Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Church Government: Epilogue

I said last time that it was the final post on the Church Government series. Well, let me just say I wasn't quite done, even after that long post. I wanted to give a little lighter note at the end, and at the same time, make sure that I have not missed the main thing.

After drawing on my conclusion, I couldn't help but wonder if the church polity has become a little bit of luxury in the western society. I don't mean that it's unimportant, but, with the advance in technology and transport in particular, we are much more free to choose a church than our ancestors or our brothers in less developed countries are able to (or perhaps they didn't even imagine it!). Although many Christians left (or were ejected from) an established church to found a different church at the height of the Reformation period and during the Religious Freedom movements, and many with good intentions and reasons, the choice most of us in the west are faced with is quite different to what they were faced with. I mean, if I lived in a place and time where the transport was difficult and there was only one Christian church nearby, I will not hesitate to join that church, so long as it were Protestant, Reformed, and Evangelical. (Ok, I'm still unable to let go of some boundaries here, but see, they aren't church polity!) Or, let me put it this way. The church's structure won't be stopping me from joining it, may that be Anglican, Presbyterian, single-elder congregational, multi-elder congregational, or whatever else form, the church polity isn't going to affect my decision.

All this is to say this final, yes, the real final point. As I consider the church polity, it is important to remember that the gospel is the main thing. I won't say that the church polity is not important or inconsequential, no, it is important, but it is crucial that the church polity is viewed in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To read the earlier posts in this series, see below:

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism
  5. Plural-elder Congregationalism
  6. Reality-check
  7. Conclusion

Monday, 18 February 2013

Church Government: Conclusion

Note: This is the seventh and final post of the series on church governments, which began as I sought to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first six as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism
  5. Plural-elder Congregationalism
  6. Reality-check
So, I've finished the book. I found the book to be helpful not because it was an exhaustive study on the church government, but because it highlighted various differing points, and they in the end sharpened my own approach to the issue of the church government.

As I was getting closer to finishing the book, however, I had to resist the temptation to give up on thinking further and coming to a conclusion of my own. I thought, "hey, these great Christian theologians can't agree, and so, how can I hope to get the right answer? Perhaps I shouldn't treat the church government as an important issue. Maybe whatever works is ok for a church? After all, my heroes in the faith come from various denominations, not just one!" Thankfully, I managed to resist that temptation.

So, have I come to a conclusion? I believe I have, but it doesn't mean that I am final on this. Like everything in our lives, I leave a door open for the bible to further correct my view. With the conclusion I came down to, at least for now, I can happily say that my conscience is clear. I hope no one reads what I below and simply take it as their own, but at the same time, I will be glad if they are helped in thinking this issue through, as I had been through the book.

Before I start on the main points, let me briefly list the three contentious issues which seemed to divide the four views.

1) Bishops "above" church elders (pro bishop? Anglicans. anti bishops? the other three)
2) Independence of a local church (totally independent? Congregationalists. not completely independent? Presbyterians or Anglicans)
3) Number of elders in a local church (single elder is norm? Single-elder congregationalists, and possibly Anglicans, plural elder is norm? Presbyterians, Plural-elder congregationalists, and possibly Anglicans)

As I closed the book, I was once again reminded that the most important question we need to ask was this: "What does the bible say?" That's the most crucial question.
One thing that struck me was the congregationalists' criticism on Anglican's low view of scripture. I don't believe Peter Toon has a low view of scripture, but he was criticised as by others. I think that is a misunderstanding on congregationalists part. The congregationalists were emphasising what is called the regulative principle. Simply put, it means that Christians must only worship God as the bible prescribes and no other way. This contrasts with the normative principle which says, we can worship God in many different ways as long as we do not commit what the bible forbids. I quite like the regulative principle and would choose that over the normative principle if I had to pick one. It seems the safer option for me. But I believe we need to be careful with it. You see, the question again, is "what does the bible say?" What does the bible say about the church government? This is before you decide on whatever principle you like and coming to the bible to find out what the bible says. If you like, you could ask, no you must ask, "what does the bible say about the regulative principle?", except you might be already putting to the bible a question that it's not interested in answering. I believe that the bible affirms the regulative principle some areas of Christian worship, but it is not a be-all-end-all kind of thing. The bible is the final authority, and if you are going to apply the regulative principle on the church government, you'll have to first find that the bible tells us to use the regulative principle on how to structure the church.

I cannot make this point strong enough in fact. Many Christians confess that the bible is the final authority in regards to the faith and that it is sufficient for believers to live God's way. Yet, we bring so many different ideas to the bible, and knowingly and unknowingly distort what the bible plainly teaches. Sure, we cannot understand the bible in a vacuum. We all bring certain presuppositions to the task of understanding the bible. What I am trying to guard myself against and warn others about is that these presuppositions should not be so strong that your bible actually depends on it. If you do that, you're inadvertently making your presuppositions the final authority, not the bible. So, what am I proposing here? Bring your presuppositions, your regulative principle even, if you like, but bring them soft, malleable, so that the bible will speak the final word. Your presuppositions, your principles, your rules and tools will be strengthened by the bible when they are in line with what the bible says, they will be weakened and even broken when they are opposed to what the bible says.

The biggest mistake with the congregationalists, I think, is that they already believe that they must only organise their church in the exact way the bible teaches. I am now convinced that the bible does not give a full, detailed picture of how to structure the church. So, if the congregationalists were to be truly consistent with their application of the regulative principle, they won't be able to structure the church at all. But they do! What they have done is that they went to the bible to find what they were looking for. When the bible does not give a detailed instructions on how to structure the church, to claim that the bible does is nothing less than adding to the bible.

I don't know enough to make a clear case for this, but my suspicion is that the profound disagreement between Anglicans and the rest (Presbyterians and Congregationalists alike, but particularly Congregationalists) actually stems from the historical relationship between the church and the state. Because the Anglican churches, through their bishops mainly, had a strong ties with the state, the dissenters had to work for the independence of the church from the state. That was a marvellous work. I am grateful for their work and sacrifices. However, now that the separation of the church and state and the religious freedom has been achieved (although some atheists will not rest until the government becomes anti-religion), I believe you do not need to reject bishops any longer. So long as they aren't domineering over local churches, and are faithful to the historic gospel of Jesus and working to further the gospel growth, they can be of good use for the churches. So, yes, I am not against the bishops. What if I was part of Presbyterian church or a Baptist? Will I demand a bishop? I don't think so. It is helpful to have bishops, but not so necessary to start instituting them when your denomination doesn't have them. There are other ways to fulfil similar roles I'm sure, even if not exactly the same.

So that's the first point of conclusion I've come to. Bishops are good, but don't fight to institute one if you don't have them. If you have them, make sure they are keeping with the gospel work.

The second point is whether to have a clear, structurally formal independence of local churches as congregationalists demand. All four views held that the local churches need to be in partnership with other churches. I think that's clear from the bible. The congregationalists, however, maintain that they need to be clearly, structurally independent of any other governing body, so that while freely partnering with other churches, they are not under some kind of obligations to submit to some higher church hierarchy. I am not convinced that this is necessary or better than the alternatives (Anglican or Presbyterian way). It seems to appeal to the independent, individualistic mindset of modern western culture, but I don't think the bible is so strong on the "complete-ness" of a local church that you should not bind yourself with some other churches. The local churches in Anglican and Presbyterian denominations run quite independently at the local level. The congregationalists argued in the book that in Anglican or Presbyterian structures, when one bishop or governing body makes a bad decision, the whole group of churches suffer. I understand that point with sadness in my heart (I think of liberal Anglicans and Uniting churches). However, the reversal isn't so much better as they seem to claim. In the absence of a bishop, or a trusted ruling body, I found independent churches (congregational, baptists, non-denominational, etc) to be a bit of hit-and-miss when it came to their teaching and practice. I found it more difficult to recommend an independent church to a friend because I can't have much confidence unless I've attended it or know someone personally there, while with the Presbyterian or Anglican churches, I could be reasonably confident that at least their theological convictions fall within certain boundaries I have. Not all baptists or congregationalists churches are not-recommendable, of course! But it's harder to confidently recommend one for friends when I don't know much about them. They are, after all, independent.

So, this is my second point of conclusion. The local church does not necessarily need to be independent and having a higher church governing body over local churches is a good thing. Here, a kind of footnote might be necessary. Does this mean that the Roman Catholic way of church structure is a good thing, where the bishop of Rome is supreme over all the churches globally? No. The bishop, to be engaged in a gospel ministry at a local level, they should have a limited geographical boundary. Without that, a bishop will be abstracted away from the local needs, and will eventually be less useful to the church and be at risk of working to simply increase his influence over more churches and greater area. 

Thirdly, I considered the number of elders in a local church. Before I read this book, I had been convinced that the most important issue in a local church government was the presence of multiple elders. If a church didn't have, or affirm as the norm, the multiple elders, I thought it was clearly going against the scriptures. This was what made me uncomfortable to go into ministry in the Anglican church, as opposed to the Presbyterian church. However, I seem to have been too concerned with the exact terminology, rather than the actual role they were meant to fill. I still think it is important to have multiple elders in a church, but I now think that the exact term elder is not necessary. It's not the terminology that's most important here, but the role they fulfil. As long as there are people leading the church alongside the pastor and they fit the biblical descriptions of their character (eg. 1 Tim 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-9), I can work with that. They don't need to have them right now even, but so long as there is a possibility for that to change, I'll be content. I also think it is important that the pastor should work with "elders" in a way that is not domineering or independent, but with a posture of submission, as is the norm (ideal?) in the Presbyterianism. But this has more to do with the maturity of the church and the character of the pastor and less to do with the formal structure.

So, that's my third and final point in conclusion. A local church should strive to have a group of mature Christians working alongside the minister, and the minister himself, more than anyone else, should empower and recognise their authority in the church, so that the leadership of the church will not fall to a single man.

Speaking on what the bible says can be a difficult thing sometimes and may require courage and discipline. But keeping mouth shut on the things that the bible is silent on also requires as much courage and discipline. The great reformation motto, Sola Scriptura itself isn't a rule that you just bring to the bible. That itself requires verification by the bible (and thankfully the bible does teach that!). And the bible does not give minute details on how we ought to structure the church. In this light, I came to the above three points. Because the bible did not prescribe an exact and detailed church structure, I don't think it is necessarily a sin to commit to one of the four ways of church government (interestingly, all four proponents seem to agree on this, even the congregationalists who invest heavily on the regulative principle!). This means that, in our societies where the separation of the church and the state and the religious freedom is achieved, we do not need to split over the structure of the church, as they did few centuries ago. I don't think anyone needs to change their denomination purely because of its standard church polity. So I am content, having moved a year ago from a Presbyterian church to an evangelical Anglican church, I see no need for me to move back to the Presbyterian church. Of course, it would have been fine to stay as a Presbyterian too! If I were a Baptist, I wouldn't (or shouldn't) have moved to a different denomination either if the only issue I had were the church structure. I would most uncomfortable working in the single-elder congregational church, but being a congregational church, if I were to be a pastor, I can, in theory, teach on the matter and persuade the congregation to institute multiple elders. This is exactly what had happened under the leadership of John Piper at his church and there are many other examples.
It seems that while the regulative principle sounds restricting, and the normative principle mischievous, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, when applied correctly is most liberating for Christians.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

These short, precious, eternity-charged years

[Jeremiah] feared getting what he wanted and missing what God wanted. It is still the only thing worthy of our fear.
What a waste it would be to take these short, precious, eternity-charged years that we are given and squander them in cocktail chatter when we can be, like Jeremiah, vehemently human and passionate with God.
  - p. 263, from Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson (also in the 7th chapter of the book, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life At Its Best)

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Church Government: Reality-check

Note: This is the sixth post of the series on church governments, which began as I sought to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first five as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism
  5. Plural-elder Congregationalism

Somewhat unexpectedly, this book felt heavy on my heart today. On my train trip back home from work, I pulled it out of my bag to read it, but I just sat there with the book in my hand, feeling hesitant to read on.

Why am I reading this book? Why did I start? What am I looking to achieve? How am I going with it?
Finding out what's the best model for the church government cannot simply be a hobby. Whether the church polity is an important topic or not is a secondary question. Even if it were a very small issue, the fact that it is so is important and not to be regarded lightly. Have I been too casual about my exploration? Am I truly seeking to settle my mind on the church government issue so I can obey God's word? Or am I just trying to arm myself with more excuses and arguments to justify my disobedience? Will I, in the end, be willing to abandon my pursuit of ordained ministry within the Anglican or Presbyterian denominations (or any other), if it comes to that?

I had to pause to pray. I had to ask that God would grant me understanding and discernment in this issue so I may not be misled. I had to ask that God would make me faithful to His word in this issue as well as any other. I could sense my sin-ridden heart trying to use this newly gained knowledge only to serve my comfortable life-style. I had to ask God to keep my heart in check so I may not pour contempt on His word and the cross of Jesus. May God lead me on and make me obedient to Him.

Church Government: Plural-elder Congregationalism

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb: Worship of the Lamb with multitude of believers and elders!
Note: This is the fifth post of a series on church governments, which began as I seek to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first four as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism

Samuel E. Waldron presents Plural-Elder Congregationalism.
I found his presentation clear, well-structured, and persuasive. Here's what I gleaned from it:
1) Congregational church is independent and democratic. A plural-elder congregational church is both that and has multiple elders.
2) There are 4 principles involved in declaring the plural-elder congregationalism as the most biblical model for a church, and they are: the Puritan, the Independent, the Democratic, and the Plural-elder principles.
3) The Puritan principle is what really seems to drive the rest of the principles and what the plural-elder congregationalists are trying to hold on to at their core. It is a conviction that the bible has given us a church model that we are to follow without adding or subtracting from it. I believe the bible has given us all things that we need to know about God for salvation and to worship Him to His pleasure. I believe we must not add or subtract from it, but I am not quite sure if the bible has given us a clearly fixed model of church structure that we must follow. I like the idea, or the impulse these plural-elder congregationalists seem to have and to be faithful to, namely, obeying God's word, but at this point, I am left to wonder if they are actually the ones who have (unwittingly as it may be) added to what God has given us regarding the church government.
4) The Independent principle means that they believe each local church is independent from any kind of outside authority, and this they base on the fact that Christ is the only King and the Authority over His church, and each church must not be forced to be under some kind of earthly organisations, committees, or councils. I might just add that, having been part of a Presbyterian church for over 30 years, a Presbyterian church, at a local church level, doesn't experience much interference from the "upper" church government. They enjoy quite a lot of freedom in the way they operate, and I suspect that a moderate baptist church won't be too different in this regard, at least in the daily-ministry-work kind of ways.
5) The Democratic principle means that while Christ is King and the Head over the church, we, as collective body in a local church, have the responsibility and privilege of discerning and implementing His will together. No committee (or session in the Presbyterian case) or a pastor (or a bishop) makes the decision on behalf of the church.
6) The plural-elder principle is a conviction that the bible speaks clearly that we are to have multiple elders in a local church. Of course they admit there are special cases where a church cannot (yet?) have multiple elders, but the bible teaches (they say) to have them. It's not a matter of whether to have several elders in a church, it is more a question of when.
7) The role of elders play in the congregational church ranges somewhat, but in Samuel Waldron's estimation, the bible teaches the plurality of elders in a church, parity (equality) of elders in terms of their offices, and diversity of elders in terms of their ministries according to their gifts. This is one aspect that is different from Presbyterianism which divides elders into teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders (lay-elders).

So, what are my thoughts?
Most helpful and convincing part about this is the fact that a church should have a group of elders. I think that's what the bible tells us to do at a local church level. We are still a church of Jesus when we don't have several elders, but it's something we should work towards to implement.
Earlier, in the first chapter, Peter Toon has argued that the presence of bishops is of the plene esse (fullness of being). I'm not completely persuaded about that. I'm rather still inclined to see the presence of bishops as of the bene esse (well-being), which Toon rejected as a little too low or weak view of episcopalianism. I think the plural-eldership (but not the congregationalism bit) is of the plene esse. A church in the end of times, in the book of Revelation is a church with many elders, praising God together.

I will now turn to the responses each view had received by other proponents and see where they lead me.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Church Government: Single-elder Congregationalism

Note: This is the fourth post of a series on church governments, which began as I seek to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first three as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough

There can be only one elder in a local church?

Paige Patterson presents the single-elder congregationalism. I found this chapter a bit difficult to follow and of the arguments I think I understood rather unconvincing, but here's what I gleaned from it.

1) Every Christian is a priest, hence there needs no distinct/higher office in a church. Every member can and must take the responsibility together regarding decisions in the church.
2) The models in the New Testament regarding church structure shows single-elder congregational structures while there are some counter models as well.
3) Even in plural-elder congregationalism, or Presbyterianism, at the local church level, there usually one senior pastor who is at the front of the leadership in the church because of the very nature of the leadership.
4) Although there's no clear command from the bible whether to have one elder or multiple elders in a church, from seeing how the leadership panned out throughout the scriptures, single-elder congregationalism is the most appropriate form of the church government.
5) Patterson seems to give allowance for having multiple elders in a church as long as there is one definite leader/pastor among them (single-elder), and that no authority outside the church is enforced over the church and all members take part in decision making (congregationalism).

Ok, I don't feel I've summed up this chapter very well, but I think it's because the case was not made very well, or maybe it's the limitations of the single-elder congregationalism.

I am not convinced by this model and I'll move on to the plural-elder congregationalism in the next post.

(Photo credit: Memegenerator)

Systematic Theology or Biblical Theology. Must we choose?

I was doing some random googling and somehow it landed me on the following page.

The Trueman-Goldsworthy Debate: A Revolutionary Balancing Act

Having read a couple of Goldsworthy books, and having been enjoying Carl Trueman's posts on Reformation21 site, I was interested in what this was about. I read on.

I glad to hear Trueman's critique that Christians might have gone to emphasise too much on the biblical theology and neglecting the systematic theology. This article was written and published just over ten years ago, but I felt he was right in his analysis, even now. Having been happy to hear what he had to say, I was curious what Goldsworthy might have said in response. So I read his response as well.

The Trueman-Goldsworthy Debate: Ontology and Biblical Theology

I was at first struck by his strong language in his critique of Trueman's article. After a brief affirmation on some of what Trueman said, Goldsworthy came out in full force to break down Trueman's arguments that the emphasis on the biblical theology is overwhelming in churches worldwide, and it was the cause of the neglect and, what he called, "crisis" of the systematic theology in many Christians. I was at first taken aback a little by his strong languages. However, as I read on and thought about it, I had to admit Goldsworthy was mostly right in his assertions. His main stress was that while he agrees with Trueman on the fact that the systematic theology is being neglected in churches, the remedy is not in balancing the systematic theology and the biblical theology, as Trueman suggested, but rather, we must take on the biblical theology more whole heartedly as well as the systematic theology as they are inseparable. They are two different disciplines of theology, yet, neither can stand on its own and hence somehow we need to balance them in our thinking, but rather, as we pursue to know God through the bible, we must and cannot help but to employ both, which complements each other.

I had heard this before at a Preaching Conference held at SMBC a few years ago when Don Carson came to teach on this very subject, but I guess I still have a lot to learn and need a constant reminder.

I'd like to quote a few paragraphs from Goldsworthy's article.
My real problem with this negative assessment of biblical theology is that it makes it sound as if biblical theology is only about an economic view of salvation and God, and systematics is only about ontology. This simply is not so. Both are about both. Furthermore they are interdependent (maybe that’s what Carl means by balance!). 
In 1986, I contributed to the Festschrift for Broughton Knox with an essay entitled, “ ‘Thus says the Lord!’ – The Dogmatic Basis of Biblical Theology.” My argument was much the same as Jensen’s: we cannot formulate dogma without biblical theology, but we cannot do biblical theology without dogmatic constructs. This is not balance, it is rather (to use a more ontological term) perichoresis. 
To return to the Trinity, perichoresis is a term used to describe the fact that we cannot assert the unity of God without also asserting the distinctions of the persons of the Godhead. Thus, Christian theism is neither a modalistic-monistic theism, nor a co-operative tritheism. In the words of Cornelius Van Til, unity and distinction are equally ultimate. I would add that to assert equal ultimacy is not served by balance as well as it is by coinherence or perichoresis. 
The Christian theistic understanding of the ontological Trinity, then, directs us to the way ahead in the question of all relationships. Everything in existence has some point of unity with every thing else. Every thing in existence has some point of distinction from everything else. Unity and distinction form the structure of reality, and it is so because that is the ontological essence of God and the way he has made all things. This informs us in all aspects of reality as we try to understand relationships.