On Christmas Eve, I wrote about the temptation of forever-virtual church. Thousands of churches started streaming their services during Covid stay-at-home orders, and even though those orders are gone now, many churches are still streaming. Though streaming is useful technology, and there may be a place for it in churches post-pandemic, churches also need to consider the potential downsides.
Trevin Wax has an excellent blog post for The Gospel Coalition that’s worth reading in full called “‘Gotcha’ Sermon Clips Are Bad for the Church.” He’s referring to the online phenomenon of people sharing edited clips from sermons that portray the speaker in a negative light. Wax discusses social-media accounts that weaponize sermon clips:
Some of these [social media accounts] point the spotlight on “crazy fundamentalists” while others root out the “most woke”—in either case we’re introduced to preachers who seem determined to live up to the worst caricatures. At times, we see clips from charismatic megachurch pastors delivering inspirational drivel rather than sound biblical teaching. The intended reaction, it appears, is to name and shame the “bad preacher” and to shake one’s head in pity or disgust.
So far, these have mostly been videos of prominent pastors or Christian teachers with online ministries. But it’s worth considering that your pastor from your church could be next if you’re streaming your services for the whole world to see. Sadly, there are lots of people in this country with grievances, an Internet connection, and too much time on their hands, and they might not stop at megachurches for much longer.
“But my pastor would never say anything like those crazy people online,” you might think. Of course, but that’s not the issue. He doesn’t have to say anything crazy.
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By Chrys Jones — 2 months ago
The Good Shepherd is with us in our sleepless nights, and your lack of sleep is no reason to think otherwise. When your anxious thoughts or fiery darts from the enemy assail you, remember your Good Shepherd. Remember how he cried tears of blood and hung on the cross to pay for your sins. Remember how he rose from the dead on the third day. Remember that he didn’t leave you as an orphan, even on your darkest, longest nights.
It’s 2:34 a.m. My room is faintly lit by tiny, glowing LED lights recharging for tomorrow. I wish I could shut down, plug myself in, and crawl my way toward 100% capacity like my phone. Instead, the adrenaline surges through my now awake body with an inescapable sense of dread. Not again. Yes, it’s happening again. The loneliness of this dark room grips me in its clutches as I notice the hum of the refrigerator, the swooshing car that just sped past, and my dog obnoxiously lapping water from his dish. I fail to get comfortable, and my body and mind are ready for a new day to begin. The clock tells me otherwise—it’s now 3:45 am.
This doesn’t happen every night, but insomnia has become a friend who tries to stick closer than a brother. Some nights I’m tired enough to drift off after a couple of hours of listless tossing and turning. On other nights, I simply get out of bed at 3:00 a.m. and start my day. There’s a faint hope that my body will realize the time and start the cascade of falling asleep again before my 6:30 a.m. alarm. Usually, this happens. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Insomnia filters the world with a darker hue. Yet, the light shines in the darkness.
Though I keep the lights dim while I’m limping through these middle-of-the-night adventures, the Light of the world shines bright. On the verge of tears, I often utter the weak prayer, “Lord, help me get through this.” The Holy Spirit groans on my behalf with groanings too deep for words, and I know my Good Shepherd doesn’t leave me to wander in the pitch-black shadows all alone. He is here with me.
When insomnia creeps in at 3:00 a.m., my theology becomes more concrete than ever. The Good Shepherd tells me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Having a good theology of suffering is easy when I’m feeling strong and self-sufficient. I think to myself, “Look at God pouring out abundant grace” in my successful and prosperous days. Leaning on the everlasting arm comes when I’m sleep-deprived, irritable, and just want to get some shuteye before our little ones start stirring tomorrow morning.
Though my struggles with poor sleep are minuscule when compared to the intense suffering of many other believers, they still draw me to rely on God. I’m forced to cling to biblical promises and cry out in faith for the Lord’s help. When sleep becomes an infrequent visitor who leaves in a hurry, I remember my God who never sleeps (Ps. 121:4). He lingers to keep me company, even during the night watch. He comforts me until I drift off and greets me as the sunbeams burst through my curtains, beckoning me to look for new mercies.
By Albert D. Taglieri — 1 month ago
Written by Albert D. Taglieri |
Monday, July 4, 2022
Scripture is the source of the church’s life. The church does not precede Scripture but arises in response to Scripture. The church obeys and preaches the Scriptures, not judges them. While the church hears Scripture, Scripture stands in judgment over the church. If controversy is churchly, then it must be characterized by Scripture, for attention to Scripture defines the nature of church life.
Church meetings can be contentious. When controversial topics are up for it is worthwhile to reflect on an essay by John Webster contained in his book The Domain of the Word, entitled “Theology and The Peace Of The Church.”
Webster consistently addressed topics by following the “material order” of theology: God in himself prior to God’s works. Here he moves starting from God through creation, redemption, church, theological reason, finally to controversy. This ensures that the nature and conduct of controversy is rightly understood by its place within God’s economy. The result is an extended theological meditation for approaching controversy.
I aim to highlight four lessons from Webster’s essay for consideration. First: Webster views peace primarily as an indicative reality, accomplished by God—not merely as an imperative. Second: Webster articulates a distinction between sinful anger and faithful zeal. Third: Webster distinguishes between controversy within the fellowship of the saints and sinful conflict. Fourth and finally: Webster emphasizes that Scripture is the rule of controversy.
In doing this, while I have my own perspectives on the various controversial topics, my goal is to avoid explicitly advocating any specific position—though I will use some of the topics for discussion. Rather, my goal is to use Webster as a source of reflection on the proper conduct of controversy.
Lesson 1: Peace as Indicative
Webster consistently emphasizes God’s sovereignty. The opening line illustrates: “in order to speak about conflict…theology must first speak about peace” (150). Why? Because peace is the condition, established by God, in which conflict occurs. It is therefore both real and primary. And it starts within God: “Theology must first speak about the God of peace” before it can speak of peace in creation which God establishes (150).
To explain the sovereign reality of God’s peace, Webster tells us that “God is both pattern and principle of creaturely peace” (153). Many acknowledge that God is the pattern of peace, but we must recall that he is also the principle, or the ground and cause, of peace. To see him as merely an example which we must actuate is to follow Pelagianism, where Christ is merely an assistant to our efforts. But to see him as the principle of peace acknowledges the reality that God creates peace, and we do not achieve it by our efforts. Created peace flows out of the fullness of God’s own life: “his peace is neither enhanced by created peace nor diminished by its absence” (154).
If God creates peace, and it is therefore fundamental to the nature of the church, why do we see conflict? Because peace unfolds in creation: “God secures the peaceful movement of created being” towards perfection (156). Webster reminds us that God’s peace is eschatological – it is both already (real) and not yet (perfected). So when Col. 3:5 commands “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” the precept “is directed, not to making peace real, but to making it visible” (159). Conflict is then merely “the lingering shadow which the rising sun has yet to chase away” (162). To truly know and see this reality requires us to acknowledge God’s work as primary, and ours as derivative.
So what bearing does this have for our conduct of theological controversy? It means that we may conduct controversy humbly and gently, even while passionately. The work of redemption does not hang on the outcome of our controversy. God’s action frees us from the responsibility (and stress) of guaranteeing a lack of conflict, as well as from guaranteeing perfection in the church. This actually enables us to more honestly approach disagreements. We don’t need to cover over disagreements for the sake of maintaining peace, because God’s peace is already real. Only by acknowledging and addressing disagreements can God’s peace truly be seen.
God’s peace in the church also gives us confidence. Controversy which is undertaken honestly, for “the furtherance of communion, not its erosion” trusts God to settle disagreements (168). In this, all parties to a conflict can acknowledge that they are seeking obedience to God and peace with each other: even as that requires that God move them to repentance. This position and intention is not victory at any costs, but rather obedience and love, preventing “self-conceit, mutual provocation and envy” (169). Controversy is no place for pride or achievement, but a place for repentance. It is not a place for self-justification, but for obedience. God has spoken. Controversy listens.
Lesson 2: The Character of Zeal
Much of Webster’s essay is taken up with the previous theme. But as one of the final movements in his argument, he includes a discussion of the proper attitude for theological controversy. Who is the peaceful theologian? Out of inner peace (derived from Christ’s rule in the heart), the theologian is not disturbed or agitated by his conversation partners. The contrast between anger and zeal explains this. Evil anger follows the passions – it is moved by one’s opponent and reactive. Zeal “is cooler and more objective,” even while an intense and deep spirit of opposition to evil (167).
Zeal can be corrupted by either deficiency or excess. Deficiency in zeal is “indifference, weariness” which leads the church into error (167). It too easily declares a false peace by finding points of unity. But this is a self-established peace, not a God-established one—and a minimalistic one at that. Zeal requires controversy to occur, that God’s truth may be obeyed.
Zeal in excess however, is also dangerous. It too quickly becomes unrighteous anger. Zeal may be tempered from excess by reinforcing the first theme: peace is from God. If it is accomplished by God, then zeal is not for making peace, but for showing peace. Webster prompts reflection by a helpful and thought-provoking, statement: “Zeal in a world in which God’s peaceful judgement is utterly real is a very different undertaking from zeal in a world where evil will not be stopped unless I shout it down” (168). By refusing to concretely define the difference, he invites us to ponder it with Scripture.
Zeal must not let divergences in opinion “become weapons of the will” which divide the unity of Christ (169). Zeal must start from the position of peace, and therefore must recognize that God’s peace is established not just between him and man, but also as “a society in which hostility is put to an end and peace is made” (157). Controversy is conducted within the fraternal love of the church.
Lesson 3: Controversy, not Conflict
This churchly nature of controversy is one main way in which Webster differentiates between “controversy” and “conflict,” which is a sinful fight for dominance over others. This theme comes into focus especially throughout Webster’s five rules “for edifying controversy” at the end of his essay (168). In fact, the first four rules all in some way highlight this churchly nature of controversy.
Perhaps the most important thing to be kept in mind about the churchly nature of controversy is Webster’s third rule, which distinguishes “divergence of opinion” from “divergence of will” (169). Are there “fundamental divergences about the Gospel” at stake in the controversy? The situation is either within the church, or a disagreement concerning what the church is. Only in the latter situation, where there are such “fundamental divergences about the Gospel” does controversy leave the bonds of a united will (169).
This provides an easy temptation in two ways though. Certainly, some issues in current controversies can be seen as affecting the Gospel. Does the divergence on the issue of sanctification and homosexuality constitute such an issue? Or is there a more moderate diagnosis whereby a “fundamental divergence” can be distinguished from what is correctible error? Certainly none of us is perfect, and this is a question that must be decided by every member of the controversy. The temptation to over-diagnose an error into a charge of heresy must be combatted. So must (and oftentimes more) the temptation to under-diagnose an error. Surely the principles of Presbyterianism, while allowing certain latitudes, are not in any way “latitudinarian.”
Perhaps a few questions about divergences can help to illuminate the nature of certain controversies. First: how is the Gospel articulated? And then, secondly: how is obedience to the Gospel instructed in pastoral counsel? A difference in articulation is no doubt cause for concern. But our sin often implies our failure to practice what we preach. Thus, agreement in articulation might camouflage a practical difference. Since divergence is not only in opinion, but may also be in will, the second question further illuminates divergences. What pastoral counsel is given, that characterizes the shape of obedience to the Gospel? Is it pastoral counsel which declares the perfection of God’s redemption, and exhorts trusting him alone in faithful use of his means of grace? Or is it pastoral counsel which declares a possible redemption, and encourages a routine of works and achievement, looking to works as the sign of acceptability before God?
While this may not be a total divergence in will, there is no doubt that it tends towards one. The question of sanctification is certainly important, and requires characterization. But there should be no doubt that some other questions, such as the composition of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), do not even approach being divergences about the Gospel—even while remaining important questions. It is less a matter of what obedience is, than it is about the precise manner which best actualizes such (agreed upon) obedience.
One final thing may be mentioned under this heading:
If controversy is within the church, then this shapes church discipline as controversy. Discipline is not to be regarded as an evil process. Too often, instead of distinguishing between controversy (good and rightly conducted) and conflict (the evil corruption of controversy), we are prone to view discipline as a “necessary evil.” But if it is necessary, it cannot be evil because evil can never be necessary. Conflict is sin, but controversy is the right response to sin’s presence and work. Discipline’s reality is not necessarily a pronouncement of sin on anyone involved. It is the context in which such a judgment, as to whether or not there is sin, may be made in obedience to Scripture.
Lesson 4: The Rule of Controversy
Webster’s final rule follows from the previous themes. Controversy is ruled by Scripture. He challenges the church of today: “Once confidence in the power of Scripture to determine matters in the church is lost, the politics of the saints quickly slides into agonistic practices in which we expect no divine comfort or direction” (170).
One may see a similar principle in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
The Scripture is God’s instrument of revelation and rule. Because God’s peace is the primary reality, it is only seen and actualized by attention to his Word. This attention is given by submission to Scripture. Controversy can only make God’s peace visible if it is focused on hearing and obeying Scripture.
The Scripture is what zeal loves. Zeal does not respond to offense, nor even to error considered in itself. Zeal responds only from love of Scripture, which grounds it. Zeal does not guard my own position or rightness. It guards obedience and submission to God’s Word. And so, when in controversy, zeal focuses on Scripture instead of on persons or secular philosophies.
Finally, Scripture is the source of the church’s life. The church does not precede Scripture but arises in response to Scripture. The church obeys and preaches the Scriptures, not judges them. While the church hears Scripture, Scripture stands in judgment over the church. If controversy is churchly, then it must be characterized by Scripture, for attention to Scripture defines the nature of church life.
God is the God of peace. Let us give attention to him and his work above our own, trusting him to resolve our controversies by listening to his Word alone in conducting them.
Albert D. Taglieri is a member of Reformed Presbyterian Church of San Antonio.
 John Webster, “Theology and the peace of the church” in The Domain of the Word, 150-170. Further citations from this essay use parenthetical page numbers.
 WCF 1.10
By Craig Thompson — 12 months ago
God waited to save you. He waited, like a parent who waits to give a birthday gift. He waited to cover you in grace, mercy, and love. He waited because he cared. He even waited through your sin and shame. He waited through your rebellion and anger. He didn’t punish you immediately. He didn’t strike you dead. He waited.
Are you a gracious person? When you show grace to others, do you do it with joy or do you perhaps show grace begrudgingly? Truthfully, when we show grace, we often have a predetermined limit to our grace. And, even if the limit isn’t predetermined, you will know it when you reach the limit But, regardless of how gracious you are or are not, very few of us would say that we wait to show grace–that showing grace to others is something we look forward to doing. And yet, that is precisely how Isaiah describes the Lord:
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you. Isaiah 30:18
God isn’t gracious to us out of requirement. He doesn’t show us grace to satisfy someone else or out of a sense of responsibility. God waits to be gracious. He wants to be gracious. He finds pleasure in extending grace toward us.
I don’t often appreciate this aspect of God’s character the way I should. It rarely occurs to me that I am undeserving of God’s love, but he desires to be gracious to me anyway–to overlook my sins and my shortcomings–and to welcome me in.
God lavishes his grace upon us. In Romans 5:20, Paul writes, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. Should we continue in sin? By no means, but know this, wherever there is great sin, God’s grace is greater.