Saturday, December 21, 2013

PCA GA for Beginners, Part 3

There are essentially three forms of church government. In alphabetical order, they are congregational, episcopal, and presbyterian. In the congregational system, the authority of the church rests in the local congregation. The congregation may have elders or deacon, or leaders of some sort that they give other names to, but the authority ultimately lies with the congregation. In the episcopal system, the authority of the church lies in the bishops (episkopoi in Greek). These bishops are ranked in order up to the archbishop. In the presbyterian system, the authority in the church lies in the elders (presbuteroi in Greek), but not just at the congregational level. In that sense, the presbyterian system is more like the episcopal system than the congregational system. At each higher level, there is what the PCA calls “review and control” (R&C) of the lower levels. The elders of the local church have R&C with regard to the congregation. At the presbytery level, the presbytery exercises R&C over the congregations by means of the annual review of the records of the sessions of the local churches. This R&C is done to make sure that everything is being done “decently and in order” (a popular phrase with Presbyterians).

The GA exercises R&C over the presbyteries by means of the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RAO 16). This committee is made up of one representative from each presbytery, either and RE or a TE. Once elected to the committee, the commissioner serves a three-year term. It is the responsibility of each presbytery to submit its records for annual review by the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). Thus, theoretically, there are eighty sets of presbytery records and eighty commissioners to review them. In practice, some presbyteries are negligent about submitting their records, and some presbyteries are negligent about electing and sending commissioners to serve on this committee.

This committee works in the following fashion. It meets in Atlanta approximately a month before GA for approximately three days. Prior to this meeting, copies of records of two-three presbyteries are sent to the commissioners to be reviewed before the RPR meeting. At this point, each set of presbytery records is reviewed by at least two first readers using guidelines provided by the committee. When the committee meets, the presbytery records are reviewed again, paying particular attention to anything that the first readers noted. After all the reviews are reviewed and collated, the committee, as a committee, decides on recommendations for each presbytery. These recommendations are submitted to the GA for action.
The work of the RPR can be tedious. But there are at least three distinct advantages to serving on this committee. First, it gives the commissioners a real understanding of how the work of the church is being carried out throughout the denomination. Second, it gives the commissioner an understanding of what major issues there are in the denomination, and where those issues are hottest. Third, it gives the commissioner an opportunity to meet face-to-face with men he would otherwise never meet. Thus, other presbyteries become more than just names, and the denominational identity takes on a reality it does not otherwise have.

I encourage men starting out in a presbytery to seek to serve on the Sessional Records committee, because in doing so they will learn a great deal about their presbytery. I make the same recommendation regarding RPR. It’s a great way to learn about your denomination.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

PCA GA for Beginners, Part 2

The work of the PCA is carried on at the denominational level by five permanent committees and five agencies. The five committees are: the Administrative Committee (AC), the Committee on Christian Education and Publications (CE&P), the Committee on Mission to North America (MNA), the Committee on Mission to the World (MTW), and the Committee on Reformed University Ministries (RUM, an admittedly unfortunate acronym). The five agencies are: Covenant College (CC), Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS), PCA Retirement & Benefits, Inc. (RBI), PCA Foundation (PCAF), and Ridge Haven Conference Center (RHCC). Each of these committees and agencies present a report to each GA. These reports include summaries of the activities of the committee or agency throughout the year, a budget for the coming year, and a set of recommendations for the coming year.

Before the official beginning of the assembly (that is, on Monday and Tuesday of the meeting week) these reports are reviewed by Committees of Commissioners (CoC), made up of either a TE or an RE from each of the presbyteries (see RAO 14 for more information). That means that theoretically each of these CoC has 80 members, though it is rarely the case that the number approaches that total. In 2013, for example, the CoC for the Permanent Committees consisted of the following numbers: AC-29, CE&P-21, MNA-25, MTW-38, and RUM-29.

It is the responsibility of the CoC to review the reports of the permanent committees and agencies. These reports are to be circulated at least one month prior to GA, so that the commissioners may have time to review and evaluate the reports, so that they are not unprepared when the time comes for the CoC to meet. The committee may ask representatives of the committee or agency questions regarding its report. The committee may also amend or change the recommendations that constitute part of the report of the committee or agency. Again, more detail appears in RAO 14.

For prospective commissioners to the GA, especially for those who will be serving on a CoC, it is your responsibility to make sure you are thoroughly acquainted with the material to be covered in the GA. For that reason, I recommend that commissioners register as early as possible. Them when you begin receiving material for GA, set apart time to review it. If you have questions about any of it, ask your pastor (if you are an RE) or ask a more seasoned minister in your presbytery (if you are a TE). Also make sure that you have familiarized yourself with the BCO and the RAO.

In addition to these CoC, there are other committees that meet annually for issues related to GA. These will be discussed in future posts.

Monday, December 09, 2013

PCA GA for Beginners, Part 1

It is about six months until the 2014 meeting of the PCA GA (Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly). I am planning to do a series of posts over the next several weeks that will provide an introduction for those for whom this will be their first GA. GA can be overwhelming to the first-time attender. These posts are intended to reduce that difficulty.

First of all, get used to acronyms. The most prominent ones will be, of course, PCA and GA. Others that you will see frequently, and that I will use in these posts are: BCO (Book of Church Order, available online here:; and RAO (Rules of Assembly Operation, included in the BCO at the above link). I will introduce others along the way.
First, what is the GA? It is the annual meeting of representatives of the churches that make up the PCA. A fuller description of the GA is found in Chapter 14 of the BCO. I recommend that you read it. The GA meets at different locations around the nation, usually in a city that has sufficient hotel accommodations and a meeting place large enough to hold a full contingent of commissioners.

As for attendees, all teaching elders (TEs) in good standing may attend, as well as ruling elders (REs) as elected by their churches (see BCO14-2). The PCA has 4,321 TEs, and 1,474 churches, as well as 303 mission works. Given that each church may send at least two REs, theoretically the attendance at GA could be about 7,000 commissioners. Usually, though, it runs between 1,500 and 2,000. That can still be an overwhelming number for a first-time attender.

Preliminary meetings take place on Monday and Tuesday of the week of the meeting (I’ll explain more about these in a later post). GA officially opens with a worship service Tuesday evening of the meeting week. After the service, the assembly takes care of some basic business (electing a moderator, declaring a quorum, approving a docket, and so forth), then recesses until Wednesday. The work of the GA as a whole begins on Wednesday morning. The docket is set to wind up Friday at lunch time, but in recent years there has been a concerted effort to finish business Thursday evening.

In all, it can be a busy and tiring week. In future posts, I’ll outline some of the structure of the Assembly, and try to give some counsel on the best way to maneuver through the week.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Illustration of Repentance at Work in the Life

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has an excellent definition of repentance in Question 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience."

In the heat of the Christian life, however, that definition may seem more theoretical than practical, not particularly helpful when seeking to live a life of repentance (See the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.) We recognize that repentance is a grace. That is, it is a gift from God. It is not something we work up for ourselves. It is not turning over a new leaf. It is a turning away from sin and a turning to God that is fueled, as it were, by the Spirit of God at work within us.

We all recognize that that first act of repentance is only the beginning. We recognize that sins must be mortified. We recognize that there is the problem of indwelling sin in the life of the believer. But I suspect that we don’t often attach repentance to these things. In part, this may be because we do not have a sense of what repentance look like when God is working repentance in us.

Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine repentance as a man walking in one direction who suddenly realizes that he is walking in the opposite direction from which he should be walking. He stops. He turns around. Then he begins walking in the new direction. It is a quick and simple process. He realizes. He stops. He turns. But imagine someone on a bicycle realizing he is going the wrong direction. In one sense, it is still obvious. He stops. He turns around. He begins bicycling in the new direction. But it is a longer process. He has to come to a stop. Depending on his speed, that may take some time. The turning around also takes longer. And it takes longer to get up to full speed in the new direction. The process is the same for a man in a car. But it takes longer than for the man on the bike, and it may require going somewhat out of his way before he gets back on the right track. The process is the same for a man in a speed boat. He has to slow down, enter the turn, and come back. But the time and distance required to do so is much longer than what was required for the man walking. Now imagine that the man is piloting a supertanker. It takes him miles to slow the ship down enough to even begin to make the turn. The turn itself is immense, taking him quite a distance from his intended course. Then again it also takes a large amount of time to get up to full speed in the new direction.

Now apply the images to repentance. Some sins are small and easy. We stop and walk the other way. Some sins, like the bicycle, are a little more difficult. In God’s work in the believer, he takes a little time to bring the believer to an awareness that his course is actually a sinful one. Then there is the process of coming to a stop, the process of the turn itself, and the process of getting up to speed in faithfulness. But some sins are enormous. We may not be aware that they really are sins. Or they may be so deeply ingrained in us that we are not willing, at first, to recognize them as sins. God works patiently with us, carefully slowing us down, as the captain does with the ship, so that he can bring us through the turn and into the new direction, where he can bring us up to full speed.

There are two things that I find helpful about this illustration. First is the fact that God does not work repentance in us instantaneously, but over time. So the awareness of sin and the desire to change come gradually. God brings us, as it were, to a full stop slowly and carefully. So there are going to be many slips and falls on the way to that stopping point. The second thing has to do with the turning itself. In the image of the ship turning, there is a long time when the ship is neither on the old course, nor on the new course but, as it were, dead in the water. So it may well be in the life of the Christian. The sin has been admitted. The slips and falls have gotten fewer. But there seems to be little progress. We seem to be dead in the water. At that point, we are in the turn. Speed will pick up. Godliness will grow. But it will do so slowly, as God patiently works with us.

So if you have prayed for repentance for some particular sin, and there has been no instantaneous change, keep praying. God has promised to work, and he will. And you will be glad in the end that he did it slowly and carefully.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


What constitutes worldliness? For many raised in fundamentalism, worldliness has much to do with outward appearance: the clothes you wear, the places you go, or refrain from going. It always struck me as humorous that in certain circles, it was bad to go to the movie theater, but it was okay to watch the same movie at home on video.

Many Christians even outside of fundamentalist circles tend to have an externalized idea of worldliness. Hence, in many conservative Reformed circles, the manner of one’s dress is a hot issue. Now I’m all for modesty in dress, but some of these people seem to think that Victorian era dress was the most modest in the history of the world, hence most to be emulated. One wonders how Christians in Corinth would have done on the modern modesty scale. In some circles, where your children are in school is a defining factor. Home school? Thumbs up! Christian school? Maybe thumbs up, maybe thumbs down, depending on whether it has the right curriculum. Public school? You heathen!

These rubrics of worldliness and holiness are prominent in evangelical circles. The Bible, however, doesn't seem to have much to say on any of them, except for modesty in dress. And even on that the Bible doesn't say all that much, except to encourage it. I think the difference is due to the fact that we like to be able to define godliness and worldliness and other such concepts on the basis of what we can see. The Bible doesn't do that.

Instead, we find passages such as 1 John 2:15-17. Verse 15 says, Don’t love the world. Love of the world and love of God cannot exist together. No man can serve two masters. But what is the world? Verse 16 tells us: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. This is a subtle allusion to the deception of Eve. She saw that the fruit was good for food (the lust of the flesh), was a delight to the eyes (the lust of the eyes), and was desirable to make one wise (the boastful pride of life). The world is ever before us, drawing us away from the love of God and into love of the world.

But what is the problem with love of the world? Verse 17 tells us that the world is passing away (and its lusts as well). The lover of the world will pass, as will the world. But the lover of God abides. Note that worldliness is not just a love of sin. It is a preference for the temporary over the eternal. It is a preference for what we can see over what we cannot see. It is a preference for sight over faith.

We can’t see worldliness. It grows in the heart. But we may be able to see some of its fruits. And those fruits are not primarily in how we dress or how we educate our children. Instead, worldliness shows itself in carelessness about spiritual things. It shows itself in prayerlessness. It shows itself in using the weapons of the world to fight the battles of faith.

Are you worldly? I don’t know. But you might want to ask yourself: Do I prefer what I can see over what I can’t see? Am I disappointed with God because he didn't do what I wanted him to do? Do I prefer this present life over the life to come?  Do I desire heaven? Do I pray that his kingdom come?

It is easy to pass external tests for worldliness, because we make up those rules. It is much more difficult to mortify the root of worldliness that lies within us.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Strange Unity of the Church

In the blogosphere kerfuffle surrounding John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, one of the concerns expressed was that by holding such a conference,  and attacking Christian brethren, MacArthur was endangering the unity of the church. To the extent that any of the people making this claim attempted to provide some biblical justification for the statement, the appeal was usually to John 17:11, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” The folks using this argument appeared to be under the impression that Jesus’ prayer is for a visible, if not organizational, unity in the Christian church. This understanding is completely wrong, as even a brief reflection on the verse indicates. Jesus’ prayer is for a spiritual, ontological unity, such as the Father has with the Son. If Jesus was praying for a visible or organizational unity, it is pretty clear that such a prayer has never been answered in the history of the church. This would call into question both the wisdom of Jesus’ prayer, and the Father’s power to answer it. Hence, the prayer is not for a visible organizational unity.

But Jesus does pray for the unity of his people, and we expect that the Father has fulfilled that request. Of what sort, then, is that unity? It is a spiritual, ontological unity. The unity of the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) is an spiritual and ontological unity, hence that is what Jesus prays: that his people may enjoy such a unity as well.

But the question becomes, Is this unity at all visible, even if not organizational? I would argue that it is, and that it can be recognized in two ways. But an Old Testament illustration may help here. In the Book of Numbers, we are treated to an unpleasant picture of the people of Israel, the people of God. They are disobedient, rebellious, resentful, and envious. Almost any sin that you can imagine is part of the description of Israel during the time in the wilderness. By the time the story gets to the end of chapter 21, we have little hope for the continued existence of Israel, let alone its unity. But at the beginning of chapter 22, we find Balak, king of Moab, and his nation terrified by what they see of Israel. They see a horde that has come to take over the land. Balak does not see the internal strife of Israel. He does not see their disunity. He does not see their sin. He sees them as a unified force coming up against his land. Hence Balak calls for Balaam to come and curse Israel. Of course, Balaam can do nothing but bless the people of God.

Then in chapter 24, we are privileged to see God’s view of Israel. In spite of their sin, their rebellion, their disunity, God says, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! (24:5). Balaam’s oracle goes on to give a lovely picture of the ugly Israel we have seen displayed in the first twenty-one chapters of the book.

In line with that example, I would suggest that the unity of the church is visible in two ways. First, Christians recognize that unity when they meet other Christians from other denominations or other communions and see in them brothers in Christ. Such recognition does not deny that brothers may be in sin, may need to be corrected. There is still that real spiritual unity that exists within the body of Christ.

Second, the unity of the church is recognized by the non-Christian world, much as Balak recognized the unity of Israel. The non-Christian world does not see the church as a divided mess but as a threatening horde. We should take note of the fact that when modern secularists complain about the influence or the views of Christians, by and large they do not complain about Catholics, or Baptists, or evangelicals. Instead, they complain about Christians. They may, in some sense, recognize the divisions in the church, but they see above those divisions an overarching unity that is a threat to them.

Finally, there is God’s view of the church. God knows those who are his. They are his people. He is not blind to their divisions and their shortcomings, but he is building a great temple that, when it is complete, will demonstrate his wisdom and glory to a surrounding world, both physical and spiritual (Ephesians 3:10). A building in progress is not always a beautiful sight. In fact, it usually shows nothing of its future glory. Such is the church. Nothing John MacArthur does can change that, and to the extent that MacArthur’s criticism of charismatic/Pentecostal beliefs and practices are correct, they serve only to contribute to the growth of that glorious temple of God, the church.

Friday, October 04, 2013

God in My Everything, Ken Shigematsu

This is a book directed at helping Christians develop a full-orbed spiritual life. Many evangelicals in particular have "spiritual life" tucked into corners of their lives: quiet time here, prayer there, church for a couple of hours on Sunday. The rest of the time, God is not really in their thoughts. Mr. Shigematsu, pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver aims at helping people change this by thinking differently about what spiritual means, and also by thinking in terms of a rule, that is, a rhythm of life, in which we make a conscious effort at centering our lives on God.
He draws from a variety of spiritual resources, mostly Catholic and the broader Christian tradition. His illustrations are helpful. The book is probably most profitably read a little at a time. The fifteen chapters could be spread out over a month, or even one chapter a week. That way his points don't get lost in the flood of words. He begins by warning people to begin small and to build slowly. This is good advice, as those who want to introduce significant change into their spiritual lives tend to try to do it all at once. The all-at-once approach generally ends in failure and disappointment.
For me, the best part of the book was the Appendix, in which several people line out their own "Rules of Life." These help make it clear that even a full-orbed spirituality is going to look different for different people in different walks of life. The rhythm of the spiritual life will also look different for the same person at different points in his life. So, the examples include a single woman in her twenties (a graduate student); a working mother with a young son; a married man in his thirties with young children; and a married man in his thirties with no children.
There were, to my mind two significant shortcomings to the book, that are related. The first is an real appreciation for the role of the church in the spiritual life of the individual. He does have a place for attendance at worship, but that seems to be the extent the involvement of the church. The second is his identification of the Sabbath as simply a day of individual rest, set apart from the remainder of the week, and primarily focused on the individual. The idea of the Sabbath rest as a rest from our labors and a rest unto God is entirely absent. In addition, while he devotes a chapter to the importance of friendship, he does not tie it into the life of the church body.
Ultimately, I'm not sure the book is worth the price. Brother Lawrence's classic, The Practice of the Presence of God is much shorter, plainer, and available free online. For those in the Reformed tradition, I would suggest Henry Scudder's The Christian's Daily Walk, which is longer, and would require more labor to go through, but is also available online.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Review of Anselm of Canterbury, Simonetta Carr, Reformation Heritage Books

For many Christians, church history seems to begin with the time of their own conversion. For others, it goes back to the beginnings of evangelicalism in the mid-twentieth century. But there is a great deal of church history before that. Simonetta Carr and Reformation Heritage Books are doing a wonderful service for the church with the series “Christian Biographies for Young Readers.” This one on Anselm of Canterbury is the sixth in the series. The book is nicely illustrated by Matt Abraxas. The author tells the story on Anselm’s life simply and clearly. She introduces the reader to the historical and political, as well as theological, context of Anselm’s life and ministry. She also highlights Anselm’s importance in the development of the doctrine of atonement, and his influence on later Reformation theology.

This nice little biography is also useful for older readers who are ignorant of Anselm, but have not the time nor desire to tackle a major biography. It also made me want to go back and reread some of Anselm, especially his Book of Meditations and Prayers.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Review of Revelation, Alun Ebenezer, EP Books, 2012

A man in a Bible study I lead once told me that a (former) pastor of our church had recommended G. K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation to him. I understand why this pastor recommended Beale. This pastor was a young man, just out of seminary, headed for a Ph.D. program in theology, and very zealous in his learning. However, in recommending Beale, he didn’t consider the audience he was recommending Beale to. This man is not a learned theologian. He has no familiarity with the biblical languages. So, while Beale’s is a very fine commentary on Revelation, it was not the right commentary for this man.

Now I have a commentary on Revelation that I can recommend to this man. It is intended for the beginner. It is basic. It is clear. It is well-written. Ebenezer’s illustrations are apt. He takes something of a mixed approach to the book, which he explains in the introduction, then again in the appendix. He takes care to explain the major figures and images in Revelation, as well as drawing attention to allusions to the Old Testament. He is also concerned to apply the book to his reader.

For its intended audience, this is an excellent commentary on Revelation. It will provide the reader with a solid grasp of the overall meaning of the book, as well as giving the reader solid guidance for the individual parts of the book. I would also recommend it to seasoned scholars, again, for Ebenezer’s grasp of the message of the book.

Revelation is a book that is both an encouragement to the saints, and an evangelistic tract. Ebenezer’s commentary brings both these elements out in a very useful commentary.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

“Gay Marriage”: It’s All the Church’s Fault

Before you read the rest of this post, take the time to read David Innes’s post here: This post is typical of a number of posts I have seen in the days since the publication of the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding the Defense of Marriage Act. The substance of Dr. Innes’s post is that the whole thing is really the church’s fault (see his last paragraph). If the church had just done a better job, this would never have happened. I beg to differ.

My view is that had it not been for the church, it all would have happened a lot sooner, and a lot more completely. It’s not that I think the church has done a spectacular job. It hasn't. But when has the church ever done a spectacular job? The church has always been a weak and conflicted institution, sustained, propagated, and expanded by the grace of God working through imperfectly sanctified people.

But the church lives (as Isaiah did) in the midst of unclean people. People whose hearts are deceitful and twisted (Jer 17:9). The unconverted man has no love for God, and no love for his law. Laws and cultures may keep man’s inherent wickedness in check, but that wickedness will come out. And when cultures degrade, the natural wickedness of man becomes more apparent, and less likely to be held in check. See Augustine, City of God, Book 2, Chapter 20 for a description of Roman society on Augustine’s day. It sounds pretty modern. (It can be read here:

Perhaps an illustration will help. In the Book of Numbers, we get the sorry story of the people of Israel in the wilderness. It is a time of frequent rebellion against the Law of God. A whole generation dies in the wilderness due to its disobedience. By the end of chapter 21, they are camped on the borders of the land ruled by Balak. We know, because we've read the preceding material, what a mess the people of Israel is. But Balak is terrified. He sees the people of God as an immediate threat to his well-being and to the well-being of his country (see Num 22:11). And they are.

In like manner, the unconverted world sees the church as Balak saw the people of Israel. As a unified horde, come to deprive them of their indulgences. They do not see the weakness. They do not see the disobedience. They do not see the disunity. What they see is a body of people come to destroy their well-being (as they see it). The church terrifies the unbeliever. The unbeliever will do anything he can to destroy the church. Yet the church remains, a light in the darkness, the salt of the earth. We in the church too often fail to understand the church in this way, and we need to correct our understanding.

No, “gay marriage” is not the church’s fault. “Gay marriage” is the end result of an individualistic libertarian culture whose war cry has been, “Stay out of my bedroom, and away from my chemical indulgences.” The church remains. Her testimony remains. And this (“gay marriage”) shall pass in time. Only what is of God will remain.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Post-Mortem on the 41st General Assembly of the PCA

After a couple of days to reflect on it, and to seek to explain it to friends who weren't there, I have concluded that the event was not as bad as it seemed at first. There is a brief factual report of the main actions of the Assembly at

First, with regard to the paedocommunion issues in the PCA, there were some encouraging developments. The minority report from the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (CRPR) regarding Central Florida Presbytery was adopted. Central Florida is now required to come back and report to next year’s assembly. That’s another opportunity for the assembly to address the issue. Second, Pacific Northwest Presbytery had to temper the language that it has used in the past when they approve someone who holds to paedocommunion. Those folks will no longer be told that they have full liberty to preach and teach their exception to the standards. Second, PNWP had to make it very clear that no one in the presbytery is now practicing paedocommunion, and no one will be allowed to practice it in the future. If evidence comes forth that it is being practiced, that will provide sufficient rationale for charges to be brought. In addition, though Overtures 19 and 23 were ruled out of order, Overtures 20-22 were referred to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). They will have to deal with those overtures at their October meeting, and that report will be dealt with at next year’s assembly. While many hoped that the CRPR minority report on PNWP would be adopted, it was not. But we cannot conclude that the PCA has decided that paedocommunion is an allowable exception (in the sense of men being allowed to practice it). Thus it behooves us to pray that the SJC would favorably regard the overtures sent to it for consideration.

Second, with regard to the “Insider Movements” (IM) report: the entire report was sent back to the committee for reworking. My hope is that whatever strengths were in the minority report can be worked into the majority report in such a way that the author of the minority report will be satisfied. I was pleased to see that the proposal to accept the whole thing—majority and minority reports together—was defeated. The minority report has some good intentions in giving practical direction to converts from Islam to Christianity who still live in a Muslim context. But it was seriously undermined by less than careful theological thinking and expression. It probably would have flown in the PC(USA). I was glad it did not fly in the PCA.

Third, I was also heartened by the fact that the Committee of Commissioners for the Interchurch Relations Committee (ICR) pressed the issue regarding membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The NAE is a seriously flawed organization. The ICR Permanent Committee will have to be more diligent in the coming year in reporting on what the NAE does. Perhaps when all those actions are put together in list form, it will become apparent to the PCA that we as a denomination have no business being part of that association.

Fourth, I was thankful for Mr. Sloan’s personal resolution regarding child abuse in the church and our pastoral responsibilities. It was given to the Overtures Committee for perfecting, but what they submitted gutted Mr. Sloan’s resolution. I was glad that it was sent back again, and will come before the assembly next year.

I conclude with three general observations. There were something over 1,200 registered commissioners at the assembly. Not great attendance, but better than the past couple of years. However, on the occasions when counted votes were taken, the total ranged from around 750 to about 900. That means that for the most part one fourth to one third of the commissioners were out doing something other than attending to the business of the assembly. Those of you who registered and did not attend the business sessions, shame on you! Particularly, shame on you if you led your church to believe that you would be going to do the work of the assembly!

I do not want to cast aspersions on Mr. Terrell. Moderating the GA is a hard and thankless job.But Mr. Terrell did not seem to be ready to be moderator. I am sure he is a fine executive, and a faithful ruling elder. But the moderator of GA ought to be adept enough at parliamentary procedure that he should only be glancing desperately in the direction of the Stated Clerk and the parliamentarians in particularly difficult situations. It seemed that the assembly ran more smoothly on the couple of occasions when there was a substitute moderator at the podium.

Now is not the time to be looking to leave the PCA. Now is the time to be devoting ourselves to prayer for our denomination and the substantive issues that are facing us, and that will face us in the coming years. I wonder how many of us spend as much time praying for our church as we do complaining about our church.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Introspective Questions on the Eve of PCA General Assembly

Have I read, prayerfully, the Commissioner’s Handbook? The Commissioner’s Handbook hardly seems like something to be read prayerfully. After all, it isn’t Hind’s Feet on High Places. But this is the work of the King that we claim to be about. His business, as well as his worship, needs to be approached prayerfully.

Have I been praying for those with whom I disagree? Every year there are issues that divide commissioners. For the most part, we know what those issues are, and we have our opinions about how those issues should be decided. But we should also recognize that well-intentioned men of good conscience can disagree on these things without being heretics. We need to be praying for one another that we would be men after God’s own heart, happy to lose “our cause” for His.

Am I working at being a churchman, or playing at it? Is GA week vacation for me, or is it a work week? Admittedly, given the way that GA is structured, it can be very tempting to spend a good part of the week attending anything but the Assembly sessions, especially the information segments that largely repeat the material in the Handbook. Perhaps wise changes there would make for a better and more useful assembly. For the time being, we should commit ourselves to being there for the boring parts, as well as the times when there might be exciting debate.

Am I here seeking God’s agenda, or my own? This relates to #2 above. We need to remember that God cares more for his church than we do. He has demonstrated that he is more than willing to give up denominations for the sake of the overall health of his church. This ought to scare us, at least a little.

What is my relationship to the constitution of the PCA? As a reminder, the Constitution of the PCA consists of the Westminster standards and the BCO (minus some specified chapters). Constitutions can, and sometimes should, be amended.

But given their current state, is my doctrine in line with the doctrine of the Westminster standards? Or do I have to engage in a certain amount of mental gymnastics in order not to be a liar when I say that I “sincerely receive and adopt” the standards as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”? If the latter, shouldn't I, regardless of what the cost might be to myself and the local church I currently serve, move a denomination where I can be honest in my vows?

Given its current state, is my practice in line with the BCO or do I make it up as I go along? The PCA BCO is far from perfect, as is attested by the fact that it is amended almost every year. Yet do we make it our aim to carry out our practice in line with its prescriptions. We might find it would save a lot of difficulty if we did. It would also be easier to follow the practice of the BCO if we made ourselves more familiar with its content, rather than relying on Roy Taylor and David Coffin to tell us what it says.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On Lamenting the State of the Church

In 1984, Francis Schaeffer published The Great Evangelical Disaster. In 1993, David F. Wells published No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? In 2008, Michael Horton published Christless Christianity. These are merely the tip of the iceberg of jeremiads lamenting the current state of the church. These three are focused on the evangelical church, but dozens of others could be added lamenting the state of the Reformed church, the Lutheran church, the Roman Catholic Church, and any other church you care to name. All of these authors decry the problematic state of the current church.

For some people, it provokes a desire to go back to some period when the church was pure and things were good. For some, that was the seventeenth century, the period of the Westminster divines and the rise of Puritanism in England. For others, it was the previous century, with the rise of the Reformation. For others it was the period of the early church fathers, when such greats as Athanasius, Augustine, and Jerome roamed the earth. (Almost everyone agrees that the Middle Ages were a complete mess.) For others, we need to go back to the purity and simplicity of the New Testament church.

But a little historical investigation demonstrates quickly that these are all chimeras—illusions or fabrications of the mind. The Puritan authors consistently decry the problems of the church in their own day. The Reformation writers likewise display the unfortunate difficulties of their time—problems caused by radicals, disagreements among reformers, and lawlessness throughout the land. With the early church fathers, the situation is no different. Doctrinal disputes, theological laziness, rampant antinomianism or legalism among believers. Even the New Testament church is only a testimony of the same set of problems. Consider all the problems Paul dealt with in the church at Corinth, or the serious doctrinal problems among the churches of Galatia. Even Philippians, which reflects no serious doctrinal issues, shows serious relationship problems among the members of the church.

What, then, are we to think about the church? Should we just give up? Should we simply refuse to publish such works as those listed above, since the problems are real, but they are long-standing, and are not going away any time soon? No, we should take a hint from the Old Testament. The Old Testament can easily be read as an ongoing lamentation/critique of the state of the church. The failures of the patriarchs in Genesis; the failures of Israel in the wilderness in Exodus through Deuteronomy. The brief success of Israel under Joshua followed by the woeful collapse recounted in Judges. Then the other books of history, retelling a story of long decline with an occasional bright light here or there. The Psalms are full of lamentations regarding the state of the nation. Then there are the prophets. They decry against the failures of their days, while at the same time proclaiming the hope of their saving God.

That is our work today. Decry the sins of the church. Call both the church and the world to repentance. Show them the beauty of the gospel of God in Christ Jesus. Then trust in God to do his saving work. For it is his purpose “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Notes on Jeremiah, 1: The Trouble with Tribbles

There’s no way of proving it of course, but Jeremiah may be the least read book in the Old Testament. There are at least three major problems with the book (from the would-be reader’s perspective). It is long. It is disorganized. It is dark.

First, with regard to the length of the book: the reader is right that it is a long book. By word count in the Hebrew text, it is the longest book in the Old Testament, longer even than the Psalms. It is somewhat shorter than the Psalms in English, but that has to do with the matter of translation requirements. So yes, it is a daunting book from that perspective. Strike one.

Second, with regard to the organization of the book: the would-be reader may page through the book, looking at the subheadings in their Bible. There are about ninety of these in the ESV. Some of the sections are extended, some are brief. But reading them one after the other doesn't give the reader any sense of the development, the order, of the book. So once again, the would-be reader is right. Strike two.

Third, from reading the subheadings, and just from the general reputation of the book, the would-be reader has the impression that the book is all about judgment. Note the first few subheadings in the NIV (2011): The Call of Jeremiah; Israel Forsakes God; Unfaithful Israel; Disaster from the North; Not One is Upright; Jerusalem Under Siege. And that’s only through chapter 6. The book is dark. It is grim, The would-be reader is once again right. Strike three.

So we close up Jeremiah and go read Psalm 23 or some other comforting passage.

Why should the Christian read Jeremiah? Why is it even in the Bible? I don’t know the answer to the second question. But the answer to the first question is, we read it because it is in the Bible. It was not written just for Israel, but for God’s people through all ages. It has a message for us today as much as it did for Jeremiah’s contemporaries. It will take some patience. It will take some work. But persevering through Jeremiah will produce fruit in the end.

Over the next several posts, I hope to give the reader rationale for reading Jeremiah, and then some guidance through the book, so that it might be read with profit. Just as a starter, Jeremiah (in the KJV) has 42,654 words. That’s about half the length of the average romance novel. It falls into the long novella, or very short novel category. So you see, Jeremiah is really not as long as you thought it was.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Keeping Your Church Growing: Some Thoughts on the Prayer Meeting

First, there are many good resources on the church prayer meeting. The following three are good for starting: 1)

The church that does not pray as a community is as surely dying as is the church that is not inviting and welcoming. The power of the church comes through its use of the means of grace: preaching, administering the sacraments, and prayer. Yet many churches seem to think that only the first two are necessary.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for the decline in the church prayer meeting, some of which are dealt with in the first link I listed. Part of the difficulty may relate to the size of the church. For large churches (just as a suggestion, any church larger than 250 members) the chief problem is making it possible for the entire congregation to pray together. That is probably impossible. So for larger churches, I would suggest dividing the church into smaller groups for prayer. To some extent this may be accomplished by the “community groups” that many larger churches have. For smaller churches, gathering the church for prayer should not be a problem.

The problem is twofold. It is first in convincing the congregation that congregational prayer is essential for healthy church life. This must be addressed from the pulpit and by the leadership in the church. Where church leaders do not attend the prayer meetings, the congregation at large will consider that the prayer meeting is not necessary.

The second problem is in the way the prayer meeting is run. Too often, the prayer meeting is hijacked by Bible study and too much time sharing prayer requests. The primary purpose for the prayer meeting should be prayer, and nothing else should get in the way. A brief (5 minutes maximum) devotional on some aspect of prayer may be used to open the prayer meeting, but the remainder of the time should be devoted to prayer. A prayer list may be distributed at the beginning of the meeting. The people should be urged to make their requests known ahead of time so that they may be included on the list, avoiding using prayer time for sharing time.

Further, prayers should be short (see the first link above). It is very difficult for people to join in prayer if the prayers are long and (as is too often the case) incoherent. Also, though some prayer time should certainly be devoted to various health concerns among the members, this should not be the bulk of the prayers.

The prayers of the church should be for the work of the church. That is, part of the prayer time should be for the preaching, teaching, and outreach of the local church. Part of the prayer time should be for the preaching, teaching, and outreach of the wider church—for example, the work of missionaries supported by the church.
One place at which many churches fall down on the job is praying for other like-minded churches in the same area. For denominational churches, the prayer meeting should regularly include prayer for other churches of the same denomination that are in the same area. How often are denominational churches ignorant of the work and needs of other churches if the same denomination in the same town? It ought not to be so. Even non-denominational churches usually have like-minded churches in the same town that they can pray for. The pastors of churches should be regularly informing their congregations of the needs of related churches, so that members of the larger body might be praying for one another. Unfortunately, too many churches, in their prayer meetings, act as if they are the only church in the world. Do not your sister churches have financial needs, struggles of various kinds, difficulties among the members? You should be praying for them as well as for yourselves.

But in any case, the church should gather as it is able for prayer. Prayer is the lifeblood of the individual Christian, and it is the lifeblood of the church.

Come, my soul, thy suit prepare;
Jesus loves to answer prayer;
He himself has bid thee pray,
Therefore will not say thee nay.

Thou art coming to a king,
Large petition with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.

(John Newton, 1779)

The Sin of Forgiveness, Edward F. Mrkvicka, Jr.

A search on Amazon books under the subject “forgiveness” produces a list of 8,374 works. Obviously, forgiveness is a big issue. What that search won’t tell you, though, is that there is a great deal of disagreement among those authors as to many aspects of forgiveness. In particular, there is serious disagreement about whether forgiveness should be conditional (that is, forgiveness granted on the basis of repentance by the offender) or unconditional (forgiveness granted regardless of whether the offender repents). Mr. Mrkvicka’s book takes the former position. The latter position is what gives him the title of his book—that forgiveness granted apart from repentance is sin, damaging both the offender and the one offended.

Mr. Mrkvicka’s main point is clear: forgiveness must be given only on the basis of demonstrated repentance on the part of the offender. To do otherwise results in the abuse of the one offended, and the escape from responsibility for the offender. However, very little else in Mr. Mrkvicka’s book is clear. The “Table of Contents” looks clear, but the content of the book is muddled. The argument of the book remains undeveloped. By the time the reader has finished the book he may or may not have been convinced that Mr. Mrkvicka’s view is right. But the reader is left with many unanswered questions, as Mr. Mrkvicka gives no guidance regarding how this works out in real life. The book itself is simply an extended insistence that forgiveness depends on repentance.

Forgiveness is an important issue in the life of the Christian. Understanding how and when we are to forgive, and what that looks like demands a thoughtful, careful treatment. Unfortunately, Mr. Mrkvicka has not given us that book.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Keeping Your Church Growing

I read a blog post a couple of weeks ago. The post was titled something like, "We're Going to Stop Being a Welcoming Church." Sounds terrible, doesn't it? But as the post went on to explain, it was actually a good idea. His point was that his church was welcoming. They had coffee, they had greeters, they had people to help direct visitors to the right place. But in his view it wasn't enough. They needed to be an inviting church. That is, a church that the members invite people to. This pastor had stumbled on something that growing churches have been doing for a couple of millennia. People inviting their friends to church.

Now maybe you don't have any friends to invite to church. Maybe all your friends are  already in your church, or in some other church. Then you need to cultivate some new friends. Maybe they won't be friends that you can invite to church right away. But give it time. Pray for them. Be a real friend to them. Then one day, maybe you can invite them to church. Sounds simple. But many of us don't do it. And that's a shame, because there are plenty of people out there who need friends, and who need the church. They just don't know it yet. So get started.

While I'm on the subject, is your church a church that you'd want to invite people to? Is your church a welcoming church? I don't mean coffee and donuts. I mean a church where a new visitor feels accepted. Do people at your church interact with visitors? I don't mean a simple, "Hello" before moving on to someone else. I mean taking an active interest in the visitor. Not in an overwhelming, smothering fashion, but in a way that says to the visitor that you are interested in them as a person, not just a number that can be added to the "we had X number of visitors this month." Are the people in your church going to forego talking with their friends in order to converse with a stranger? If they're not, you don't have a welcoming church. Visitors won't come back. If they won't come back, there's less chance of them meeting Christ in your church.

Granted, some visitors don't want to be noticed. They'll come in late and leave early. They're probably not sure they really want to be there. Not much you can do about that. But that's not most visitors.They hope, even if they're not fully conscious of it, that someone will take notice of them. You be the one to do it.

This doesn't happen by accident. It happens by intent. If other people in your church are ignoring visitors, make sure you don't. Even if the visitor is someone you know will never join your church, such as a family visiting while on vacation, make sure you speak with them. Let them know that this is a church that welcomes visitors, that invites people, that wants strangers who will become friends.

If your church doesn't welcome visitors in this way, by drawing them in, letting them know they've been noticed, and that the church is interested in them, your church is already beginning to die. It may look good. It may have a lot of people. But it's already dying, because it's closing out those who need to be drawn in.

Think about it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The 17:18 Series: Acts

A few days ago, I read this story:, which I encourage you to read before continuing with this review. It was a perfect set-up for reviewing this book.

For those not familiar with this series, it is a series of essentially blank journals published by Reformation Heritage Books for the purpose of encouraging Christians to write out their own copy of the Scriptures. It is based on two considerations: first, that the king of Israel was required to write out for himself a copy of the book of the Law (Deut 17:18, hence the 17:18 in the series title); second, that those who write out notes learn better than those who merely listen or merely read.

The book gives the reader/writer a place to write out, book by book, a copy of the Scriptures for himself. There are some sixteen volumes of the series already in publication. As it says in the opening pages of the book itself, the Journible (I suppose this is a conflation of journal and Bible) “is a profoundly simple attempt to aid a person’s ability to engage the Word of God by slowing down the process of simply reading the text.” There are some helpful comments at the beginning of the volume to encourage and give direction to the writer. The journal is set up for the writer to write his copy on the right-hand page, leaving room for annotations on the left.

Granted, you don’t need a specially published journal to do this. You can buy your own journal, or a notebook, and do the same thing. But most good-quality journals cost more than this volume does, and most contain fewer pages. The aim is not to produce a work of art, as in the report I linked at the beginning of this review, but rather to own the text of Scripture in a way that the writer has not done before.

Now most people who use this will probably intend to copy out whatever translation of the Scriptures they currently use. However, I would suggest considering copying out the King James Bible, if for no other reason than to familiarize yourself with a translation that has gotten lost in the last forty years in most of evangelicalism. The modern translations have their place, and their us; even the “see Spot run” simple-language versions. But there is a beauty and rhythm to the language of the King James Bible that it would do many modern Christians good to rediscover. And it would give you reason to write explanatory notes on the left-hand page about archaic words and other such considerations.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory, Jeremiah Burroughs

Published in the Puritan Treasures for Today Series from Reformation Heritage Books.

This is a deceptively small book. But first, something about the author. Burroughs was a Puritan pastor (1599-1646). He is perhaps best known today for his treatise The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. This present book began as an appendix to that work, originally titled Four Useful Discourses. The Jewel focused on learning to be content in impoverished circumstances. This work focuses on being content in enriched circumstances.

This book is a careful abridgment of the original treatise, which was delivered as a series of sermons to Burroughs’s congregation at Stepney. The abridgment is very well done. The language has been modernized, and difficult language has been smoothed out. It has been reduced significantly in size, from a 284-page seventeenth century printing, to 119 pages.

Burroughs begins by making the point that contentment is in many ways more difficult for the rich than it is for the poor. We trust in our riches, rather than trusting in God. Riches become idols for us, so that we are unwilling to let them go. We abuse our riches by using them to indulge our lusts rather than by using them for the service of God. The chapters lead the reader through these considerations, teaching carefully not only the dangers, but the glorious possibilities for the rich Christian, if he will only learn to be content in his fullness.

I began by saying that this is a deceptively small book. It can be read quickly, being only 119 pages in about a 4 x 6 page size. But the reader will be better served by reading it slowly, a couple of pages a day, savoring the richness, meditating on Burroughs’s applications. The set-up of the book aids in this “slow read” approach, as each of the ten chapters is divided into smaller sections of a page or two each. Thus, while it could be read in a couple of afternoons, or even a single evening for the faster reader, it will prove more profitable by being savored over the course of a month or so of daily meditation.

An illustration of the kinds of dangers of riches that Burroughs warns about: I read a story online a couple of months ago. A woman had won ten million dollars in the lottery several years ago. Where was she today? Broke, back in the job she left when she won the lottery. All the money was gone. She did not know how to be rich, or to be content in her riches.

Since most American Christians are rich, especially by Puritan standards, most would benefit from giving this book a careful read. And for those who are not rich, an understanding of the dangers of riches may help them to be more content in their poverty.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to Make Your Pastor a Better Preacher

Many people lament the state of preaching today. Much blame is laid on seminaries, and a good bit on the preachers themselves. But it is possible there is also fault in the pews.

It is true that seminaries in general do not do a good job of producing preachers. Homiletics (instruction in preaching) is usually one class among dozens. Greek, Hebrew, church history, systematic theology, pastoral counseling, Christian education and other topics vie for a piece of the seminary pie. Even at a seminary with good preaching instruction, a student may have his preaching evaluated half a dozen times. So while some bad preaching may be the seminaries’ fault, they can hardly be blamed for all of it.

Preachers, too, are culpable in regard to bad preaching. Inadequate preparation is probably the leading culprit, though no doubt other things are involved. A pastor, especially a solo pastor, has a lot of responsibilities. Counseling, membership training, officer training, home and hospital visitation, demands of family and home, all take away from preparation time. There is, of course, laziness, carelessness, perhaps distaste for the work of preaching itself. It may be also that a pastor has a low view of his preaching abilities, and doesn't see any way to improve.

But it is possible that the people in the pews bear some of the responsibility for poor preaching. For one thing, congregations appear too tolerant of bad preaching. This may be for a number of reasons. First, many churches do not pay well, and the congregation may be harboring a “you get what you pay for” attitude, even if they may not recognize it. Or they may excuse bad preaching on the basis that the pastor is a really nice guy, or he’s so faithful in visitation, or he’s a great counselor. It may also be that many Christians simply have no idea what constitutes good preaching. Here is a minimalist definition of good preaching: a dealing with the biblical text that explains in a clear and orderly fashion what the text means, and identifies how it may be applied in the life of the Christian. Good preaching does not have to do with clever turns of phrase, though a good preacher may use them. Good preaching does not have to be loud (though all the people should be able to hear). Good preaching should be at least somewhat animated, and will be if the man is gripped by his message, but the amount and kind of animation will also depend on the personality of the man.

But aside from recognizing bad preaching, and refusing to put up with it, what can a congregation do to make their pastor a better preacher?

First, congregations must pray for their pastor. Pray that he has adequate time to prepare. Pray that he himself prays over his studies. Pray that he will be gripped by the message of the text so that it becomes his message as well. Pray that he would have wisdom and insight to be able to see clearly how to explain and apply the passage.

Second, congregations should prepare to hear the sermon. If you know ahead of time what passage your pastor will be preaching, spend time during the week studying it and praying over it, so that you are ready to hear it explained and applied. You’ll be surprised by how much this will help.

Third, congregations should both praise and criticize their pastor’s preaching. Now this is a touchy subject. I don’t mean here the meaningless “Good message, Pastor” as you’re going out the door after the service. I mean something like “Preacher, I really appreciated how you explained the difficulty in that passage” (and then be specific). Remember, too, that you can’t say much as you’re going out the door. If you were really struck by the sermon, send him a short email. As for criticism, do that in person. Set up an appointment. Prepare for it. Don’t make it a personal attack, but tie it directly to the sermon. “Pastor, I think you misapplied that passage.” Don’t take it personally if he doesn't agree with you. And don’t be a constant critic. Diligent pastors are all too painfully aware of their shortcomings in the pulpit, and too frequent a diet of criticism from the congregation is discouraging.

Fourth, the congregation should be patient, especially with a beginning preacher. It can take time for a man to get comfortable in the pulpit. It takes time for him to develop in his sense of what is important in a passage and what is not. As children do not go from taking the first step to running easily at top speed in the space of a day, a pastor takes time to develop his preaching skills. But if, over time, he shows no improvement; if his sermons remain garbled messes, impossible to follow, then send him packing. Don’t keep him because he’s a nice guy. Don’t keep him because he’s faithful in visitation. Send him packing because he’s not doing the primary job that he is called to do. Your congregation deserves good preaching and will die without it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

When the Bible Offends

Last week I dealt with a post from Dr. William Mounce on the use of the vocative “Woman” in the New Testament. His view was that this was difficult, if not impossible to translate, because it sounds offensive to modern Western ears (see last week’s post). In reading through the comments on Mounce’s post, it became clear that a number of his readers agreed with him. They found the term offensive, or upsetting.

That raised the following question for me: What are we to do when something we read in the Bible offends us? It seems to me that there are three responses. The first response should be for us to ask ourselves whether we have understood the Bible properly. As I sought to show last week with the “woman” issue, this may not be particularly difficult to determine. Some time spent with a concordance, or a commentary, or a study Bible should clarify many things for us. When it becomes clear that we have misunderstood the passage, we need to labor to bring our understanding in line with what the Bible is actually saying at that point. We may help ourselves in this by seeking to explain the true meaning of the passage to someone else. I have found in my two decades plus of teaching that teaching something to someone else clarifies it for us.

Second, we should seek to determine if perhaps our offense is with the Bible, or with something within the cultures in which the Bible was written. For example, I find the practice of polygamy offensive. It is clear from Genesis 2 and from Jesus’ teaching that polygamy is contrary to God’s purposes for marriage. The fact that many people in the Old Testament practiced is no justification for the practice. The mystery is why God tolerated that sin through many generations of the lives of his Old Testament people. I can live with that. We each ought to be aware that God tolerates many sins in our own lives, and in our own cultures. The fact that he tolerates them and does not immediately judge them is no justification for our continuing in them, or for encouraging others in their practice.

Third, if we have properly understood the text, and the problem is not some cultural distinctive or some sin issue, then we should conclude that our thinking ought to be brought to the captivity of Christ. We may find it offensive that Paul tells women to be silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2). However, Paul bases his statements not on cultural considerations but on the created order. In other words, the command of Paul is not a product of Paul’s misogyny, but is appropriate to the order of life as God has created it. (For a fine exegetical treatment of the issue of women in the church, I would refer my readers to God’s Good Design, by Claire Smith.) Submitting our thinking to Christ is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is necessary for our sanctification. We like to think that we are right, and that our own practices ought to be the standard for others. But our standard in all things is Christ, and it our responsibility as disciples of Christ to submit our thinking to his Word.

There. Isn’t that simple? No, because of The Nature, Power, Deceit, and
Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, to borrow a title from John Owen. Conforming our thinking to the Word of God is a lifetime process empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes when the Bible offends, we need to be offended so that the Spirit might perfect his work in us.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Thoughts on Bible Translation Prompted by Remarks of Dr. William Mounce

Mounce seems to think that gunai (“woman,” in the vocative case) is essentially untranslatable because in his view, “it misconveys so badly.” Now let’s stop and think about this. Someone is reading the Bible, preferably in one of the translations that Mounce dismisses for translating gunai as simply “Woman.” In his view, the problem with that is that it leaves the reader “to figure out what it really means.” No doubt the direct address, “Woman” might be viewed as rude in today’s context. But first, the reader should stop to think. Is Jesus being rude to a woman he has just healed? Not likely. So the alert reader should recognize that Jesus is not being rude, and in the first century this direct address was not considered rude.
But suppose the reader thinks that Jesus might be being rude to this woman, as he seems to have been with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). Then he might look at a concordance to see how many times Jesus uses this address in the gospels. After all, the reader is concerned about Jesus’ possible rudeness here. So the reader discovers, with a little research, that Jesus uses this direct address seven times in the gospels: once in Matthew 15:28; once in Luke 13:12 (the passage Mounce is dealing with); and five times in John (2:4, 4:21, 8:10, 19:26; 20:15). In two of those cases, Jesus is addressing his mother, which again indicates that it is unlikely that he is being rude. In one case (John 20:15) Jesus is clearly addressing Mary Magdalene tenderly after the resurrection.

So with a little research and a little reflection, the thoughtful reader concludes that however rude “Woman” might appear to us at first glance, it is not, in fact, a rude form of address. Rather it appears to be a formal (rather than casual) form of address.

How is the translator to address this in a translation? This is another point at which Mounce and I differ. He seems to think that a translation ought to be explanatory, as he applauds the NLT for translating “dear woman.” He then discusses a number of other possible translations, none of which seem to him to work. My sense is that there are other ways of addressing this difficulty than with an explanatory translation. First (and perhaps easiest), the Bible editors could put in a marginal note explaining that “Woman” was not rude in Jesus’ day. At the next level would be the study Bible, which could also add an explanatory note. Then there are commentaries, most of which, especially those geared to the lay reader, will address the point. Finally, there is the responsibility of the preacher, who in preaching from one of these passages ought to clarify the point for his listeners.

To insist that the translation is responsible to clarify this point (and many others) seems to me to fail to recognize two things. First, at what point does the explanatory translation stop explaining? There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of verses that might be unclear or misunderstood by someone. How many of these should the translator explain? Is the translator supposed to try to prevent readers from taking the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view on John 1:1? There are two explanatory translations that I know of: The Amplified Bible, and Wuest’s Expanded Translation of the New Testament. They are both awful. They are unreadable in any normal sense of that word. The result would be the same if Mounce followed his reasoning to its conclusion: a translation/commentary that doesn’t work as either one.

The second point that Mounce misses here is what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls the “due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1:7). What that means is that there are means by which people can learn the meaning of the Bible any time it appears to them to be unclear, confusing, or just plain rude. Marginal notes, concordances, commentaries, and preachers faithfully expounding the Word all fall under that “due use.”
So translate it “Woman.” Let the reader puzzle it out for himself, or consult a commentary, or ask his pastor. But don’t turn a Bible translation into a travesty.

“Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.” A. E. Housman

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Paulin Bedard, In Six Days God Created, Xulon Press, 2013

Bedard is the pastor of Reformed Church of Saint-Georges, Quebec.

This is a very fine book. As a quick look at the table of contents will tell you that it is a critique of the framework hypothesis. For those of you who don’t know what the framework hypothesis is, it is a way of reading Genesis 1-2 which sees the material as set out in a framework fashion. That is, Days 1-3 of Genesis 1 parallel Days 4-6. The days are not ordinary days, nor are they entirely figurative (depending on which framework author you read). The result is that Genesis 1-2 is considered as not having anything to say about how God created, but rather make the point that God did create. The material is exalted poetic narrative, rather than historical narrative, hence cannot be read literally.
The book is divided into three sections. The first is, “The Literal Interpretation is Satisfactory.” The point of this section is to argue against the view of many framework proponents, who propose that there are a number of problems with taking Genesis 1-2 literally that are solved by the framework hypothesis. Bedard does a commendable job of addressing the issues, showing that the supposed problems are more imaginary than real.

Section two is, “The Framework Interpretation is Problematic.” In this section, Bedard shows the many exegetical problems of the framework hypothesis. Some framework proponents attempt to deal with the problems, others seem to deny that the problems exist. However, by fairly presenting the arguments of the framework proponents in their own words, Bedard succeeds in demonstrating that the problems are real, they are serious, and that framework proponents have not successfully addressed them.
The final section is, “The Framework Interpretation is Dangerous.” Here again, Bedard is careful not to misrepresent framework proponents. But he does demonstrate a number of serious consequences to the framework hypothesis. Not all framework proponents have followed their views into these consequences, but some have. Some of these dangers are: the rejection of the historicity of some events (including a historical Adam and Eve); a false view of the doctrine of God’s accommodation; the lack of clarity in the Scriptures, particularly regarding fundamental issues; the pervasive influence of modern secular science. With regard to this last, many framework proponents argue that their view arises from a strict exegesis of the text, not from an attempt to accommodate the long age of the earth that is the standard view in modern science. Bedard recognizes this, because he has carefully studied these authors. But it is also clear that a large number of framework proponents are driven to find an explanation of Genesis 1-2 that will accord with modern scientific views. Bedard allows these men to speak for themselves.

This is a devastating critique of the framework hypothesis. It is especially so because Bedard has been careful not to misrepresent framework proponents. Not all who hold to the framework hypothesis agree in all the particulars, and Bedard is careful to note that. Bedard allows them to speak in their own words, and he has carefully cited the views he presents. I would recommend this work first to all proponents of the framework hypothesis, that they might see the exegetical and theological difficulties of the view. I would also recommend this book to all those who have an interest in what the Bible has to say about the origins of the earth. Does the Bible speak plainly, or does it speak in frameworks?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

God's Good Design: A Book Review

The subtitle summarizes the book: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women. The author, Claire Smith, has a Ph.D. in New Testament. Her goal in this book is to examine the key passages, primarily in the New Testament, that deal with the role relationships between men and women. The preface summarizes the effect that feminism has had on the church, particularly in the West. That effect has been primarily to erase the differences between men and women, particularly in the home and in the church. Hence, her question for the reader is, "Are your views on these things determined by the Bible, or by the current cultural consensus?"

The first part of the book is devoted to issues within the church. She spends a chapter each on 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11, and 1 Corinthians 14. This book is not written for the New Testament specialist, but for the general reader. Thus, whenever "what the Greek says" comes up, she is very careful to clarify the definitions and the issues. She deals carefully with all problems in the passages, and when there are divergent views, she presents them fairly. In brief, she demonstrates that the meaning of each passage is sufficiently clear in itself. The real problems are introduced by our cultural views. So the question comes down to which guides our practice: the clear teaching of the Bible, or the current cultural consensus?

The second part of the book deals with issues in the home. Here, she deals with Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, Genesis 1-3, and Proverbs 31. She carefully unpacks the meaning of each passage, again fairly presenting differing views. All of the discussion is quite valuable, but two sections in particular stuck out to me. First, her discussion of "mutual submission" (pp 124-27). Second, the separate chapter on abuse. Both are sensitive and careful treatments of sensitive, sometimes painful, subjects.

This is a book I highly recommend. It demonstrates first of all that many of our current "gender-role" issues in the church are a result of our attempting to subjugate the biblical teaching to current cultural norms. Second, it provides excellent examples of close, careful interpretation of biblical passages. Third, it presents this all in clear, concise prose that is easily accessible to the attentive reader. I will say that I am not convinced of her view on New Testament prophesying, but that is a small quibble in a book that many should read.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Gospels and Acts in Chunks

Nothing particularly original here. Just some suggestions for how you might break down the gospels into half-hour or shorter reading sections.

Matthew 1-9: Birth, Baptism, Sermon on the Mount, and Healing; 10-16 Second Teaching section and the turning point of the Gospel, which is Peter’s confession in ch 16; 17-23 Jesus in Conflict; 24-28 Olivet Discourse, Last Supper, Trial, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Mark 1-8 The first half of the story, up through Peter’s confession in ch 8; 9-16 the rest of the story.

Luke 1-5, 6-11, 12-18, 19-24

John 1-7, 8-14, 15-21

Acts 1-7 Pentecost through Stephen’s speech; 8-14, From the evangelization of the Samaritans through Paul’s first missionary journey; 15-21 Paul’s second and third journeys; 22-28 Paul on trial.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Prophets in Chunks

Finishing up the Old Testament portion of Reading Through the Bible in Chunks, we deal with the Prophets. Following the time table in the first post in this series, we see that Isaiah should take about five sessions to read. So I suggest the following:
1-12 The Books of Judgment and Messiah
13-23 The Oracles Against the Nations
24-35 The Little Apocalypse and Hope for the Future
36-48 The Historical Section, and the Book of Comfort
49-66 The Servant Songs and Book of Judgment

For Jeremiah (six half-hour segments) the following, noting that it is not as easy to divide up Jeremiah topically as in  Isaiah:
1-9, 10-18, 19-27, 28-36, 37-45, 45-52.

Lamentations: All five chapters may be read in one sitting

For Ezekiel, again a topical division:
1-11 The first and second visions of Ezekiel
12-24 The Book of Judgment (this might take a bit more than half an hour, because some of the chapters are quite long).
25-36 Oracles Against the Nations and Comfort for Israel
37-48 Dry Bones, Gog & Magog, and the New Temple Vision (again, probably longer than half an hour)
Or,as an alternative:
1-11 as above
12-17 and 18-24
25-32 Oracles against the Nations
33-39 Comfort, Dry Bones, Gog & Magog)
40-48 The New Temple

Daniel: 1-6, 7-12 (or all at once, if you're feeling adventurous)

Each of the minor prophets may be read in one sitting.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Chunks of Poetry

I said in an earlier post in this series that the poetry in the Bible is meant to be read meditatively, thus slowly. So how does that fit into a "reading the Bible in chunks" approach? I stick with my earlier statement, but I also think that there is value to reading these books in large chunks. For one thing, the reader can avoid getting lost in the details. I think this is particularly important with the Book of Job. It is more important to get the overall sense of the statements than it is to try to figure out all the details. In addition, Job is a difficult book to translate because of its very high percentage of unusual words. So, with Job, pay attention to the larger things, and don't sweat the small stuff. With Psalms and Proverbs, the point of reading in chunks is to see the main themes that play out in the book. What are the chief concerns? You will probably get an entirely different sense of these books reading them this way.

So here are my suggestions for reading Job, Psalms, and Proverbs in chunks.

Job is divided into a prologue (chs 1-2), a series of dialogues (chs 3-26), a series of  monologues (chs 27-41), and an epilogue (ch 42).

Job 1-14 This is the prologue and the first round of dialogue. It may be pushing the half-hour limit, but not by much.
Job 15-26 The second and third rounds of dialogue
Job 27-37 The first two rounds of monologue (Job and Elihu)
Job 38-42 God's monologue and the epilogue

Psalms. This could be done by simply reading 25 psalms per day, since it takes about three hours to read through the Psalms. However, that leaves the fifth day's reading to be extraordinarily long (remember Psalm 119?). So here's my suggestion.

Psalms 1-29
Psalms 30-50
Psalms 51-74
Psalms 75-98
Psalms 99-118
Psalms 119-150

Proverbs. Should be able to do in two 30-minute readings,
Proverbs 1-17
Proverbs 18-31
(The later chapters in Proverbs tend to be longer than the earlier ones.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chunks of History

This is a suggestion for how the historical books of the Old Testament might be divided up for reading in chunks. It does not not include Ruth, Ezra, or Esther, which might each be read in less than thirty minutes.

Joshua 1-8: From the entry into the land to the conquest of Ai.
Joshua 9-16: From the deceit of Gibeon through the description of Judah's portion. Admittedly, there is a shift from chapter 12, the end of narrative, to chapter 13, the description of the division of the land. But the only other option is to read the book in two large chunks: 1-12 and 13-24, each of which would take more than 30 minutes.
Joshua 17-24: From the description of Joseph's portion to the last words of Joshua. Again, there is a shift from geographical description to narrative between chapters 21 and 22.

Judges 1-8: From the death of Joshua through the labors of Gideon
Judges 9-16: From Abimelech through Samson
Judges 17-21: The sad demise of the culture of Israel

1 Samuel 1-8: The ministry of Samuel
1 Samuel 9-15: From the selection of Saul to his rejection
1 Samuel 16-24: From the selection of David to David's first sparing of Saul
1 Samuel 25-31: From the episode with Nadab to the death of Saul.

2 Samuel 1-10: The success of David
2 Samuel 11-18: From Bathsheba to the defeat of Absalom
2 Samuel 19-24 The last days of David.

1 Kings 1-8: From the selection of Solomon to the dedication of the temple
1 Kings 9-14: From the completion of the temple to the death of Rehoboam
1 Kings 15-22: From Abijam through the death of Ahab
(Note that these three readings are probably going to push the 30-minute window.)

2 Kings 1-8: The ministry of Elisha
2 Kings 9-17: From Jehu through the fall of the Northern Kingdom
2 Kings 18-25: From Hezekiah to the fall of Jerusalem
(Note, these three readings will push the 30-minute window.)

1 Chronicles 1-10: From Adam through the death of Saul. Note that this is mostly names.
1 Chronicles 11-20: The rise and conquests of David
1 Chronicles 21-29: David prepares for the building of the temple

2 Chronicles 1-9: The reign of Solomon
2 Chronicles 10-18: From Solomon to the death of Ahab
2 Chronicles 19-27: From Jehoshaphat through Jotham
2 Chronicles 28-36: From Ahaz to the fall of Jerusalem

Nehemiah 1-7 From the news of Jerusalem to the list of returnees
Nehemiah 8-13 From the reading of the law through Nehemiah's final reforms.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Grant Horner's Bible Reading System

For those of you not familiar with the system, you may find it online here:

If you use Horner's Bible Reading system, and find it helpful, please keep using it. Don't stop on account of anything I might say in this post if you indeed find it helpful.

I was reminded today that in the past I have recommended Horner's system (see the GPTS January newsletter here:

I used it myself for about a year, long enough to become familiar with it, and also long enough to discover what, to me, are its weaknesses. It is these weaknesses that I want to deal with in this post. First, I really don't see the point of reading Acts through every month. Horner's comment that if you don't know why you should read Acts (or Proverbs) every month shows that you need to read them that often strikes me as unhelpful, and verging on snarky.

Second, I think the reading system gives short shrift to the Old Testament. It is, to my mind, essentially a dispensational way of reading the Bible. The Old Testament is really about Israel, and hence isn't all that important for the church. You read Acts almost nine times in the time it takes you to get through the larger Old Testament sections (historical books take 249 days, prophets take 250 days).

Third, I think that reading through Proverbs every month may contribute to the sort of legalistic piety that we see so often in dispensational, fundamentalist churches here in the South. The book is not read (really) in the larger context of the Old Testament, but is dealt with as a separate entity.

Fourth, most Christians are too unfamiliar with the Old Testament. Reading it once per eight months is better than nothing, but not if you're reading the New Testament two or three times in that same period.

If today I were to recommend something like Horner's system, it would be thoroughly modified toward a more thorough familiarity with the Old Testament. Working with Horner's ten chapters per day, my proposal would look something like this:

1. Pentateuch (187 chapters, approximately twice per year)
2. Historical Books, part 1. Joshua through 2 Kings (151 chapters, about two and a half times per year)
3.Historical Books, part 2. 1 Chronicles through Esther (98 chapters, almost four times per year)
4. Poetic Books (minus Psalms). Job through Song of Solomon (93 chapters, almost four times per year)
5. Psalms. (150 chapters, about two and a half times per year)
6. Major Prophets. Isaiah through Daniel (183 chapters, twice per year)
7. Minor Prophets. Hosea through Malachi (67 chapters, almost six times per year)
8. Gospels and Acts. (117 chapters, about three times per year)
9. Epistles and Revelation (143 chapters, about two and a half times per year)

This approach accomplishes the mixed reading that Horner is promoting, while doing a more thorough job of acquainting the reader with the Old Testament. Notice that it accomplishes this in one less chapter per day than Horner's system.