Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Vision for Christian Community in Church and Home

Community is weak in modern America. People are taught to live for themselves and to adopt a consumerist mentality. The family is fragile. The father’s leadership in the family is tenuous, if not ridiculed. The generations are generally severed.

The church, by adapting to these realities, sometimes makes them worse. It too can become a well-branded commodity, more an activity center than a community, catering to youth culture and neglecting the place of the family in its ministry.

A number of churches and families have realized these problems and have sought to foster an organic, familial, and multi-generational church culture where church and family strengthen each other. Here is how Covenant Family Church, the church I serve, seeks to summarize this vision (as found here on our website):
Our name, Covenant Family, refers to our vision to be a church that is loyally bound to our God and each other in Christ, showing love among this church family and strengthening individual families as part of this whole. This ministry philosophy that views the church like a family and families like miniature churches, while viewing them as different but complementary institutions, has sometimes been called a “family integrated” approach to church. 
Building upon our Presbyterian distinctives, we emphasize that God has bound us together in His covenant as a family (Eph. 2:19-21). Those who have been adopted by God as their Father have each other for siblings. Those who love God will also love their brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 4:7-8, 19-21). Thus, we seek to avoid church programs that divide and segregate the church by age, class, or special interests – seeking to integrate the various gifts and strengths found in our family (1 Cor. 12:12-26, Eph. 4:1-16, Titus 2:1-10). We also worship together as one covenant family. 
We also value families, believing that God includes in His covenant not only believers, but also their households (Gen. 17:1-14, Acts 16:31-34). We desire to equip and encourage parents to disciple their children in the ways of the Lord (Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4), being sensitive to the tendency for church programs to replace or hinder this family discipleship. Despite the opposition of our culture, we value marriage as God created it as a basic institution for our good and His glory (Gen. 2:18-24, Eph. 5:22-33, 1 Cor. 7:2-5) and we value children as a divine blessing to be desired and cherished (Gen. 1:28, Ps. 127:3-5, 128:3-4). 
Yet, there is a place in our church for the single, the fatherless, the orphan, and the childless. We do realize that some Christians have a gift of celibacy, and others are single or childless due to tragic and complicated circumstances, and this is where the church as an integrated covenant family is especially important. God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” and He “settles the solitary in a home” (Psalm 68:5–6) as He brings them into His household. We are unified in Christ, whether “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free,” rich or poor, married or unmarried, whether you have numerous children or none (1 Cor. 12:13). 
It has been a blessing for me to grow up in, and now pastor, a church with this desire for a more relational model of church ministry. This effort has not been without difficulties and shortcomings, and it is prone to lose momentum since it pushes against the pressures of modern culture. Consequently, this Saturday, our church is holding our annual Men’s Advance with the theme of "building community." Kevin Swanson and Scott Brown will be joining us to speak on the challenges and lessons learned in trying to implement a more relational model of local church life, as well as articulating and reviving this vision for Christian community. If you are free this Saturday, consider joining us. You can find more information about the event at this link.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

No, You Cannot Choose "Your Sabbath"

The idea that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath is rather unpopular today. Our culture prizes individual freedom and economic efficiency, both of which conflict with the idea of a corporate observance of a day of rest and worship. As our society has become more and more secular, its schedule and rhythm of life no longer makes space for the Sabbath. While society used to give support to the Lord's Day, now Christians must swim against the stream to carve out this time. Secular society has its own rival "church calendar" that seeks to shape our character by scheduling our time.

Many Christians have wavered in the face of this pressure. One approach that some have taken is that any day of the week can be your Sabbath. The idea is that in the new covenant the seventh day is no longer the Sabbath and there is not a specific day substituted in its place. Those who hold this position would agree that a Sabbath principle rooted in creation continues to apply (i.e. there should be one day in seven as a day of rest), but that it is a matter of individual choice as to what day of the week that is. This allows them to observe their Sabbath whenever it works best in their schedule, minimizing conflicts with the schedule of the broader society.

I believe that a specific day has been substituted for the seventh day. As my church's shorter catechism says, "From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian sabbath" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 59). I don't intend to make the case for this position in this post, but I would appeal to texts like Deuteronomy 5:15, Luke 24, John 20:19-23, 26-29, Acts 2:1ff, 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:18, 20, 33; 16:2, and Revelation 1:10. What I do want to point out is that even if God did not specify which day of the week was to be observed as the Christian Sabbath, the choice would not be left to individual believers. 

The Sabbath is not designed as something to be observed by individuals on their own. It is designed to be observed by a community. This requires that a day be agreed upon by that community rather than leaving it up to individuals to choose their Sabbath.

When the fourth commandment was given, not only was it commanded that "you" shall not do any work, but also "your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you" (Deut. 5:14). Exodus 23:12 also emphasizes corporate responsibility and communal benefits, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed." This is not merely a command for individuals, but a command for a community to rest and give rest and to share in this rest together. It gives leaders a responsibility to see that those under their charge observe this day, knowing that our schedules are rarely individual matters.

The Sabbath rest was not merely for the cessation of work - although physical rest was certainly part of it. It was also a day of worship. As Leviticus 23:3 proclaimed, "Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places." Work was set aside for the sake of worship with God's people. Central to the idea of the Sabbath rest was worship - not only private and family worship, but worship in the assembly of the saints. Furthermore, we find this pattern of a weekly holy convocation continued in the New Testament (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 33; 16:2, Heb. 10:25). This important aspect of the Sabbath is not possible if the Sabbath is left to individuals. Even if one believes there is no divinely appointed day of the week in the New Testament, there is a practical necessity that the church chooses a weekly day to observe this holy rest and common worship. And throughout the history of the New Testament church, this day has been the first day of the week, the Lord's Day.

Like I said, I believe the the first day of the week has been divinely appointed as the Lord's Day, which is the day the Sabbath principle is observed in the new covenant. But even if one is not convinced of this, I believe one should observe the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath because this is the publicly recognized day the church observes its weekly rest and worship. Giving individuals the option to observe any day of the week as "their Sabbath" actually transforms the Sabbath - making it a day off for individuals, rather than a community holiday observed with a holy convocation. In a day in which community is weak and culture is generally secularized, Christians need a communal holy day on a regular basis. This is God's appointed means to build up His saints so that they can maintain their distinct identity in a world that seeks to conform them to its ways.

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Speaking of community, my church is hosting a men's conference next week with "building community" as its theme. For more information, go to this link

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Why Is Christ's Resurrection Important?

Jesus suffered and died to atone for the sins of his people. His sacrifice of himself was perfect and sufficient. What then could his resurrection add to this? Why do we gather for worship on the day of resurrection, rather than the day of his death? Why is the resurrection important?

The more you read the New Testament, and the more you look for references to the resurrection, you will notice that the apostles thought it was very important. You could look at the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels. You could look at the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts which strongly emphasized the resurrection. You could look at 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul reminds his readers of the vital importance of the resurrection as part of the gospel. But here I want to direct your attention to the book of Romans. Paul's epistle to the Romans gives at least four reasons why the resurrection is important.

1. Jesus Was Raised to Be Exalted
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God ... concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord..." (Romans 1:1, 3–4)
The resurrection confirmed Christ's claims and exalted him as Lord and Savior. First, this refers to the fact that His identity and claims were vindicated. His identity was central to His message. He had claimed to be the awaited Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of man who was prophesied in Daniel 7 who would save his people and judge the world (Mark 14:61-64). He had prophesied at least three times that he would be raised from the dead on the third day (Matt. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19), and even His enemies remembered this claim (Matt. 27:63). His resurrection was a divine vindication of His claims.

But it went beyond this. Every other time the Greek word in Romans for "declared" is used in the New Testament, it means to "appoint" or "fix," not merely to declare what already is the case. Romans 1:3-4 teaches that it was God's Son who was descended from David (thus he did not become the Son of God at His resurrection), but it does teach that he became the Son-of-God-in-power by his resurrection. He was no longer humiliated and weak, suffering for sin. It was at his resurrection that he was "given all authority in heaven and on earth" to apply the salvation he had purchased and to rule and defend his kingdom (Matt. 28:18-29, Acts 2:36, Psalm 2:7-8). He was always sovereign as God, but now he was sovereign also as Savior for the purpose of redemption.

The proper response to the Son-of-God-in-power is the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5). The response of those who met the risen Lord was to worship him and confess His true identity (Matt. 28:9, 17; John 20:28). It was also to go boldly and to make the nations His disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, Rom. 1:5).

2. Jesus Was Raised for Our Justification
"It will be counted [as righteousness] to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Romans 4:24–25)
Justification is the opposite of condemnation (Rom. 8:33-34). It is a declaration that one is righteous, rather than a declaration that one is guilty and deserving of judgment.

The resurrection was the justification of Jesus - the declaration that he was righteous, that our sins which had been imputed to him were paid for. That weight was off of Jesus’ back. Death no longer had a legitimate claim on him. The atoning work of Christ’s death, because it was complete, led to His resurrection. By suffering and dying, Jesus was paying our debt, and in the resurrection God said “paid in full, you are free to go.”

This righteous sentence is imputed to believers. This righteousness is yours in Christ. He was “raised for our justification.” His justification becomes your justification when you are connected to Christ by faith.

Imagine if a man was raised to the rank of nobleman because of His brave deeds. Then later, this nobleman married a commoner, making her a noblewoman. The resurrection is like that initial declaration about the man's status. Jesus received His status as righteous and free of the claims of condemnation and death. Then, our justification happens when we are united to Him, just as in our analogy the woman began to share her husband's status when she married him.

And so, the suffering of Jesus (the atonement) is the basis for His resurrection, and the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for our justification.

This passage from Romans tells us that those will be counted as righteous who believe in God and His provision of salvation in Christ. So receive and rest in Jesus and rejoice in the peace with God that it brings (Rom. 5:1).

3. Jesus Was Raised for Our Sanctification
"We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his ... So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness." (Romans 6:4–5, 11–13)
The fact that we are pardoned and accepted as righteous in God's sight does not mean that our actions can go on unchanged. This is not because our works contribute to our status before God. Rather, this is because the only way to be justified is by being connected to Christ by faith, and being connected to Christ also changes us. If you are united to Christ, you have died with him and risen again as a new creation. Christ was raised so that you too might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). You have been raised with Christ, ransomed and regenerated, born again to a new life by His resurrection (1 Peter 1:3).

But even though you have died and risen to new life, you still have the duty to act accordingly. You have been given the ability to live differently by Christ's resurrection, but old desires and habits die hard. This passage tells you to consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). Let not sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions (6:12). Present your body parts as instruments for righteousness (6:13), rather than instruments of unrighteousness. Rather than a body of sin (6:6), your body is transformed by Christ’s resurrection to be a body of righteousness (compare with Rom. 12:1).

4. Jesus Was Raised for Our Glorification
"If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." (Romans 8:11)
The final result of Christ’s resurrection is your glorification at his second coming. If you have been united to Christ by the Spirit, then your body shall be raised just as his body was raised. If you have been justified, you shall also be raised, acquitted, and blessed. Just as death had to let Christ go, so it will need to let you go at Christ’s command. Even though we have the tremendous comfort knowing that after we die we will be with Christ (Phil. 1:21-24, 2 Cor. 5:8), this disembodied state is temporary. Death shall not have the final word for us. It shall be the last enemy standing, but it too shall be overcome (1 Cor. 15:20-26).

Your mortal body, the one you have now, shall be raised to life and glory by the Father, through the Spirit, because of Christ’s resurrection. Your bodies shall be like Christ's body - physical, tangible, in continuity with our bodies before death (Luke 24:38-43). We shall not be ghosts. Like him too, your body shall be glorified, made free from weakness and morality. Your body will not be replaced, but it will be changed in a glorious and miraculous manner (1 Cor. 15:51-52).

And so we and all creation groans as we await the consummation of God’s redemptive work (Rom. 8:22-23). Things are not finished. But this is a groaning of exception and hope. Because Jesus was raised, believers can have a confident expectation of the coming glory, the redemption of their bodies and the renewal of creation.

Conclusion

Jesus is risen, and He is exalted on high! Behold your God and Lord, your prophet, priest, and king.
Jesus is risen, and you are justified! Behold in His resurrection the declaration of righteousness which is yours in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is risen, and you are given new life! Behold in His resurrection your new birth, a new beginning which is yours in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is risen, and you are promised future glory! Behold in His resurrection the assurance of your future resurrection, the redemption of your body, which is yours in Jesus Christ.

Humbly worship Jesus, your risen Lord!
Receive and rest in Jesus, your risen Savior!
Live in righteousness as those who have been raised with Jesus, your risen Head!
Groan with expectation and take heart, looking to Jesus - His body was raised and so shall yours!

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

What Jesus Said About His Death

The night before he died, Jesus taught his disciples the meaning of his coming death. While his disciples did not know what would happen, Jesus did. He had come for this purpose. Long before, he had told them that he "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). His death would do something for them – it would ransom them. On that night before his crucifixion, he instructed them for quite some time, but a key part of this instruction incorporated the meal itself. He used the elements of the Passover meal to refer to himself and his coming death. Not only would this set up a new ritual for his disciples (the "Lord's Supper") that replaced Passover, but it also interpreted his death in terms of the Passover and Israel's exodus from Egypt. His death, like those events, would be redemptive – it would deliver from God's judgment.
"Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matthew 26:26-28).
It did not take long after Jesus' death and resurrection for his disciples to repeat this ritual as he had told them to do. Two months later it is described as a common practice of theirs (Acts 2:42). As the company of disciples grew, they would continue to gather on the first day of the week to practice it together (Acts 20:7). The Apostle Paul would quote the words of Jesus, passed down to him within a few years of Jesus' death, in what even skeptical scholars admit to be one of Paul's earliest letters (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

In our culture today, there are many who would want to interpret Jesus's death in ways contrary to his own words. And yet, Jesus' own interpretation of his death was well-taught to his disciples and incorporated by Him into a ritual that was practiced early, often, and across the whole church. He died to satisfy the demands of justice, ransoming us from its claim, so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to our Creator. This death is effective only to those who are united to Jesus by faith, who participate in the sacrifice. Unless one has taken refuge under the blood of this sacrificial lamb, he or she is still subject to the sentence of eternal death demanded by justice. God has provided a way of peace and reconciliation. Let us claim this death as our own, done on our behalf. Let us eat the bread and drink the wine. "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Thanks be to God!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jesus' Descent into Hell


"He descended into hell". This article of the Apostles' Creed has taken many who are unaccustomed to the creed by surprise. "Jesus? In hell? What was He doing there? And where is that in the Bible?" While the meaning of this article has been a matter of debate, it has generally been accepted as an important element of the faith, not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but by historic Protestantism as well.

In Reformed theology, this descent has been explained in two ways - that Jesus suffered the pains of hell or that Jesus abode under the power of death until the third day. These ways are complementary. I believe both are true, although the second way is the agreed upon understanding of the creed in my denomination (and in all denominations that hold to the Westminster doctrinal standards).

1. Jesus Suffered the Pains of Hell

The first way was defended by John Calvin, who noted that this descent into hell was "of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption" (Institutes, 2.16.8). Calvin taught that the creed, after describing the aspect of Christ's suffering that was visible to man (that He "was crucified, dead, and buried"), then described the aspect that was invisible, that Jesus felt the weight of God's wrath and judgment: "the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man" (Institutes, 2.16.10). In this way, Jesus did not go to the location of hell, but He suffered the pains of hell. Not only did He feel physical pain, but as He said "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death" (Matt. 26:38), so much that "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) as He experienced the just wrath of God that was due to us. This led Him to loudly cry out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). As one hymn puts it, "the deepest stroke that pierced Him was the stroke that Justice gave." The Heidelberg Catechism of the continental Reformed churches (German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, etc.) followed this interpretation by saying:
Question 44. Why is there added, "he descended into hell"?
Answer: That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
2. Jesus Continued in the State of the Dead, under the Power of Death

The second way is articulated in the Westminster Larger Catechism of the British Reformed churches (Presbyterians, Puritans).
Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?
A. Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
The view of the Westminster standards gives attention to how this article of the creed is based on Acts 2:24-32, which quotes Psalm 16:10. There Peter, speaking of Jesus, says,
"Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him '... Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption' ... He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses." (Acts 2:24-25a, 27, 31-32, KJV)
It is important here to realize that the English word "hell" has been used to translate two different Greek words found in the Bible: "Gehenna" (γέεννα, what we usually think of when we use the term "hell") and "Hades" (ᾍδης, which can have a broader reference to death or the state of the dead, equivalent to the Hebrew word "Sheol"). The view of the Westminster standards notes that Acts 2:24-32 speaks of Hades, not Gehenna. Most modern translations makes this clear by leaving the word untranslated: "'For you will not abandon my soul to Hades' ... he was not abandoned to Hades" (Acts 2:27, 31, ESV). In line with this, many modern translations of the Apostles' Creed translate this article of the creed as "he descended to the dead."

Therefore, the Larger Catechism notes that the Bible does speak about the time after Jesus' death and before His resurrection, and that it speaks of this time as part of Christ's humiliation (in the sense that Jesus' human life is divided into the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation). Jesus was dead, with His soul was unnaturally separated from His body, dwelling with other departed souls. In addition to Acts 2:24-32, Romans 6:9 also speaks of how death had dominion over Jesus until He rose from the dead.

Notice, this explanation states what seems to be clear from Scripture while leaving room for various positions on details about which the Bible does not speak as clearly, such as where exactly Jesus' soul was at this time and what He was doing there (was His soul in heaven? a place of torment? the "bosom of Abraham" (Luke 16:22)? paradise? was the bosom of Abraham/paradise the same thing as heaven or was it part of Hades until the resurrection?). Nevertheless, most Reformed teachers argue that even though this condition was an aspect of humiliation under the power of death, during this time Jesus's soul dwelt in paradise with His people (Luke 23:43), having committed His spirit to God (Luke 23:46).

Conclusion 

Like I mentioned earlier, I believe both of these perspectives teach us something important and can be expressed by this article of the creed. Jesus bore the griefs and sorrows which we ought to have suffered in hell. Not only did He experience physical pain, but He experienced that tremendous mental pain and torment of being judged by God, and He did that for us. Jesus also truly laid down His life, giving Himself up to the unnatural and fearful power of death. Yet, He could not be held by it - rather, He exhausted its power and overcame it by rising from the dead, taking away its victory over His people. As Hebrews 2:14–15 teaches, Jesus took on human nature, "that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." Jesus did this work for us, so let us gratefully confess it and find in it comfort and confidence.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Christ Died for Our Sins

The death of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith. Some have tried to downplay it, finding the key element of Christianity in moral teaching or the character that Jesus exemplified. But this leads to a version of Christianity that is foreign to the Bible and the Jesus of history. The message of the Christian faith is that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

This early creedal summery not only recounts historical facts, but it also shows the significance of them by the little phrase, "for our sins." (It also communicates that these facts are to be explained "in accordance with the Scriptures.") It may sound simple, that Christ died for our sins, but since our sins have many ramifications, so does Christ's death. As John Murray explains,
"Jesus came to save and, therefore, dealt with the whole entail of sin. This is the significance of those diverse categories in terms of which the Bible interprets for us the atoning death of Christ. It views the death of Christ as sacrifice, as propitiation, as reconciliation, and as redemption. These are all conditioned in their precise character by the various ways in which the entail of sin is to be viewed.  
"Sin involves guilt and the death of Christ as sacrifice is the provision for our guilt. Sin evokes the wrath of God and propitiation is that which propitiates the wrath of God. Sin alienates us from God and reconciliation is directed to that exigency arising from sin. Sin consigns us to bondage, bondage to sin itself and too Satan. Redemption is the provision for this bondage, the death of Christ is our ransom." (Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, p. 38)
Murray goes on to also note that just as sin lead to death, so the death of Christ is the destruction of death. So Christ's death undoes the work of sin, which leads us to consider all that sin has done. This in turn leads us to consider how God made the world before we rebelled against Him. It is no wonder, then, that the death of Christ is central to the Christian faith, for it is the remedy for our fundamental problem.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Tithing, Charity, and Financing the Work of the Church

Collecting the Offering in a Scottish Kirk by John Phillip (1855)
Giving money seems to be a topic which preachers are either too eager or too reluctant to speak about. On the one hand, sometimes the appeal for money comes off as self-serving or driven by anxiety and economic pressures. On the other hand, others want to avoid seeming greedy or anxious, and will tend to avoid exhorting people on the topic. I tend to be in the latter camp. But avoiding the subject is not a remedy for bad teaching. So what does the Bible say? Here I hope to give an overview of what the Bible says about tithing, charity, and financing the church's ministry of worship, word, and mercy.

The Old Testament Tithe and the Levites

The tithe (giving a tenth) dates back at least to the patriarchal era, long before Moses and the law given at Sinai. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:20), and Jacob also vows a tenth to God (Gen. 28:22). The way it appears in these passages, it looks like the tithe was already an established pattern.

In the Mosaic law, it is debated by commentators whether there were one, two, or three tithes. Numbers and Leviticus refer to one tithe, given to the Levites and priests (Lev. 27:30-33, Num. 18:21, 24). Deuteronomy refers to using the tithe annually for the Levites and for feasting in Jerusalem and it refers to gathering it every third year as local communities for the poor and Levites (Deut. 14:22-29, see also 12:11-19). If these passages refer to three tithes, then one tenth went to the Levites, one tenth went to household celebration in Jerusalem (with Levites), and every three years one tenth was "laid up within your towns" for the local Levites, sojourners, fatherless, and widows. Yet, I find it most natural to take Deuteronomy, not adding tithes, but clarifying the multiple uses for what is always simply called "the tithe." Commenting on this passage in Deuteronomy, John Calvin say “Those are mistaken, in my opinion, who think that another kind of tithe is here referred to. It is rather a correction or interpretation of the Law, lest the priests and Levites alone should consume all the tithes, without applying a part to the relief of the poor, of strangers, and widows.”[1] If this all refers to one tithe, then the tithe was used to provide for the Levites, but also for religious celebration and (every third year) the care of the needy. The addition of these other roles in Deuteronomy would be explained by the fact that in Leviticus and Numbers the people were being still fed by manna. Deuteronomy was preparing the people to live in the land where the poor and needy would need help.

In both the "one tithe" and "three tithe" perspectives, a great deal of the tithe went to support the Levites, and a tenth of the Levites’ portion went to the Levitical priests. Those Levites who were not priests assisted the priests, enabling the priests to focus on their tasks of sacrifice and worship (Lev. 1-10), teaching (Lev. 10:10-11, Mal. 2:7), and benediction (Num. 6:22-27). In order to assist the priests, the rest of the Levites served a variety of functions, such as tabernacle transport (Num. 1:47-54), officials, judges, gatekeepers, musicians (1 Chron. 23:4-5, 25-32), treasurers (1 Chron. 9:26), and teachers of God's word (2 Chron. 17:7-9, Neh. 8). The Levites not only ministered in Jerusalem, but also lived in the towns, no doubt serving in the weekly local convocations that developed into synagogue worship (Lev. 23:3, Deut. 14:27, 2 Chron. 17:7-9).

The New Testament Tithe, the Apostles, and the Diaconate

Yet, in the New Testament, the Levites were supplanted. As the author of Hebrews points out, in Abraham, Levi gave the tithe to one who was superior, Melchizedek (Heb. 7:9-10). Christ came “in the order of Melchizedek,” and took the place of the Levites. His ministry on earth before He offered Himself as a sacrifice was one both of word and deed. On the one hand, He proclaimed, taught, and prayed, and on the other hand He healed, fed, and showed mercy to those who physically suffered. When he ascended to heaven, He left His apostles as those sent as representatives to carry on His ministry. Thus, it was natural in the early church for believers to lay their contributions at the feet of the apostles, rather than at the feet of the Levites (Acts 4:34-37). The disciples gave generously, beyond what was required by the tithe. They gave to the Lord for the furtherance of His ministry by giving to the apostles. The apostles soon realized that they needed to focus on the ministry of word and prayer, not managing money and the financial needs of the poor. Thus, they set up deacons to do this work and to thus carry out Christ’s ministry of mercy (Acts 6:1-7). The diaconate was established as a perpetual office in the church, mentioned also in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The apostles and elders were still involved in some of the recorded examples of collections for the saints (Acts 11:29-30), although they seemed to operate with others who might have been deacons, such as “our brother whom we have often tested” (2 Cor. 8:22) and “those whom you accredit by letter” (1 Cor. 16:3). It is likely, as was true in the early church, that the apostles/elders continued to have governing authority over the process, but left the detailed administration of finances and resources to the deacons (when deacons were available).

Current Obligations

The New Testament church, as administered by its officers, has the financial obligation to at least pay preachers (1 Cor. 9:3-14, 1 Tim. 5:17-18) and financially assist those in need (1 Tim. 5:3-16, 1 Cor. 16:1-4, 2 Cor. 8-9, Acts 4:32-37, 11:27-30). Some needs, in both categories, will be occasional and will require a specific offering. Other needs, in both categories, will be regular, requiring regular giving. While the tithe is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament, it remains the biblical pattern for regular giving to the church, such that Christians should give to the church in a similar way. While the use of the tithe is not identical to that under the old covenant, it generally covers the same functions (teaching, worship, charity, religious celebration).

In addition to regular and special giving to the institutional church, all Christians are called to give charitably to others (1 Tim. 6:17-19, 1 John 3:17), to lend charitably (Luke 6:34-35, Lev. 25:35-38, Deut. 15:1-11), and to cultivate economic practices equivalent to gleaning (Lev. 19:9-10). Men are especially responsible to providing for one’s household and relatives (1 Tim. 5:8), and each person is called to work as they are able to further the wealth of one’s self and others (Eph. 4:28, 1 Thess. 4:11-12, 2 Thess. 3:12).

Example of the Early Church

The early church continued to gather the regular contributions of the church, which were administered by the deacons who reported to the bishop. As Calvin remarks concerning the early church,
"For [the deacons] received the daily offerings of the faithful, and the annual revenues of the Church, that they might apply them to their true uses; in other words, partly in maintaining ministers, and partly in supporting the poor; at the sight of the bishop, however, to whom they every year gave an account of their stewardship” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.4.5). 
Some early church leaders, like Justin Martyr and Tertullian simply refer to a collection without explicit reference to a "tithe," but others like Cyprian of Carthage and some early church manuals like The Apostolic Constitutions do refer to the practice of tithing (as a minimum, not a limit), and this became more common as time went on. Also, as the church grew, the division of church goods was specified with greater detail. Calvin quotes Gregory I (A.D. 540-604) as an example of this,
"Gregory speaks still more clearly: 'It is the custom of the Apostolic See,' says he, 'to give command to the bishop who has been ordained, to divide all the revenues into four portions – namely, one to the bishop and his household for hospitality and maintenance, another to the clergy, a third to the poor, a fourth to the repair of churches'" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.4.7).
Calvin recounted these practices to commend them. During his era, the Roman Catholic Church had lost sight of the practice of Scripture and the early church and had become corrupted by the love of money. This area of life was one in need of reformation. In our consumeristic age, where both Christian individuals and church leaders can be misguided with their use of money, may we learn to trust God for our daily needs and use our wealth for His glory, fulfilling our personal responsibilities as well as giving to the church for its ministry of word, worship, and mercy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Presbyterian Missionary on the Missouri Frontier

It is profitable to remember that God has preserved and furthered His church throughout all ages by raising up faithful servants by His grace to teach and proclaim His word. The gospel is not passed on automatically. At no time in history has it been effortlessly passed on to the next generation. In American history in particular, we faced the challenge of maintaining and spreading the gospel even as people moved to new lands without established churches. One man who was instrumental in this effort in our own local area was William Sterling Lacy.

William S. Lacy (1791-1881) was the first Presbyterian pastor ordained in Missouri. Before coming to Missouri, he had graduated from Hampden-Sydney College, taught there for a short time, served in the War of 1812 in Virginia, studied law under John Randolph of Roanoke, and then turned to the pastoral calling. An old newspaper recounts his time in Missouri:
"When Mr. Lacy connected with the Presbytery of Missouri [in 1820], it was as a licentiate of Hanover Presbytery of Virginia, and when he was ordained in 1824, he was the first Presbyterian Minister ever ordained in the State ... His first settlement was in St. Charles County, Mo., where he remained about a year, and he then removed to property he owned in St. Louis County, near the present site of the Maline Creek Church, and here he remained four years, actively engaged in preaching at various places in the county, such as Bonhomme, Cold Water, Bellefontaine, and other places. After this time he again removed to St. Charles County. A few years after he came to Missouri, he was commissioned by the Board of Home Missions to travel a portion of the months of the summer and fall seasons, to preach and to organize churches on the Missouri and Upper Mississippi Rivers, which portions were known as the Boonslick and Salt River sections. He was among the first Presbyterian ministers to visit the counties of Callaway and Boone ... On his return to [St. Charles County], Rev. Lacy took charge of the Dardenne Church, where he remained until 1832, when he removed south to Arkansas. He preached twice a month at Dardenne Church, with the balance of the time spent at Troy in Lincoln County. He was a fine horseman, and he was well mounted. He delighted to ride over the wide prairies in this new and sparsely settled State."
Rev. Samuel Chester, writing of his early years under Rev. Lacy's later ministry, would write of him,
"He was a man of striking personal appearance, elegant manners, and fine literary attainments. In his old age he lost his eyesight, but his memory was stored with literary treasures which made him independent of things in print. He could recite from memory the entire New Testament and many of the Psalms and other poetical parts of the Old Testament. He knew much of Shakespeare and Scott and all of Robert Burns by heart."
You can read more about Rev. Lacy at this link. He married twice due to the death of his first wife, Sally (who was the niece of Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Seminary), and he had a total of 17 children. One of them, Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy, served as chaplain for Stonewall Jackson and his men and afterwards came to Missouri like his father and pastored churches in St. Louis and Mexico, Missouri.