, not pen. In all our life-planning we need to adopt the attitude that we are merely unworthy servants of Christ, bought with a price, ready to do whatever he calls us to do.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Theological Essay:

The Church Weighed, Measured, and Found Wanting

by Rev. Dr. Andrew Matthews                                                                                                                                

“And some of the wise shall stumble, so that they may be refined, purified, and made white, until the time of the end, for it still awaits the appointed time.” -Daniel 11:35 

The world-wide Covid-19 pandemic is the severest test of our generation. The Christian church specifically ought to consider the calamities of the past eighteen months as part of a painful trial that God has inflicted upon his church in order to refine her. Since both individual Christians and the church universal never reach a perfected state in this world we are constantly subject to tests that expose our short-comings. As the church has been forced to respond to the Covid crisis, Christian leaders have had to make ecclesiastical decisions, navigate ethical issues, and counsel their members how they should appropriately act. In spite of their good intentions and best efforts, I believe that the pressures of Covid-19 have exposed a number of weaknesses in our theology and ecclesiology that require reexamination and recommitment. To paraphrase the book of Daniel 5:25-28, we are a church that has been weighed, measured, and found wanting. 

We should use this Covid experience as our refining fire in order that we may discover where our deficiencies lie and make the necessary changes. Instead of self-justifying and denying our sins, we should humbly assess our decisions, confess our failings, and profess a renewed obedience. I am a Christian pastor who had been responsible for pastoring a church during this season. I write from a position of grief at the church’s present failings and remorse over my past failings. The ultimate aim of this writing is not condemnation but reformation. Though the provenance of this essay is under home-confinement orders in locked-down Australia, its message extends to the wider church. Under seven rubrics I would like to highlight a number of areas in which the church has shown itself to have fallen short in its practice and principles. Martin Luther began his 95 Theses with the assertion that,“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent!” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Jesus Christ said,“those whom I love, I reprove” (Rev 3:19). Let us embrace a spirit of humble repentance as we examine how we have measured up during the pandemic and how we should acquit ourselves henceforth.

Spirit of Fear

When Covid-19 struck in early 2020 the response of world governments and the public was excessive and palpable fear. No one was certain how lethal the disease was, so as a precaution nations closed borders and locked down their people. Fear motivated every decision. Indeed, to not be fearful was considered a sign of recklessness. As more data became available, it was determined that Covid was fatal primarily to the very elderly and unhealthy, which were generally the same category. The median age of Covid death in Australia as of October 2021 is 84 years old [1]. The aggregate case-fatality-rate among economically developed countries is around 2% (Australia: 1.1%; USA:1.6%)[2]. In age groups under 60 years old, the recovery rate for Covid in Australian is about 99.9%[3]. The vast majority of people who get Covid suffer mild symptoms and recover. Only a small minority of cases require hospitalisation or ICU care[4]. In spite of these encouraging statistics, our societal leaders were able to effectively cultivate and maintain a culture of fear. The level of panic in the public is incommensurate with the lethality of Covid.

One could understand how a secular people without hope and without God in this world would be susceptible to fear, yet the church herself has fallen into a similar panic. Despite the plethora of biblical injunctions to “fear not!” the church on the whole has not exhibited a robust spirit of courage. It is understandable that churches populated by the elderly would be particularly cautious, but elderly saints should be exhibiting more faith than those who have journeyed fewer days. One esteemed elder in my church in the early months of 2020 did not leave the bounds of his hobby farm for over two months, and did not let anyone on to his property for six months. The base-line attitude of Christians should be bold trust in God in the midst of a dangerous world. The Christian knows that God watches over them, is with them, and keeps them throughout the course of their journey, so they should not be paralysed with fear by a respiratory disease. Most of all, a Christian should have no fear of death. Biblical testimony and empirical evidence have proven that the inevitable end of all humanity is death, so after our “seventy or by reason of strength eighty” years of life (Ps 90:10) we expect to return to the dust. Christians should therefore exemplify a wisdom and assurance in the face of the prospect of death. An essential axiom of the faith is that in Christ one has eternal life, and that the next world—not this one—is our true home. This fear of death rife in the church undermines the core truth of the gospel which is “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). What does it say about our teaching and preaching ministry if our people cling to this life and have a frail assurance of their eternal salvation? The teachers of the church need to reinforce the Christian affirmations of the brevity of temporal life, the reality of judgment, and the hope and certainty of eternal life in Christ.

In addition to the disease itself, the fear of people is rampant in the church. One of the arguments for full compliance to public worship closure was that the wider public would deem an assembled church a threat to its safety. Our public witness or testimony became a prevailing concern in our deliberations. Church leaders have also been afraid of their own congregation’s opinions on Covid compliance. The divergence of perspectives on the proper Covid response has threatened the peace and unity of the church. Not only ministers and elders but also congregation members have fretted over what other members will think about their own level of personal compliance. Christians have to then subtly ascertain how strict or free other Christians are in their compliance to health measures in order to reestablish relationships. The government’s social-distancing mandates have solidified in our minds that social interaction with people puts us at risk. Covid-positive people have become the new lepers—“Unclean! Unclean!” And now everyone who is unvaccinated is seen as a de facto Covid carrier. How can we fellowship as a church when every individual is seen as a threat to your life? Fear has fractured the bonds of Christian fellowship.

Health Idolatry

Of paramount importance throughout the pandemic has been the issue of public health. The church has accepted the world’s principle that remaining alive is the summum bonum of living. Christian theology, however, has always asserted that eternal life takes precedence over temporal life. When Jesus was tempted by Satan to turn the stone into bread, he asserted that to live by God’s word was more important than to “live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4). Obedience to God was more important than staying alive. The spiritual trumps the physical. However, the government’s restrictions on public worship prioritise human safety over all other considerations. To not congregate, sing, or partake of sacraments is justified by the need to preserve physical life. The church has concurred with the state’s perspective by its willingness to set aside the ordinary means of grace lest there be any potential threat to the life of a congregant. We ministers need to reconsider how important is the preservation of human life within the whole course of Christian discipleship. The testimony of Christians who take up their cross (Mat 16:24), are faithful unto death (Rev 2:10), and consider God’s love more valuable than life (Ps 63:3) stands in stark contrast to the world which is demonically enslaved by its dread of death (Heb 2:14-15).

Very disturbingly, the public health orders of the government have become an omnipotent tool that the government has used to supplant any ordinary right or prerogative in society. Our society is ruled by an army of “-ologists.” Under the warrant of public health the government has been able to close off international travel, lock down society, seperate families, limit public assembly and protest, close worship, and shut businesses and schools. Since society at large fears Covid and privileges public health, the populace has permitted the government to take complete control of their lives. The health orders are like a giant Trojan Horse that we have welcomed into our city. If a communist or progressive government made a direct attack against Christian assembly the church would undoubtably fight back. If the government were to close our churches due to ideology, we would publicly resist—or go underground. Yet, when the government closes our churches due to health orders, we submit without question. Though the motives may be different, the end is the same. The state has found an effective mechanism by which the church will cede its sovereignty. 

The church needs to consider how we have established a dangerous precedent that public health warrants can be routinely used to restrict and suspend church gatherings and practice. Is public health a justifiable grounds by which the state can exercise absolute control over the affairs of the church? Having established a precedent on physical health grounds, the state can easily transition to further control of doctrinal issues on the basis of mental health. Church leadership needs to establish the boundaries of health restrictions on church practice and also standards by which the government should justify its restrictions. 

Submitting to Caesar

Under the government health orders, the church has felt that it has had no option but to obey. Both the Bible (see Rom 13:1-7: Tit 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13-15) and our confessional documents (see Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 23: “Of the Civil Magistrate") assert the duty of the church to submit to human rulers, i.e. “the civil magistrate”. The obligation to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” (Luke 20:25) has been a hallmark of Christian citizenship for two millennia. The contemporary church recognises that the state has a legitimate interest to protect its citizens, so it has supported the state’s involvement in church matters as they relate to child protection, building regulations, and tax and accounting law. Since the government has imposed restrictions on the basis of public health and not ideology, the church has bent-over-backwards to show its support of measures that further the public good. In the initial stages of the virus, church leaders closed the doors, since they were fearful of the unknown dangers of this Covid and expected that the suspension of services would only last a few weeks. In good faith the church has aimed to demonstrate that its dutiful compliance has aided the state’s goal of public welfare.

The church’s compliance to the health regulations is, however, not merely about voluntary compliance but authoritative submission. Though government leaders may have spoken softly, they still carry a big stick. At the end of the day, the church is required to submit irrespective of its views. The church may put on a facade of voluntary compliance, but its leaders know that they don’t have a choice—at least not without a cost. Noncompliance to health orders carries immense penalties such as hefty fines to the primary stakeholders in the church, personal legal liability to leaders if a person dies of Covid, and possibly criminal prosecution for unlawful assembly. Not many elders and ministers, regardless of their convictions, are able to withstand the enormous pressure that comes from the government, ecclesiastical authorities, public opinion, and from within the congregation itself. If a pastor were to make a principled stand and disobey public health orders the most likely outcome for him would be a charge of ministerial misconduct and contumacy to the ecclesiastical authorities coupled with a loss of income, housing, and ministerial career prospects. The upholding of genuine convictions carries a significant cost.

The church has yet to determine the bounds, limitations, and duration of the state’s new-found health authority. As much as the church affirms the right of the civil magistrate to adjudicate its affairs within its sphere of responsibility, it also asserts that government authority is not absolute. The state’s edicts have ethical and ecclesiastical limits. Citizens, especially Christians citizens, are under no obligation to comply with government laws that violate God’s moral law. The second half of Christ’s injunction—“[render] unto God the things that are God’s”—is still perpetually binding upon the church. The civil magistrate has no absolute authority over internal ecclesiastical matters, especially the doctrine that is to be taught and how worship is to be conducted. With respect to the latter, that has already occurred in Covid health restrictions: no gathering, no singing, no sacraments. If we accept the premise that the government, even with a health warrant, does not have unbounded authority over the affairs of the church (Acts 4:19), where will the church draw the line? My wife had a discussion with a moderator of a state assembly who told her that there was no consensus among ministers where the proverbial “red line” lay. For some it is the state’s regulations over church worship; for others it is the mandates prohibiting unvaccinated church attendance. Others are keeping their powder dry until the state threatens our inviolable theological commitments—coming soon from the progressive ideological movement.

The church’s obedience to the government has extended to the expectation of unwavering public support to their policies. The “Honour the king” (1 Pet 2:17) injunction appears to mean that church leaders should in no way publicly criticise government health policies. In regards to Covid policy, it seems the church must not only submit, but do it smilingly. The official church leadership has not made any overt prohibitions against government criticism, but one can feel that a culture exists which frowns upon public rhetorical challenges to government policies. In my own church, my leadership expected me to explain to the congregation the worship restrictions, but opposed me publicly expressing my disapproval of them. Is it not allowable that a person can submit to a law yet not agree with it? In that vein, there is a perception among some of the laity that church leaders put up little resistance to the government’s health restrictions. How much resistance was given to the government over the church being designated as a “non-essential service”? The “sons of light” could learn some shrewd lessons from the “sons of this world” (Luke 16:8). Sometimes insecure politicians back-down in the face of resolute resistance.

The church’s unwavering support of the government is predicated on the belief that the government’s sound wisdom and good character is unassailable as it pertains to Covid policy. The health advisors are experts in the fields of science and medicine, so we lack the competence to question their judgement. We have been repeatedly assured that government ministers and health authorities are driven by genuine love and good motives. The public’s safety, not a desire to undermine the church is the motive behind all their policy. The questioning of motives is always a dangerous business. We assume that the church has not been targeted, for the public assembly rules apply equally to all types of organisations. Perhaps only the most cynical conspiracy theorist would dare to question the motives behind Covid policy. I ask the question: given the downward ethical trajectory of our government’s policies in the areas of abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, transgenderism, prostitution, conversion therapy/theology and religious vilification, how is it still possible that we assume that our government is inherently favourable to the evangelical church? Is it not telling that during the Covid lockdown in New Zealand and Australia significant legislature has been pushed through on euthanasia and abortion, yet a religious liberty bill has stalled in the Australian parliament due to the pandemic? The greatest absurdity of all is that Covid restrictions were issued to preserve the life of the most vulnerable, the sick and elderly, yet governments have been passing euthanasia bills in order to kill the sick and elderly. I guess it is acceptable to the government for the elderly and sick to die, as long as it is not from Covid. 

It is time to shed our naiveté and assume a posture of dubious and vigilant pessimism towards the government. Without negating the biblical ethic of honouring and submitting to government, the church needs to acknowledge that once God-fearing governments are acting oppressively in manners detrimental to the flourishing of the church. The church should not blithely submit to every edict of the state as applied to the church but vigorously scrutinise the character of every regulation in the light of God’s law. It is time for church leadership to establish boundaries of government intrusion into ecclesiastical operations, to define what areas are permissible and what areas are sacred. Just as God shut in the seas, the church needs to have the fortitude to say to the state, “Thus far you shall come, and no farther.” (Job 38:11). 

Ethical Confusion

A refrain preached at us from our government leaders is that we need to “do the right thing.” It is ironic that in an age that rejects moral absolutism and espouses moral subjectivity that our leaders would use such a trite phrase in applying the enforcement of their own rules. What exactly is “the right thing”? The pandemic has opened up a moral Pandora’s box that our society and the church is struggling to close. The path of least resistance is to uphold whatever the government decrees as “the right thing.” The Fifth Commandment, Romans 13, our creeds, and our conscience make this the default course of conduct. But since we know that human laws are never absolute and are subordinate to God’s moral commandments, we still have to discern if a government law has gone too far. A cogent case can be made that harsh, protracted lockdowns violate the sixth commandment to uphold the life and well-being of people. The widespread trauma of spiralling mental health, ruined livelihoods, stunted education, postponed health care, and rising suicides must be factored into our calculus of the ultimate “right thing” for our society.

The innumerable, confusing, and ever-changing health advice and restrictions furthermore create a burdensome weight of human tradition which binds the conscience of people. You could call it “Covid morality.” The essential moral imperative underlying all Covid policy ought to be do not infect another person with Covid. Now the focus shifts to the minutia of keeping health rules. The government has generated a morass of health legalism: mask wearing, social distancing, social isolation, fastidious cleaning, and vaccine compulsion. Our consciences are burdened not with the fundamental issue of “Am I infecting anyone else?” but with subsidiary questions like, “Will I get in trouble because my walk in the park is recreation and not real exercise?” or “Is it wrong that I visit at home my friend whose child has just died?” As with all legalism, human rules eclipse God’s laws and we lose sight of the original moral imperative.

Recently the existence of vaccine mandates has opened up another ethical quandary. The use of vaccines is widely established as a vital public health policy and most people are inoculated at a young age. More troublesome is the issue of vaccine coercion. Since WWII human-rights legislation has upheld the right of “bodily integrity.” No government should force a vaccine on their citizenship, even if it is in the individual’s and the group’s best interest. The government may claim to not be enacting “coercion,” simply applying “motivation” in their Covid vaccine push; however, using employment/income termination and societal exclusion as incentives certainly rises to the level of vaccine coercion. Vaccine mandates are being applied to the church in some communities, so the church faces a moral dilemma in her compliance. Enforcing vaccine mandates maintains civil obedience, on the moral grounds of “protecting the vulnerable”, yet it violates the core values of non-partiality, gospel-inclusivity, and the unity of the church. Even if vaccine mandates last only a few weeks, the church will have still violated some of her principles.

Adherence to government dictates is not the final determiner of biblical righteousness. The ethical confusion rampant in the church reveals the deficiency of our understanding of biblical ethics. It would serve the church well to study God’s moral law from the Old Testament and how Jesus and the apostles taught its application in the Christian life. The Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms are helpful tools to explicate and apply God’s moral laws as a rule for Christian living. The consciences of Christians need liberation from the web of health legalism that is burdening and binding them. 

Compromised Ecclesiology

Covid has exposed the church’s weakness in her ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). For some time, in the overall scope of Christian doctrine, ecclesiology has been relegated to second-tier status. How we viewed the church polity, sacraments, and worship was less important than the doctrines of God, Scripture, the person and work of Christ, and soteriology. The pandemic does not affect any of those doctrines, but it does impinge on how we govern our churches. The government’s ability to run roughshod over every perceived inviolable practice of the church is astounding. Using the health warrant the state has been able to suspend the public assembling of the church for Sabbath worship, the fellowshipping of the saints in private gatherings, congregational singing in church, and the administration of the sacraments of Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Those elements of church operation that were previously recognised as the purvey of ecclesiastical authority have been forfeited to the control of civil authorities. When we allow the civil government the power to control the basic functioning of our churches our fundamental confession that Jesus Christ is the only Head of the church is under assault. 

That the state is the de facto head of the church is evident in how the standard decision-making processes of the church were abandoned without any compunction. Ecclesiastical decision-making is typically a slow, cumbersome process involving multiple layers of church courts. Yet when Covid struck all church services were suspended for an indefinite time simply by government edict. No emergency assemblies were called to discuss and make decisions about a proper ecclesiastical response. When singing and sacrament prohibitions were issued, likewise no debate occurred at any ecclesiastical level. It was simply assumed that whatever rules the government issued the church would follow. We knew who was calling the shots. It is only now eighteen months into the pandemic that the Presbyterian Church of Australia General Assembly convened to discuss the appropriateness of vaccine mandates for church attendance. Ironically, the church is unfazed if the state excludes everybody, but aghast if the state excludes somebody

In this state of emergency the church also amended its own internal decision-making process. Within a Presbyterian system decisions are made at three ecclesiastical levels: church session, presbytery, assembly. However, major decisions were being implemented during Covid from a top-down administrative level which applied to all levels of the church. For instance, within the Presbyterian church in New South Wales, Australia all the state health restrictions and explanations were relayed through the administrative offices to the churches. Whatever the administrator notified us about was considered binding since it carried the presumed force of civil law. A major change occurred in our sacramental practice in allowing virtual communion. Before 2020, I venture no Reformed and Presbyerian denomination in the world would allow on-line participation in communion with church members at home serving the elements to themselves. Were such a change in the Lord’s Supper’s administration considered it would have required national General Assembly approval together with study papers, plenary voting, and then ratification of the results the following year in the presbyteries. Yet in 2020 virtual communion was signed off at an administrative level simply by one theologian giving his recommendation of the practice in a paper emailed to the churches. At issue here is not whether or not the church should allow virtual communion, but that all the normal ecclesiological governing processes were jettisoned during Covid. It was decided by administrative fiat. It was as if the emergency powers of the state invoked the emergency powers of the church hierarchy. This shows how fragile our church polity is when put to the test during a time of crisis. 

Church decision-making has also been driven by punitive and pragmatic concerns instead of principles. What is the main driver behind the church’s submission to health edicts? Was it the principles of submitting to government and preserving life, or was it the fear of the government’s punishments? I venture the latter. People are more easily motivated by punishments than principles. In my own church, elders argued against congregational singing solely based upon the potential financial fines levied against leadership if we violated the health order. At a state informational meeting a church leader argued that the non-enforcement of vaccine mandates carried with it costly financial, legal, and potential criminal consequences. Scare tactics are effective. Pragmatism is evident when the compromising of normal church practice is justified on the basis of its short duration—“It will only last a little while.” Initially the church accepted all the worship restrictions because we thought it would only last a few weeks. Almost two years into the pandemic many churches are still in the same place. Let us remember that King Darius’ injunction prohibiting prayer was for only thirty days (Dan 6:7), yet Daniel prayed the next day. The church acts pragmatically when it chooses options because it feels like it has no choice. Online-streaming services, recorded services, virtual communion have been conducted as a replacement for gathered worship, so that we could provide some facsimile of a genuine worship experience. We thought, “We have to do something!” In a crisis the church needs to stop and consider how and why it is making decisions. What doctrines are at stake? Are there any bad precedents being established or principles violated because in haste the church had to “do something.” The safest course of action is to either do nothing or, like Daniel,“do as he had done previously” (Dan 6:10). 

The Covid pandemic ushered in a season of emergency state authority over our society which we thought inconceivable. The amount of control wielded over every area of society and the church in particular is unprecedented over the last century. The church simply did not have the mechanisms in place to be able to respond to the rapid exertion of state control over church affairs. Now would be a good time for the church to consider creating its own emergency protocols when faced with the extreme dangers such as pandemics, war, natural disasters, or threatening legislature. Just as governments need to respond rapidly in times of crisis, the church needs to respond rapidly through its ecclesiastical levels. Without jettisoning proper polity, rapid response measures should be implemented such as convening assemblies, defining appropriate short-term measures, and identifying potential threats to the health and right practice of the church. 

Warped Worship

Perhaps the most disturbing church weakness that Covid has exposed is how easily we have abandoned our commitment to the true worship of the Lord. The Reformation stream of churches has always prioritised the orthodox and regulated worship of God in accordance with the Scriptures. The Ten Commandments lead with four commandments on how to worship God correctly, and all God’s redemptive acts are ultimately purposed so that God is glorified by the redeemed. However, during the pandemic the second tablet of the law (“love your neighbour”) has taken precedence over the first tablet of the law (“love the Lord”). More specifically, keeping the Fifth Commandment (honour authority) and the Sixth Commandment (preserve life) has superseded the first four commandments. The worship of God has taken a back-seat to the safety of people. The church has warped their regular worship practice in order to accommodate the government health orders. Believers have always publicly assembled to worship the Lord, in addition to their private devotions. When the government closed “places of worship” the church pivoted by declaring private assemblies essentially the same as public assemblies. Since people were watching at home we could say that we still had maintained our worship services. We need to have the integrity to admit, ontologically speaking, online services are not actually church services. Pastors may perform all the elements of a worship service in an empty building to be viewed from afar, but they have not created a public assembly of worship. Likewise, if one were to read through the complete liturgy of a John Calvin Genevan church service, sang the psalms, and read the text of his sermon, it would be edifying, but it would be ludicrous to claim they participated in a Calvin church service. 

The regulative principle of worship teaches that in a public worship service, singing, along with the reading of Scripture, prayer, and the preaching of the Word are the primary elements that constitute a service. (See WCF 21:3,5) Yet the church allowed the government to exclude congregational singing on the flimsiest of grounds. Is a worship service that prohibits God’s people from vocally praising and thanking God in song truely a worship service? Is God pleased with such an offering? I had an elder argue that as long as you are “singing in your heart” it’s the same thing, and “it won’t hurt people if they don’t sing for a little while.” I guess the stones outside the church sang in their stead. It is a mark of the church’s spiritual decline when church leaders do not consider the loss of praising God in song a serious matter. The church needs to answer this confronting question: If the state forbids congregational singing, is it a sin to sing in church—or is it a sin not to sing? To sing dishonours the state, to not sing dishonours God. So whom should we honour? The consciences of Christians need an answer.

Though not required in every Lord’s Day service, the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper should also be observed. Government health orders regarding social distancing effectively cancelled both sacraments. Unless a Presbyterian minister uses a water gun, there is no way to baptise a person and obey the social distancing regulations. If the Ethiopian eunuch were to ask the question today, “What prevents me from being baptised?” (Acts 8:36). We would answer, “Government health orders.” (Full disclosure, I ignored social distancing guidelines last year and conducted a baptism by sprinkling of an adult convert). In response to the state’s Lord’s Supper restrictions, some churches adopted the practice of virtual communion. Virtual communion is oxymoronic. Physical presence and unity is intrinsic in the symbolism of partaking of one cup and one loaf eaten by one body of people united together. 

Our ecclesiology needs to prioritise the Lord’s mandate that God is to be worshipped rightly and continually with fear and trembling. Our careless application and amending of our worship commitments reveal what little value the church places on the true worship of God. If redemption is driven by God’s glory, and if “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” (WCF Q1) why do we see it as a light thing to abandon our worship commitments? Offering up “strange fire” (Lev 10:1) or “abominable worship” (Eze 8; Dan 11) carried the severest of punishments. Old Testament priests lost their lives when they engaged in perverse worship. The LORD made his house desolate after his people had made it defiled.  Jesus’ threat to the churches about “losing your lampstand” endures perpetually (Rev 2:5). Instead of privileging human safety and government edict we need to consider what worship the “great King” (Mal 1:14) and “the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev 1:5) requires from his redeemed people. It would serve the church well if she reeducated herself on the essential principles of worship as taught in the first four commandments and our confessions. Finally, we need to covenantally recommit to public gathering on the Sabbath for all people with exuberant singing, and the right administration of the sacraments, and resolve to not abandon these regular practices in the event of another crisis in the future.

Dishonouring God

The church has failed to accurately interpret God’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic. Since interpreting providence is an inherently fallible task, we have often pled ignorance about the mind of God or banally affirmed the sovereignty of God over the pandemic. Both are safe messages, but are unhelpful explanations for God’s children. Asserting that providence is inscrutable and that God is transcendent is eerily similar to deism, that somehow God is distant and not involved in what is occurring in this pandemic. A juvenile understanding of providence holds that God gets the credit for the good things, but is absolved of blame for the bad things. A mature theodicy, however, unabashedly upholds that God is the sovereign determiner of all the good and evil in the world. “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that bad and good come?” (Lam 3:38; see also Job 2:10; Amos 3:5). The church needs to affirm God’s hand in these calamities and then seek out what lessons we may draw and what should be our response.

The church has notably been unwilling to interpret the pandemic as a wake-up call or judgment against the church and the world. In the Scriptures when God’s house was made desolate or his people oppressed it was usually an indicator of spiritual declension. Jesus reproved his contemporaries that they could read the weather but could “not interpret the signs of the times” (Matt 16:3). The church has experienced the unprecedented, world-wide closure of public worship services and the suspension of singing and sacraments for an extended period of time, yet we have dismissed the possibility of God being displeased with us. Since “judgment begins at the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17), the contemporary church’s reluctance to contemplate divine judgment behind these trials is inexplicable and dangerous. Some may reason that disease is part of the standard hardships of a fallen world and these trials are not novel. Or our theological and ethical commitments are beyond reproach so the Lord is certainly pleased with our faithfulness. Such thinking may explain why there has been few calls for self-examination, repentance, and recommitment to the Lord in the midst of Covid. Be careful, spiritual self-satisfaction is a treacherous path to tread. It would serve the church far better to have a somber season of reflection to consider her ways and make straight her paths.

The church’s pandemic response has exposed our languid reliance upon God’s covenantal care of us. Perhaps we do not expect God to extraordinarily remove coronavirus from our experience. Or we have reasoned that if God is going to mitigate the damage of Covid, he is restricted to the ordinary means of public policies and medical treatment. Though we still affirm that God is omnipotent, our low expectations have effectively rendered God impotent. The injunctions to not fear any trouble or persecution in this world are predicated on God’s special promises of care for his elect children. Are ministers boldly exhorting Christians in our day to embrace God’s promises of protection from pestilence and persecution (Ps 91:3-10)? No, instead we take the cautious approach and rationally conclude that a believer is equally subject to any calamity of this world as a non-believer, and thereby dismiss the promises of protection as presumptuous folly. If we discount God’s special providential care for his children, it is no wonder that church members are more or less indistinguishable from non-believers in their fear of Covid. 

As part of our recommitment to God the church needs to reaffirm the blessed sovereignty of God and plead for the Lord to relieve us from this distress. The fact that in this global pandemic the rulers of our once proud “Christian nations” have rendered God’s rule and help irrelevant shows the extent to which our culture has fallen away from the truth of Christ. This is certainly no surprise to us. To compensate for their unbelief, the church should strike a more courageous path of faith. The best substitute for worldly fear is godly fear. When the church cries out to God for help it professes to the world her belief in the majesty and the mercy of God in his administration of the affairs of the world. Now is the time for God to be glorified in his answering the cries of his children. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jam 4:2). Let us first seek the help of the Lord before we rely upon the help of governments and medical experts. May we convene large-scale calls for prayer in the church so that God may finally deliver us from Covid. 

A Pathway Forward

What will be the state of the church that emerges from Covid? In the early stages of the pandemic the silver-linings attitude hoped that once we returned to public gatherings our online services would have generated new believers and that Christians would have a newfound appreciation for going to church. We anticipated an invigorated church ready for a fresh start. Such optimism appears unfounded. The church returning from Covid exile is not resurgent but diminished. Many parishioners enjoyed lounging around in their pyjamas while watching online church. Now they have to ready themselves and their children to go to church. After months of Covid fear-saturation many of the elderly simply refuse to expose themselves to the dangers of disease. The continuing Covid safety measures of occupancy limits, mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccine mandates hinder the flourishing of our congregations. We are not a stronger church after Covid. 

The first step in recovery is repentance. We resist repentance because it is painful. Nobody wants to take an honest look at themselves and feel the guilt. We pastors aspire to faithfully serve Christ in all our ministry. Like the eleven disciples at the Mount of Olives, we may profess that we possess an undying allegiance to Jesus (Mark 14:31). Yet like Peter, we discover that when under enough pressure we too can deny our Lord. This is the grievous process that I have gone through. The searing pain of seeing my own weakness is deeper and more acute than any hardship I have experienced in the church. Where have we leaders been unfaithful to Jesus? The primary sin of church leadership is our dishonouring of Christ’s holy reign over our lives and the church. God warned Israel through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not call conspiracy all this people call conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of Hosts, him shall you honour as holy. Let him be your fear, let him be your dread” (Isa 8:12-13). We have feared the danger of a virus, the overwhelming power of the state, and the opinion of people more than we have feared the power of the LORD of Hosts. We have cowered before men because we esteem their punishments more dreadful than God’s. The arguments that the church has maintained its integrity during the pandemic simply mask this deep deficiency. If we want to see the hand of God move in a great way to restore the former glory, we must first acknowledge our sin and once again “in [our] hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy,” (1 Pet 3:15). My concern is that post-Covid an unrepentant church will go through the motions of religion but the glory will have departed. We will be worshipping an image of God, but the true and living God will not be dwelling in our midst.

The weakened state of the church is the direct consequence of the church’s actions during Covid. If we hope that God restores the fortunes of her people it is incumbent upon us to first take stock of our actions during the pandemic, repent, and then consider how we might acquit ourselves henceforth. To the extent that the church has permitted the suspension of the ordinary means of grace experienced in public worship she is responsible for the poor spiritual state of believers. As enumerated previously, the church needs a renewed spirit of boldness to counteract the spirit of fear dominant in society. Our spiritual health should be considered more important than our physical health. We need to determine the limitations of the government’s authority over church operations. Leaders should make it a priority to properly teach biblical ethics. Church ecclesiology needs to be refortified to respond to emergency situations and the overwhelming authority of the state. If we are to expect God’s blessing on the church we must recommit to God-honouring worship and renew our trust in the merciful and mighty God who rules over all things.

[1] see Australian Government Department of Health,, “Coronavirus (Covid-19) at a Glance - 26 October 2021.”

[2] see John Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, for global case fatality rates.

[3] see Coronavirus (Covid-19) Case Numbers and Statistics [26 October 2021]; “Deaths by age group and sex.” In Australia, of the 142,204 cumulative cases in the age groups under 60 years, only 145 were fatal: a .00102 fatality rate.

[4] see “Active cases, hospitalisation, and ICU in Australia” About 1% of all active Covid cases require ICU care. Prior to the vaccine roll-out roughly 10% of Covid cases involved hospitalisation. Post vaccine, the hospitalisation rate is about 5%.