Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations

R. Fowler White

Is there any congregation of Christ’s church who doesn’t aspire to see maximum fruitfulness from her ministries? Seems doubtful, doesn’t it? Even those churches who don’t buy into goals of “big attendance, big budget, big building” want to see “maximum fruitfulness.” But, of course, if we don’t define fruitfulness in terms of bigness, how will we define it? Exactly what fruit are we looking for? With that last question in mind, what follows is a brief exposition of a working hypothesis about fruitfulness in local church ministry – a statement of aspirations, if you will.

So, where to start? I start with what I take to be a biblically faithful “purpose statement” for the congregations of Christ’s church. Granted that the chief end for which Christ’s church and all other things exist is to glorify God, I find a purpose statement for the church in WCF 25.3. There, according to the Assembly, the purpose for which Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God is this: “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” Understandably, we think of “gathering the saints” primarily in terms of evangelistic fruitfulness. And well we should. That’s not our focus here, however. Rather our attention is on “perfecting the saints.” Lest I misinterpret this “perfecting,” I look back to WCF 13, where I find that the term perfecting is virtually interchangeable with the process of sanctification, that is, with the saints’ “grow[th] in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.3). In that context, we recognize that the growth in view is that of the saints’ traits (qualities), not their number (quantity). Please note: that’s not to say that numerical growth (even “big attendance”) is irrelevant: it’s just to say that the number of gathered saints is not the Assembly’s point in their choice of the word perfecting. So, if you’re looking for a purpose statement for your congregation, here’s one: to gather and grow saints. Simple, brief, memorable.

But maybe too brief. It’s possible and desirable to describe the perfecting of the saints more fully. Surely, increasing holiness and decreasing worldliness in the individual saint’s life are in view. Again, however, we can say more. We can focus on the perfecting/growth of congregations as well as of individuals. It’s vital for us to look for the fruit of more holiness and less worldliness in our congregations. Yet we should not overlook other fruit in which “congregational sanctification” should be expressed. As far as I can tell, in addition to growth from evangelism that gathers the saints, Scripture points to three other categories of fruitfulness – three crops, if you will – yielded by congregations who grow the saints they’re gathering.

First, congregations are to grow in unity. It’s striking how frequently the NT authors address the duty not just to maintain unity (see Phil 1.27–2.2), but to attain it too. Eph 4.1-16 provides a sweeping overview of the two tasks. In 4.1-6 Paul makes an appeal to “maintain the unity” created by the one Spirit (4.1-3), an appeal based and expressed in seven unifying confessional acclamations (4.4-6). In 4.7‑16 Paul highlights how the diverse gifts bestowed on the church enable her members to “attain to the unity” of faith and knowledge. The context of Ephesians 4, then, sees the church moving from the unity of childhood (4.4‑6, 14) to the unity of adulthood (4.13, 15‑16). From the unifying articles of her immaturity (4.4‑6), through the “speaking the truth in love” of her maturation (4.15), to the unity of faith and knowledge in her maturity (4.13), confessional unity is at the heart of the church’s identity. In fact, as one commentator puts it, oneness is essential “to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as a confessing church.” And lest we think that Paul has only the universal visible church in mind in Eph 4.1-16, we should note that he speaks of “pastors and teachers” in 4.11, gifts whose ministries are associated primarily with local church contexts. Thus, maturation unto unity in the faith takes place in and through the local congregations of Christ’s universal visible church. Most notably for our purposes, however, maturation in the faith is conceived in terms of confessional unity (i.e., shared convictions and witness about what to believe and how to behave) at the congregational level.

Second, congregations are to grow in discernment. As the pillar and bulwark of the truth, the church is responsible to grow, corporately as well as individually, in her discernment of God’s revealed will (Rom 12.2; 16.17-19; Eph 4.13-16; Col 1.9-10; 2 Pet 3.18) and to bear public witness to that will in word and deed (1 Tim 3.15-16; Jude 3; 1 Pet 3.15; Eph 4.3-6, 13-16). To empower the church to fulfill these responsibilities, Christ gives her the Spirit of truth, thereby enabling and obliging her members to distinguish truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil (1 Cor 2.12–3.3; 12.1-3; Heb 5.11-14; 1 John 2.27; 4.1). Possessing the same Spirit, God’s household also possesses at least the seed of those saving graces necessary to make public confession even from its childhood. Yet congregations are expected to grow in discernment too, so that members are no longer little children in the faith (Eph 4.14). Accordingly, parents generally and fathers particularly are exhorted to instruct their families (Gen 18.19; Deut 6.7; Prov 1.8; 22.6; Eph 6.4). Moreover, through training and practice, some in God’s household will emerge to exercise saving graces more ably and fully than others, thus distinguishing themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5.14). In this light, we understand that a congregation’s maturation will be recognized in their increasingly shared discernment of what is true, right, and good.

Third, congregations are to grow in their stewardship of the gifts-for-ministry that the Spirit has distributed among His saints for their perfecting (1 Cor 12.11; 1 Pet 4.10-11). Out of love for neighbor (1 Cor 12.31–13.7), saints are exhorted to devote themselves to “the common good” (1 Cor 12.7) – in other words, to edifying one another (1 Cor 14.12). In that devotion, a division of labor emerges: both Paul and Peter teach us that some will minister in word; others in deed (Eph 4.11-12; 1 Peter 4.11). Whatever one’s gifts, the saints are told to remember that “each has received a gift,” and each is to “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 4.10; cf. 1 Cor 14.12). So, growth in the household of faith at the congregational level will find members with a justifiable conviction of what their gifts are (Rom 12.3) and also a spirit of accountability to employ those gifts for the common good (1 Pet 4.10).

So there you have it: a working hypothesis that, when it comes to perfecting the saints, the fruitfulness we’re looking for in local church ministry is that God would grant our congregations to be united, discerning, and good stewards of our gifts for ministry. Let me know where you agree or disagree, especially where I have wrong or incomplete information or where I reach wrong or incomplete conclusions.

R. Fowler White

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What Should Pastors Give?

I’ve just started reading Harold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls. So far, I am very impressed. A Lutheran minister, Senkbeil had been pestered for years to write this book, since he has given a lot of advice to ministers. It was advice of the sort that saves ministries. The point I want to highlight here has to do with the substance of what pastors are supposed to give to the congregation and to those outside the congregation to whom he ministers.

Typically, seminary students are told that ministry means pouring out oneself for the benefit of the congregation. The better seminaries will emphasize the importance of your personal devotional life. However, Senkbeil points out the problem with the idea of pouring oneself out: this is what typically results in burnout. There is only so much in a man, after all. There is only so much emotional and spiritual capital that he can expend. If this is limited, then it actually doesn’t make sense to say that the pastor pours out himself. Not only is there the problem of the very limited resource, but an additional issue is the temptation to narcissism that this idea represents. If the pastor pours out himself, then the people will see that consciously or unconsciously. Some will react with acceptance, and thus make the pastor the focus of the congregation. Others will reject it and thereby throw out what there is of Christ in what the pastor offers.

Senkbeil offers another route, one which I think is well worth exploring. The pastor fills his soul with Jesus Christ, full to bursting, and then offers Jesus Christ, and not himself. He is then more of a conduit than a filter. Again, here, the better seminaries will say that the pastor is supposed to offer Christ. However, the implied corollary is often “filtered through you.” I would now say, in addition to being transparent to the text of Scripture (get out of the way and let the Scripture speak!), the pastor should also be transparent to Christ (he offers Jesus and not himself).

There are three things that I think will result from this game-changer. Firstly, the pastor will be far less likely to burnout if he is not offering himself. Incidentally, this would not mean “be impersonal and never be friendly or compassionate with the people in the congregation.” Instead, it means “the substance of what you offer is not you but Him.” Secondly, the importance of the devotional life becomes dramatically clearer, since the devotional life is one of the key places and times where the pastor becomes filled with Christ. Thirdly, he will be less tempted to narcissism. So also the congregation will be less tempted to make the ministry all about him, and instead will recognize that the ministry is all about Jesus Christ. The overall effect of this might very well be to lift a huge part of the burden of being a minister off the shoulders of the minister, to lay it on the infinitely more capable shoulders of our Lord.

Co-Laborers and Co-Heirs

(Posted by Paige)

Last year I had the unexpected privilege of contributing a chapter to a book by and about women in the PCA, Co-Laborers and Co-Heirs: A Family Conversation, which was published this week. The project is intended to be an outlet for and an encouragement to theologically gifted women in this complementarian denomination, as well as a plea to PCA (and other) church leaders to listen to and care about such women in their congregations. I’m flagging it here in case any of you decide to read it and want a place to comment or ask questions afterwards.

It’s an anthology, so if you do pick it up I think I can guarantee two things: (1) that not every chapter will appeal to you; and (2) (if you persevere with it) at least one of the authors—a mother, sister, brother, or daughter in the faith—will articulate a truth or an experience that will add to your store of compassion for women in your congregation, regardless of denomination.

In my chapter I chose the unusual path, for me, of writing autobiographically. As a rule I have mostly veered away from telling my own story when I write, wanting to keep my focus on the biblical and theological topics that I’ve opted to explore. I’m also not a fan of setting up myself (rather than my thinking) as a target for criticism.

But this time I decided that my story was worth telling. Fourteen years ago, I took the life-changing step of voluntarily moving from an entirely egalitarian church background into PCA membership. At the time, I was already a decade into what became a twenty-year dive into Reformed theology and redemptive history, and the leaders of my very traditional church didn’t know what to do with me. My chapter recounts how we muddled through more than a dozen years together, in that context and with my gifts of study and teaching.

Spoilers: there’s been love in that mix, as well as sorrow and frustration. I tell my story for the sake of others who might also end up walking this road-less-taken, either as theologically trained women in a complementarian setting, or as elders who receive such women into membership and don’t quite know how to welcome them.

I’d be glad to field specific questions about my experience or general questions about the book, though I cannot speak for any of the other authors. (I didn’t even know most of them existed until we collaborated on this project.) Mainly I wanted to provide a space in the GB context for the reactions I expect our project will provoke. Have at it.

Male and Female Souls?

Posted by Paige (Yes, I’m still around sometimes!)

Here is a set of crowdsourcing theological research questions for my scholarly minded brethren:

Are you familiar with the teaching that men and women have gendered souls? That is, the idea that the differences between us (and perhaps the roles we are to play) are so essential that they are located originally in our souls as well as in our biology?

Can anyone give me the historical pedigree of this idea? What religions or sects have emphasized this teaching since ancient times? (Googling it brought up kabbalist and New Age spiritism, but I’d like to go deeper than blog posts if anyone knows of a decent resource.)

How have Christians historically interacted with this teaching? How does it comport with generally orthodox Christian teaching on the imago Dei, gender, and gender roles? What Christian thinkers, if any, have engaged or taught this idea?

Finally, how do you personally react to the idea that men and women have distinctly gendered souls as well as bodies? Do you think this is compatible with an orthodox anthropology? Would you teach this to your congregation? What would be your biblical supports?

I have encountered this idea in Christian teaching only recently, so I am not familiar with how it fits into the historical context of biblical and Reformed thought. I’m presently doubtful that it does, and I wanted to see if I could locate the idea in the history of theology and other religions in order to understand it better. 

Thanks abundantly in advance for your thoughts and any resources you can point me toward.

Extra Services?

The Puritans generally rejected extra services of worship besides the Sunday Sabbath services. They lived in a context where the churches in power tended to require lots of extra services. There were feast-days, holy days, saint-days, etc. The Puritans believed that requiring all these extra services bound the conscience to something that was not God’s Word. Their position became clear: only the Sunday services of worship were required by Scripture. However, they did not forbid extra services entirely. WCF 21.5 states that “thanksgivings upon special occasions” are appropriate. The WCF does not specify what those special occasions are. We know from the rest of the standards that none of these extra services can be forced upon the people. However, that is a very different thing from saying that therefore they are not allowed.

If a congregation, therefore, decides that it wants to give thanks to God generally by holding a Thanksgiving service; give thanks to God for the incarnation of Jesus Christ at Christmas; and give thanks to God for Christ’s resurrection at Easter, this does not fall foul of the Regulative Principle, and it falls within the parameters of WCF 21.5. The congregation would then have decided that those are the special occasions on which it wants to give thanks. If someone were to respond by saying “those aren’t special occasions,” I would respond by saying, “who gets to decide what the special occasions are?” Is it not the congregation, led by the session? In my situation, for instance, the congregation is used to having a Thanksgiving service, a Christmas service and an Easter service. No one feels bound in their conscience to go. They go freely. This is very different, obviously, from what the Puritans were facing, in terms of required services.

Now, can we require people to go to extra services? Of course not. That would definitely be a violation of Scripture. Nor could we, hypothetically speaking, discipline anyone who did not come to the special services. They must be kept voluntary. This is the understanding of many Reformed churches through the years. One could not fault a church for holding only to the Sabbath services. However, it seems to go too far to judge churches that have Christmas and Easter services. There seems to be a range here of acceptable practice.

An Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

Let it be known at the beginning of this post that I love the Psalms, and that I believe the Psalms should be sung in worship frequently, just not exclusively. I heard this argument recently from a new friend of mine in the OPC, by name, the Rev. Brett Mahlen. He used to be EP himself, and so he knows the position from inside, as it were. The argument goes like this: the way most EP proponents phrase the matter is that we can only sing in worship words that are inspired, and that the Bible commands us only to sing the Psalms (usually they interpret Colossians 3:16 to refer to the Septuagintal division of the Psalter into psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs). The argument from my friend addresses the first half of the statement. If we may only sing inspired words, then we cannot sing in English, since the translation into English is not itself inspired; only the autographs are inspired. If we then say that the English translation (into meter, which involves considerable paraphrasing!) is inspired, then we are undermining our doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration. English metrical Psalms, as beautiful as they can be (and most worthy of being sung, I might add!), are not inspired Scripture.

Furthermore (and this is now my addition to the argument), by saying that only the very words of the Psalter may be sung, proponents of EP commit a word-concept fallacy. To remind ourselves, the word-concept fallacy is an error in logic that happens when people believe that words are the same thing as ideas, whereas the truth of the matter is that we use words to express ideas, even though those ideas could be expressed with different words. To flesh it out a bit more, an idea can be present even though a specific word is not used. Similarly, just because a specific word is present does not mean that the idea is also present. In this case, the word-concept fallacy is committed by saying that what is meant in the Psalter can only be obtained by singing the very words themselves. Then the error is compounded by saying that the English metrical Psalters can fit the bill of singing the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Scripture. Ironically, in other places in their Reformed theology, EP proponents would not commit this fallacy. For instance, Reformed EP proponents all (as far as I know) hold that the Bible teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, even though the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the Bible. They recognize that the concept of the Trinity is very much present (even obviously so!), and yet the word “Trinity” is not present. The word “Trinity” is our shorthand to express the fact that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there is only one God. So there is not a consistency here with EP proponents: they say that we may only sing the very words of the Psalter, and yet they advocate English metrical Psalters to accomplish this, which English Psalters are not the very words of the inspired Psalms.

To push the point a little further, we may remember that several commentators on the Psalms have said that the Psalter is a mini-Bible. My description of the Psalter would be that it is an emotional commentary on all of Scripture, mostly in the form of prayers. The Psalter thus extends its influence on all the rest of Scripture in one way or another. If this is so, then it is by no means unreasonable to assert that any hymn that is biblical in content reflects the teaching of the Psalter.

Of course, no case whatsoever can be made for a position that says we must all learn Hebrew so that we will sing the Psalter in the original language. That would again commit the word-concept fallacy. The content of Scripture can be translated into other languages, and it is the content of Scripture that we want available to us. Translation of Scripture is implied in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, among other places.

So the EP proponent, if he admits the force of this argument, might respond by saying, “Well, as long as we have the content of the Psalter, then we are good.” However, once one has gotten over the hump of the word-concept fallacy, the whole game is given away, because of what I wrote two paragraphs ago. It seems to me that the claim that we must only sing the inspired Psalms is an essential linch-pin in the EP argument. Without it, the whole thing collapses to the ground. The EP proponents singing metrical Psalms in English are not singing the inspired Psalms, because they are not singing the original Hebrew.

My position is that we must sing only what is biblical. But by the term “biblical” I mean what is biblical in content. We do not need to sing only the very words of Scripture. Otherwise we would have to sing in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. We need to sing the content of Scripture. There is a continuum, therefore, of “biblicalness” when it comes to what we sing. Some can only marginally be called Scriptural. Songs like “In the Garden” have content that can be argued as being anti-biblical (really, an experience that none other has ever known? Are you the recipient of direct divine revelation or something? What kind of walking and talking with me is the song singing about?). We should aim, therefore, to ask the right question: is this hymn biblical in its content?

Psalm 1 Prayer

I have taken to praying the Psalms in corporate worship, and what I am doing is making the wording corporate, interpreting the Psalm christologically, and seeking to make the Psalm ours. This is my effort at praying Psalm 1:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have revealed to us that we are blessed if we do not walk in the council of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scoffer. Make us instead to delight in your law, that we might meditate on it day and night. Make us to be like trees planted by streams of water, yielding their fruit in their season, never withering, gaining an internal, invisible nourishment so that, in anything that we do for you and for your kingdom, we will prosper. Make us not like the wicked, who have so little weight that the wind can drive them away. Though we feel alone in this, though we see and feel the pressures against righteousness by the world outside, we know, Father, that the whole congregation of the righteous will stand with us. Above all, you stand with us, for you know our path, the end from the beginning. You know that path of wisdom, and you delight to show it to us. You also illuminate for us the path of the wicked, and you show us its end. We praise you that Jesus walked not in the counsel of the wicked, nor did he stand in the way of sinners, nor ever sit in the seat of scoffers. We praise you that He delighted to do your will, that He delighted in your law, that He always meditated on it, that He therefore has become for us the life-giving vine who nourishes our faith always.

A Friendly Introduction to Biblical Literacy

Posted by Paige (Yes, I’m still around here sometimes!)

I’m pleased to be able to share with you a quirky biblical literacy resource that I created this year. Originally commissioned for a women’s Bible study conference last fall, this half-hour talk instructs beginning Bible students in the difference between “doing devotions” and studying a passage, using Isaiah 61 to reinforce my main points.

It’s meant to be a primer, so the content won’t interest most readers of this blog. But if you listen for just a few minutes, you’ll likely think of a few people who would benefit from this kind of friendly instruction. (Of course, if you listen to the whole thing I will be flattered!)

This talk is on YouTube not because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I created slides to accompany it, for the sake of visual learners. The talk can be enjoyed profitably just as an audio recording, too. Please pass this link along, as appropriate. Thanks!

Green Baggins Is Going OPC

It is now official. I have been examined and approved by the OPC’s Presbytery of the Midwest for a call from Momence OPC, which is south of Chicago about 35 or 40 miles. The presbytery is an extremely congenial presbytery, full of vanilla presbyterians like myself. I want my friends in the PCA to know that I still love the PCA, and I did not leave primarily for ideological reasons. The main reason was that Momence OPC and I really hit it off, and we appear to be a good fit for each other. I had applied to churches in several NAPARC denominations, but this church is the one that worked out. That being said, I will not particularly miss the progressive wing of the PCA, and I daresay that some of them will not miss me! I will continue, however, to pray for my confessional brothers and sisters in the PCA, that they will not compromise, but will hold fast the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I will continue also to follow the PCA with interest and prayer. I cannot forget a denomination of which I have been a part for 38 years!

The Church and Americanism

I’ve been reading some church history books recently, and one thing that has come up rather forcefully to my consciousness is the degree to which Americanism has affected the church in America. The main question is whether, in the church’s desire to communicate to culture, it has so embraced America that its message is no longer exportable to other nations, thus falling foul of those people who critique the American church of imperialism.

For instance, people who claim that Presbyterianism cannot work in a given context are obviously infected with Americanism. What else could explain how people could claim that a form of church government that has worked in every major cultural context in the world could not work in America? Usually, in the case of urban contexts, the issue is a radical individualism that makes people believe that a connectional form of government cannot work. Maybe the individualism should bow its neck to the yoke of connectionalism, and not vice versa!

A good example of a church that has resisted Americanization is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When Carl MacIntire proposed to the OPC that it go with the temperance movement, he was offering the OPC a way of being distinctly American. When the OPC refused, MacIntire left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The OPC refused to be an Americanized church. This (among other factors) has contributed to its appeal being rather limited. But what the OPC lacks in numbers it makes up for in the unity of message, and the singular power of doctrinal purity it has enjoyed over the years.

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