What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Change for the Good

Posted by R. Fowler White

Overall, the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church after the exile was change, change for the good. Change in direction from self and sin to God and His will as revealed in Scripture. Change in attitudes and affections, priorities and choices. Decreasing likeness to the world and increasing likeness to God. To as many of us as enter into solemn covenant with God and His church, we give testimony that He has begun a work of change in us and our household. So, as we read the story of Nehemiah, we examine ourselves and ask, do we, as members of God’s church, see the continuing fruit of reformation in ourselves, in our households, and in our congregations? When was the last time I noticed increasing holiness in my thoughts, words, or deeds? In Neh 12:44–13:3, reformation produced three observable changes in God’s people.

In Nehemiah’s day the people were joyfully supporting the temple ministers in their work (12:44, 47). They were joyfully fulfilling the vows they had taken (Nehemiah 10). They were giving contributions of the fruit of every tree, the wine, and the oil to the priests. They were giving their firstfruits and firstborn, year by year, to the house of the LORD. They were giving tithes in keeping with their vow that they would not neglect the house of their God. All these gifts were owed and given as required by God’s revealed will in His law. The people had vowed to support the OT church in its worship and work, and so they gave their tithes and offerings in keeping with their vow.

In Nehemiah’s day the temple ministers were faithfully performing their work (12:45-46). The priests, Levites, storeroom stewards, singers, and instrumentalists were all faithfully performing the service of their God and the ministry of purification. They were doing their work in keeping with God’s commands as implemented by King David and King Solomon. Why look back to the reigns of David and Solomon? Because they were largely the glory days of Israel: David had organized Israel’s worship; Solomon had built the temple. Their worship was driven and their faithfulness was defined by God’s word, not by the preferences of the postexilic generation or even previous generations. The postexilic temple ministers, then, organized and administered worship according God’s command as exemplified in David and Solomon.

In Nehemiah’s day the people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church (13:1-3). Let’s bear in mind this OT “ministry of the keys” was a necessity not based merely on ethnic terms, but on covenantal, moral, and spiritual terms. According to Moses, God had sworn to bless those who, in faith, blessed Abraham and his seed and to curse those who, in unbelief, cursed Abraham and his seed. So, certain Gentiles, like Rahab, Ruth, and Naomi, had been admitted with their households because they confessed saving faith as Abraham did. On the other hand, certain Israelites, even some generations of Israel, had proven to be spiritually and morally Gentiles and had been broken off from the patriarchal tree for their unbelief. The standard for admission and exclusion was response to God’s oath to Abraham and his seed. In that light, the people were reading what was written about that standard and were promptly obeying it.

When reformation came to the OT church after the exile, it produced change in God’s people. Cheerful givers fulfilled their vow to support the church’s worship and work. Are you and I cheerful givers fulfilling our vow to support the church’s worship and work? God’s ministers faithfully administered temple worship and work according to His word. What is it that drives our worship choices and defines our faithfulness: what God wants or what we want? The people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church. Do we acknowledge that Christ has established officers in His church to grant or refuse fellowship as His word requires? In Nehemiah’s day the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church produced change for the good in God’s people. May it be so in our day too.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Family Heads and Officers

Posted by R. Fowler White

Since we’ve just completed our 2020 remembrance of Reformation Day, it’s timely to reflect on what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. Having looked at reformation’s effect on the people as a whole in Nehemiah 8, we should also consider its effect on family heads and church officers. Here we’re focused on those who were husbands and fathers, chief stewards of households (including stewards of God’s church), required to be holy as He is holy and to expend themselves for the good of those in their charge and care. So, when reformation came to the OT church, what was the evidence and fruit of its impact on family heads and officers?

Look first at two observations about family heads. The text tells us that they took the initiative to seek out the teaching ministry available to them. According to 8:13, these chief stewards came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. Public worship in congregation had reemerged as a non-negotiable (8:1-12). Yet public worship was only the beginning of their stewardship of their families’ discipleship. We’re told here that these family heads sought opportunities to be taught in addition to public gatherings for worship. The family heads were also obedient to what they were taught. As narrated in 8:14-18, they did what they had found written in the Law that the LORD had commanded. Note that, when they were directed to celebrate the Festival of Booths, they went out and built those booths and lived in them, each on their roofs and in their courts (8:16). We underestimate the significance of this activity unless we recognize that these family heads took the knowledge of Scripture that they had gained and spread it throughout the families in their clans. We may even say that Neh 8:14-18 is a picture of Deut 6:6-8 being lived out as a key means to and fruit of reformation among them: whether sitting, walking, lying down, or getting up, families rehearsed among themselves what God required of them.[i]

Consider also what church officers did when reformation came to the OT church. We remind ourselves that the priests and the Levites, along with Ezra and Nehemiah, were models of what the people should become, namely, a holy nation of priests. So, what happened among OT church officers when reformation took place? In general, the officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching. We read how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the 13 Levites who stood on the podium with Ezra helped the people to understand the Law. In addition, those officers kept watch over the congregation’s response to the teaching ministry. Notice two details in Nehemiah 8. First, the officers discipled the congregation to do what God required. In 8:9, we read of how Nehemiah … and Ezra … and the Levites [spoke] to all the people. In 8:13, we’re told that the priests and the Levites were with the family heads, and together they all came to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. In other words, the officers came alongside the family heads for Bible study. Second, the officers consoled the people in their repentance. When reformation came to the people, they trembled at God’s warnings, suffered deep sorrow for their sins, and determined to turn away from their sins—and the officers knew all this. Seeing the people’s repentance, the officers spoke “words of assurance of pardon” to them (8:10-11): Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. And so the Levites calmed all the people (8:11). They reminded the people of the truth expressed in Neh 9:17, You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.

When reformation came to the OT church, family heads took the lead to seek out teaching, and they were obedient to what they were taught. Church officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching, discipling them to do what God required and keeping watch over their response to that teaching. In this light, we have to ask ourselves, has reformation come to our congregations? We who have entered publicly into solemn covenant with God and His church have testified that God has begun a good work of reformation in us. As we read the story of Nehemiah and Ezra, we’re again constrained to ask if we, as officers, family heads, and members of God’s church, see evidence and fruit of His reforming work in us and among us. In the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, the OT church saw that evidence and fruit. Do we?

[i][i] D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale OT Commentaries, 1979), 108.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: The People as a Whole

Posted by R. Fowler White

When reformation comes to the congregations of God’s church, what does that reformation look like? To put it differently, when God renews and revives His church, what does that renewal and revival look like? Would we recognize it if it happened in our congregations? Would you recognize it if it happened in your family? In you personally? Historically, we think of the Reformation in the 16th century. We think of an extraordinary sovereign work of God through His King according to His Word to His own glory, manifested in increased holiness and decreased worldliness in thought, word, and deed among God’s church and usually in increased civic righteousness (restraint of evil) among non-Christians through increased fear of God in their hearts. So, what will reformation look like if and when God brings it to us today? As a framework for answering that question, let’s consider what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. We can analyze what happened from various valid angles, so consider first what the people as a whole did when reformation came to the OT church.

They took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Strikingly, we are not told that Ezra summoned the people. Instead we’re told (8:1) that on the 1st day of the 7th month, all the people (almost 50,000) gathered as one man. We’re told (8:4) that the people made the wood platform from which Ezra read Scripture, the Book of the Law of Moses. We’re told (8:13) that on the 2nd day of the 7th month, the family heads came together to Ezra. The people took the initiative. And then what? They submitted themselves to be discipled under their leaders. The people told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book (8:1). The people remained in their places as the Levites helped them to understand (8:7), and the family heads came together to Ezra to study and to find out what God required of them (8:13-14).

Having taken this initiative, the congregation’s discipleship produced certain fruit. They were united. Notice how many times throughout this passage we’re told that “all the people” or words to that effect did this or that. No fewer than 10 times, the solidarity of the people is highlighted (8:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 17). They were also zealous, eager, passionate, hungry, thirsty for God and His will as revealed in Scripture (8:2, 3, 7, 12, 13, 16). They were worshipful too (8:6, 17-18). We read more about this in Neh 9, where the people confess their own sins and also the iniquities of their fathers. But notice in Neh 8 that they wept over their sins as they heard the words of the Law read and taught (8:9). The people were so exercised by the conviction of their sins that the leaders, especially the Levites, had to calm all the people down (8:10, 11). Having turned from their sins, the people also celebrated their God (8:6). They were instructed to celebrate, and they did it (8:10, 12). And how did they celebrate? Just as God had prescribed: they kept the Festival of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, signifying their identity as pilgrims living in temporary housing with God their Provider but anticipating their permanent home with Him in the Garden Land (8:13-17). Representing faithful pilgrims from all nations, this Festival testified to the congregation of God’s presence with them on the way to the beauty and bounty of a restored Eden, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence.

When reformation came to the OT church, the congregation took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture; they submitted to discipleship under their leaders’ stewardship; they were united, zealous, and worshipful disciples of their Lord; they wept over their sins; they celebrated their God. Having just celebrated another Reformation Day, let’s ask: are we seeing congregations taking the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture? Have we and our fellow members submitted ourselves to be discipled under the stewardship of our leaders? Are we united, zealous, and worshipful as Christ’s disciples? Do we weep over our sins? Do we worship our God as He prescribes? This is what reformation looked like in the OT church when God brought it to the congregation as a whole. Next, God willing, we’ll consider what family heads and officers did.

What Makes the Great Commission So Great: The Agenda Christ Has Set

Posted by R. Fowler White

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

According to Matthew 28, the second of three truths that make the Great Commission so great is the agenda Christ has set, the program He has undertaken. Notice 28:19-20a, Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. The point here is to tell us that Christ the King, as He executes His office, has a mission of outreach for ingathering. He is going to build His church. He is going to call out a people from the world to Himself. He will give them His laws, by which He will govern them, reward their obedience, and correct them for their sins. This mission, set by Christ our King, is a disciple-making agenda for all nations, and it has two parts.

The first part of Christ’s agenda is to make disciples by baptizing. Through baptism, those among the nations who repent and believe the gospel are admitted into Christ’s visible church, together with their children. Uniting us with His church under the name of the triune God, baptism marks the end of our life outside His assembly of disciples and the beginning of our life inside of it. The second part of Christ’s agenda is to make disciples by teaching. Every congregation of Christ’s church is supposed to be an extension campus of His ministry of education. Assembled as His disciples, we learn and teach all that Jesus taught about His own person and work and about the privileges and duties of discipleship. In the ministry of His word, we hear His gospel of grace and His law of love, His promises of salvation and His warnings of judgment. All this because Christ is not only the King on the mountain of the Great Commission; He is also the true Prophet who brings the word of the Lord from the mountain of God above.

As we said, this two-part program that Christ has undertaken is for all nations. His universal kingship means worldwide mission. Through Jesus the Son of Abraham, blessing goes to all the families of the earth from the Lord God. Through Jesus the Son of David, obedience comes from all the peoples of the earth to the Lord God. It was this transnational, transgeographical, transgenerational agenda that united and motivated the apostles of Christ in the years immediately after His resurrection and ascension. His Commission was an agenda so grand that the apostles could pursue it only by the power of His Spirit and according to His Word through prayer and preaching. So it is now, until the end of the age.

What is it that makes the Great Commission so great? In addition to the authority Christ exercises, it’s the agenda Christ has set for His church. There are no substitutes, no alternatives. The apostles, from Peter to Paul, took the agenda that He had set, the program that He had understaken, as their own. Those who would be His church today will do the same.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#5: Removing Wallpaper)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Discussions of biblical topics and texts like those in Aimee Byrd’s new book are inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding. Efforts to identify and address those controlling factors are a challenging but necessary and profitable way to sort out differences and to work toward consensus. With this in mind, we return to the place where we began our interaction with Byrd’s book, namely, to the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” No doubt Byrd, like many others, is happy to affirm that this adage is the framework from which she argues for the reciprocal coactivity of laywomen and laymen in the same capacities.

By contrast, without ignoring the aforementioned adage, our engagement with Byrd has taken up selected issues that she raises about the relationship and service of women and men within God’s household, and we have applied to those points the added framework provided by the general and special offices, the elements of worship, and the family-church analogy. So, what happens when we apply that additional background to the issues that Byrd raises? Perhaps this is best summarized in a set of affirmations. From the points we’ve studied in Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, we would believe and teach:

1. that all believers, men and women, should pursue discipleship, with Christlikeness as its goal, the church’s historic doctrines and practices as its focus, and the local church and the home as its two primary, yet distinct settings mentioned in Scripture;

2. that, when believers come together in church, laymen and laywomen may be coactive in all elements of public worship except those elements, such as the ministry of God’s word to His household,[i] that are reserved to those men who serve in the special teaching office;[ii]

3. that, when believers come together at home, laymen and laywomen should find there a setting where they may be coactive in teaching and learning according to their ability and maturity; and

4. that, whether believers come together in church or at home, they should seek to become examples of maturity; men to be respected as “fathers” in God’s household, among whom are some whose calling is to teach and govern God’s household in the special office of elder, and women to be honored as “mothers” in God’s household whose calling is to teach the younger women.

Whatever else the preceding affirmations may say, it seems clear that we must reevaluate the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” Certainly, the adage rightly reminds us that all believers serve in the general teaching office and may take part in all elements of worship not reserved for those men who serve in the office of elder. Yet our considerations have exposed the adage for what it is: it is itself a yellow wallpaper that hides an important truth. We need to peel back even this covering to reveal the truth of the family-church analogy.

That truth is that the relationship and service of women and men are not just about shared capacities; they are also about distinctive callings. Nor are they just about our shared siblingship; they are also about our different stewardships. Let’s put it another way. Both men and women may become exemplary teachers (Titus 2:3-4; 1 Tim 3:2; Heb 5:12) and exemplary household managers (1 Tim 5:14; 1 Tim 3:4-5). It remains, however, that, in a human family, a woman, as gifted and mature as she may be, can never become a father; a man, as gifted and mature as he may be, can never become a mother. Just as the callings of women and men are not interchangeable in the human family, so they are not in the church family. The adage, then, does not express and should not be allowed to eclipse Paul’s family-church analogy with its bearing on relationships and service in God’s household. In fact, the adage, well intentioned though it may be, is really not much more than another expression of extrabiblical suppositions that stereotype church members, in this case as interchangeable siblings to be treated the same and slotted to serve in the same capacities. The analogy, on the other hand, presents church members as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, to be appreciated for their differences, not least in calling.

Following the analogy, then, we will affirm that men and women may do anything in church that is in keeping with their callings. Moreover, we will press ourselves to work more carefully at honoring women who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “mothers” in God’s household, along with men who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “fathers” in God’s household. We will also press ourselves to work more carefully to comply with those rules in God’s word that are always to be observed, those principles that should govern the full assimilation and deployment of men and women in our churches as required by the family-church analogy, the elements of worship, and the general and special offices.

[i] The public ministry of God’s word would include both its reading and its preaching (as in 1 Tim 4:13).

[ii] To be sure, in a more complete discussion, we would explain that, just as men and women should not be coactive in the ministry of God’s word, so they should not be coactive in the ministry of the sacraments.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#4: Family/Church Analogy)

Posted by R. Fowler White

From our discussion of selected points in Aimee Byrd’s recent book in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our review, we are hopefully clarifying the points on which we can agree and disagree about the results that she sees coming from an equal investment in the discipleship of women and men. We have urged that Byrd’s book is strongest when she calls for a reemphasis on Christlikeness and the church’s historic doctrines and practices as the proper goal and focus of discipleship. We do differ with her, however, when she contends that discipleship will produce laywomen and laymen who serve God’s household in the same capacities. Alternatively, we see discipleship producing laywomen and laymen who are indeed coactive and reciprocal in some capacities that are the same, but in others that are different. In other words, we see discipleship producing women and men whose capacities to serve are correlated with the general and special offices and with the elements of worship. Of course, this correlation is precisely the point at which our visions of discipleship and its results may clash. It is also the point at which it was vital for Paul to elaborate on love of others (1 Cor 12:31–14:1) as the standard that should shape relationships and service in God’s household. To his elaboration of this standard we want to call attention in this post.

As we said in Part 3, according to 1 Cor 14:26-40, love of others requires that during the public ministry of God’s word in its various forms (14:26), those who give and receive that ministry must do all things in a fitting and orderly way, following “the Lord’s command” through the Apostle (14:36-38; 11:16). To get readers to feel the weight of those directives, Paul attaches them to two anchors. One of those anchors is the practices taught and instituted in all the churches (14:33b; 11:2, 16). This connection tells us that, beyond what Byrd and her sources suppose, there is more at stake here than a special rule for a special situation in a specific local church, namely, a rule to stop the disruptive chatting of distracted women during the public ministry of God’s word. No, what is at stake is a standing rule (cf. 7:17b) in all the churches (14:33b), a rule that, during the public ministry of God’s word to His household, the women should not speak but should subject themselves (like the laymen) to those men who aspire to and qualify for service in that special public ministry (14:34; cf. 14:37-38). This is not to say that discipleship between women and men should never be coactive and mutual; it is to say that the appropriate venue for that reciprocal coactivity is the home, not the church’s public meetings (14:35; cf. Acts 18:24-26). The point at stake, then, is that the love of others should constrain a local church not to put its men and women at odds (11:16) with the traditions delivered to all the churches (11:2) when it comes to the public ministry of God’s word.[1]

In addition to those universally binding practices, Paul also appeals in 1 Cor 14:34 to the Law as one of the anchors of his directions. To understand what he means by the Law, it is most helpful to use “the proper hermeneutical lens” through which Byrd, following her sources, wants us to view 1 Corinthians 11–14. With that lens, we see that those four chapters are an essay in which Paul addresses disorders that were occurring when the church came together. Therein, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-40 are bookends that mirror one another, with the intervening sections also mirroring one another in reverse order as they lead to and from the essay’s center point in chapter 13.[2] For our purposes, it is most important to notice that if those bookends do indeed mirror each other, then it is more than reasonable to conclude that the Law in 1 Cor 14:34 is Paul’s shorthand for Genesis 1-3 to which he refers in 1 Cor 11:7-9, 11-12. Seeing, then, this connection between Genesis 1-3 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, the chain-link logic in his reasoning comes into view. And, of course, the significance of Genesis 1-3 is that there Paul finds not just the beginnings of man and woman and the family dynamics of their relationship, but also the analogy that those beginnings provide for the relationship between women and men in the church. Thus, we see that, like the apostolic traditions, the Law also forms an anchor for Paul’s explanation of how men and women are to relate and serve in love in God’s household.

Bringing the preceding points together, we see that in 1 Corinthians Paul gets readers to feel the weight of his directives about the public ministry of God’s word from two anchors: the universally binding apostolic traditions and the family-church analogy in Genesis 1-3. But 1 Corinthians is not the only place where the Apostle links his logic to the family-church analogy: we find it again in 1 Timothy. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11–14 and 1 Timothy 2–5, we have the earliest and latest uses of this reasoning (thus providing us an indication that Paul’s directions for the churches were consistent over the entire course of his ministry). In those chapters, it is really interesting to notice Paul’s recurring interests in the same issues: in gender-appropriate apparel for public worship (1 Cor 11:4-7; 1 Tim 2:9-10), in the elements of public worship (1 Cor 11:4-5; 11:23-26; 14:15-19, 26; 1 Tim 2:1–3:7; 4:13), and in the standards that define and govern relationships between women and men (1 Cor 11:8-9, 11-12, 16; 14:34-38; 1 Tim 2:13-15; 3:4-5, 15; 5:1-2). That Paul repeats himself in these chapters ought to make his reasoning all the more valuable to people struggling to sort out relationships between men and women.

Pointedly, in Paul’s presentation, church standards of relationship and service are a carryover from family standards. As a result, he would have church members, out of love for one another, take into account whether their fellow members are male or female, younger or older (1 Tim 5:1-2). In addition, lest we think that the analogy is only a matter of age and sex, Paul takes it beyond those criteria and applies it to spiritual growth and calling (cf. Eph 4:12-16; Rom 12:2; Eph 5:8-10; Col 1:9-10; see also 2 Pet 3:18; Heb 5:12-14). Thus, he would have men become examples of maturity (cf. 1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7), respected as “fathers” in God’s household (cf. 1 Cor 4:15; 11:1; Phlm 10), among whom are some whose calling is to teach and govern God’s household in the special office of elder (Jas 3:1; 1 Tim 3:1-7; cf. 1 Cor 4:15; 11:1; Phlm 10; cf. 1 Pet 5:3). Similarly, he would have women too become examples of maturity, honored as “mothers” in God’s household whose calling is to teach the younger women in God’s household as their “daughters” (Titus 2:3-5; 1 Tim 5:9-10, 14 [with 3:11?]; see also 1 Pet 3:6b; cf. 2 Tim 1:5 with 3:14-15). All things considered, the bottom line of Paul’s family-church analogy is that love of others requires us to oppose any suppositions that a local church is a homogeneous assemblage of interchangeable persons (even siblings) who are to be treated the same and to serve in the same capacities. Instead, Paul bids us to look in love on a local church as a heterogeneous household of fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who are to be treated with the honor due to them on account of their differences in sex, age, maturity, and calling.[3]

To draw to a close this series of posts on selected points of Aimee Byrd’s new book, we will look in Part 5 at the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do” in the light of Paul’s family-church analogy.

[i] Cf. A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1155.

[ii] The structure of 1 Cor 11:2–14:40 would look approximately like this: A: gender-appropriate apparel in worship, 11:2-16; B: disorder in the ministry of the Lord’s Supper, 11:17-34; C: gifts and the unity of the body, 12:1-30; X: the standard of conduct (love), 12:31-13:13; C´: gifts and the priorities of the body, 14:1-25; B´: disorder in the ministry of God’s word, 14:26-33a; A´: gender-appropriate speech in worship, 14:33b-40.

[iii] The content of this paragraph paraphrases and reapplies observations found in V. S. Poythress, The Church as Family (1990) and in the report submitted by the Committee on Women in Church Office to the Fifty-fifth (1988) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#3: Prophesying)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Part 1 and Part 2 of our interaction with selected themes in Aimee Byrd’s new book, we reviewed 1 Tim 2:12 and Acts 18:24-28 and Col 3:16 (with others) as representative passages related to teaching in the special and general offices. From those texts we gleaned that laymen and laywomen were exhorted to be coactive in the general teaching office, but that the special teaching office was limited to qualified men. From our interaction with Byrd to this point, then, we gather that, since reciprocal coactivity in teaching was not a mark of the special office or of the public meetings of the church, the coactive teaching of those in the general office need not diminish or undermine those in the special office.

Along with texts related to teaching, however, there are also texts related to prophesying, and from them Byrd and many others (including denominational study committees) have argued that women were permitted to prophesy in the church’s public assemblies. As plausible and as widely accepted as this view is, it is pertinent to ask this question: how is it that, when the NT churches gathered in their public meetings, only men were teaching but both women and men were prophesying? To answer this question, it is worth asking if the premise of the question was true: were men and women in fact coactive in prophesying in church? Or was it the case that the same standards regulated teaching and prophesying? Before we comment further on the question of standards, let’s examine the observation that both women and men prophesied when the churches came together.

First, to the extent that Scripture speaks of the prophethood of all believers, we should grant that men and women both did prophesy in church. For instance, in Acts 2:17-18 Peter declares that, insofar as Christ pours out His Spirit on all believers, they all share the prophetic anointing and thus all “prophesy.” That being the case, they all occupy the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 12:13; 1 John 2:20-27). In this light, the focus of our attention has to shift. Now we must ask, what did the activity of the general prophetic office look like?[1] With Peter’s citation of Joel as an interpretive backdrop for his readers, Luke portrays general prophesying throughout his narrative in Acts as a coactivity of household members, regardless of their sex, age, class, or race. But his narrative pushes us to be more specific. Indeed, Luke describes that activity almost exactly as the Chronicler describes the liturgical prophesying of selected male and female Levites under David (e.g., 1 Chron 25:1-7). That is, those Levitical liturgists are said to have “prophesied” according to their assignments in certain (not all) elements of public worship,[2] namely, as they offered intercession, thanks, or praise (1 Chron 6:31-48; 16:4-7). Interestingly, in Acts we see that under David’s greater Son, male and female believers are said to have “prophesied” as they offered prayer, thanks, or praise. Specifically, as we follow Luke’s narrative, we are struck by the fact that, wherever Christ poured out His Spirit (in Jerusalem [Acts 1:14; 2:11], in Caesarea [Acts 10:44-46], in Ephesus [Acts 19:6], in Corinth [1 Cor 12:13], and beyond), the coactivity of men and women in many acts of public worship bore witness to their fellowship in the prophethood of all believers that the Spirit of Christ was forming.

Second, in addition to the general prophetic anointing of all believers, Scripture describes the special prophetic ministry of some believers (1 Cor 12:28-30; Eph 4:11). Upon closer examination of the prophetic activity in 1 Corinthians 11–14, it becomes clearer that, as they prophesied, men and women were coactive in certain elements of public worship, but not in all. For example, remembering that the Chronicler and Luke tell us that men and women “prophesied” as they were offering intercession, thanks, or praise, we need not be surprised when Paul tells us in 1 Cor 11:4-5 and 14:15-19 that men and women “prophesied” in those very same acts of worship. Other elements of worship, however, come into view in 1 Cor 11:2–14:26 (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 2:1-15; 3:14-15; 4:13). From this wider context, we realize that Paul’s overriding concern is to see all elements of public worship regulated by love of others (1 Cor 12:31–14:1). Strikingly, according to 1 Cor 14:26-40, love requires that during the public ministry of God’s word (14:26), anyone contributing to that ministry must follow the Apostle’s directives (14:36-38) on when to speak and when to be silent (14:27-35). In fact, in light of the question of whether prophesying was regulated by the same standards as teaching, it is critical to notice that the Apostle’s directives applied whether God’s word was brought in the form of “a psalm, … a teaching, … a revelation, … a tongue, … [or] an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26b NASU). Clearly, insofar as teaching and prophesying contributed to the public ministry of God’s word, Paul regulated them both by the same standards. Thus, 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an awfully close parallel to 1 Tim 2:11-15 (we will have more to say about this parallel in Part 4). In that light, it is remarkable to notice that, consistent with the distinction we saw between the general and special teaching offices, we also see a distinction between the general prophetic anointing and the special prophetic ministry. By all appearances, when God’s household came together (1 Cor 14:26a), men and women were expected to be coactive in the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 11:4-5; 14:15-19), but the special prophetic ministry of God’s word, like the special teaching ministry of God’s word, was limited to men (1 Cor 14:34-35). In other words, contrary to what Byrd and many others have argued, the Apostle’s policy on prophesying was, in “all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33b), coordinated with the general prophetic anointing of all and the special prophetic ministry of some: that is, Paul limited that element of worship devoted to the special prophetic ministry of God’s word to men; and, consistent with the general prophetic anointing of all, he approved of women and men being coactive in prophesying during those other elements of worship not devoted the ministry of God’s word. In short, in all the congregations of Christ’s church, the principles that regulated teaching and prophesying were the same.

In what has preceded, we have sought to show how Paul correlates the coactivity of women and men in prophesying and in teaching with the general and special offices. We have also sought to highlight that the Apostle cites love as the standard that shapes his directives for participation in the elements of public worship. We can understand even better, however, where Paul anchors his policy on women and men in teaching by taking one more step. We’ll take that step in Part 4.

[1] The trajectory of the following comments was first suggested to me by Dr. R. Laird Harris. Recently, essentially the same trajectory has been suggested independently by Iain M. Duguid, “What Kind of Prophecy Continues? Defining the Differences between Continuationism and Cessationism,” in Redeeming the Life of the Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress, ed. John Frame, Wayne Grudem, and John Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 112–28.

[2] By “elements of worship” we mean reading and preaching God’s word, singing psalms and hymns, offering prayer, presenting offerings, confessing the faith, and administering Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#2: Acts 18:24-28; Col 3:16)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (Part 1), we urged that in 1 Tim 2:12 the Apostle Paul sets out a policy for the churches that limits the public teaching (and governing) of God’s household to men who aspire to and qualify for eldership. Apart from that conclusion, we readily acknowledge with Byrd that there are certainly other NT texts where laywomen and laymen are coactive in teaching one another. Acts 18:24-28 and Col 3:16 are two of those texts. In this installment of our interaction with Byrd, we’ll look more carefully at these passages.

When we turn to Acts 18:24-28, we find Luke’s review of an episode in which a married Jewish couple, coworkers with Paul in his Gentile mission (Rom 16:3), teach a well-spoken, well-versed Jewish preacher of the OT Scriptures. Intent on highlighting the discretion of Priscilla and Aquila as they approached Apollos to instruct him, Luke draws the reader’s attention, with some evident care, to the contrast between his actions in the public eye and their actions out of it. After Apollos is said to have spoken boldly “in the synagogue” (18:26; cf. “in public,” 18:28), Priscilla and Aquila are reported to have “invited him to their home” for a private tutorial (18:26, NIV; cf. “took him aside,” ESV, NASB95, CSB, and NKJV). In addition, Luke describes the explanation that Priscilla and Aquila gave to Apollos, not as an individual effort of either spouse, but as a joint effort of both spouses. Given the particulars of this episode, we might wonder if or how Luke’s narrative harmonizes with Paul’s directive in 1 Tim 2:12. Noticeably, Luke’s account depicts a woman, alongside her husband, instructing a man while they all met in a private location, perhaps the couple’s residence. This coactivity of Priscilla and Aquila was not a function of the special teaching office and did not occur in a public meeting of the church (or synagogue), but it did yield a great harvest of gospel grace when Apollos emerged from his lesson with Priscilla and Aquila and went on to “water” where Paul had “planted” among those in Achaia (Acts 18:27-28 with 1 Cor 3:6). Luke’s description in Acts 18, then, harmonizes with Paul’s prescription in 1 Timothy 2 in that Luke portrays a laywoman and a layman, not in the public teaching of God’s household or in the special teaching office, but in the general teaching office, coactively teaching another man in private as the couple worked with Paul in his apostolic mission to the Gentiles.

Turning to Col 3:16, it’s apparent that Paul is exhorting church members to teach and admonish one another, but we can elaborate on the words there. Granted the teaching envisioned in this text relates especially (though not exclusively) to the doctrinal content of the songs we sing, the expression “teaching and admonishing” recalls the Apostle’s description of his own ministry in Col 1:28 and effectively reminds readers that “everyone when fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40; cf. Eph 4:12). The phrase in Col 3:16 also mimics Paul’s description in Rom 15:14 of the reciprocal instruction of which members of the church in Rome were capable. More remarkable still is the expectation expressed by the writer of Hebrews about his readers in 5:12: by this time you ought to be teachers. To be sure, through the discipleship process, some in God’s household would distinguish themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5:14), and certain of those examples would be men who aspired to and qualified for eldership (Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Pet 5:3). Yet we are not to think that in 5:12 the writer of Hebrews presents the special teaching office as the only fruit of discipleship ministry. No, as Byrd might remind us, while texts like Col 3:16, Rom 15:14, and Heb 5:12-14 are general enough to include what qualified men do in the special teaching office, they also provide the basis for laywomen and laymen to do what Priscilla and Aquila did in the general teaching office. That is, because every believer has Spirit-given ability to understand and communicate truth (1 Cor 2:6-16; 1 John 2:20-27) and so occupies the general teaching office, we take it that in Col 3:16 and similar passages Paul is exhorting church members to teach each another, even as they allow for differences of ability and maturity (Heb 5:12-14). In other words, such texts should cause us to see that reciprocal coactivity in the general teaching office is also the fruit of discipleship properly embraced. In this light, we can see how Paul’s exhortation in Col 3:16 and in comparable texts squares with his regulation in 1 Tim 2:12.

To this point in our interaction with Byrd’s book, we’ve pulled together representative passages related to teaching the church in its public meetings, and we’ve found that the fruit of discipleship is seen in both the general and the special teaching offices. Though the task of teaching the church in its public meetings is fulfilled only by men aspiring to and qualified for the special teaching office, Scripture clearly expects laywomen and laymen to be coactive in the general teaching office according to their ability and maturity. As Byrd points out, however, good and relevant questions about these conclusions do understandably arise when we compare Paul’s regulations for teaching with his regulations for prophesying. His statements oblige us to deal with the question, was it the case or not that, when the church came together, women and men were both prophesying and only men were teaching? We plan to take up that topic in our next post (Part 3).

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#1: 1 Tim 2:12)

Posted by R. Fowler White

As Lane acknowledged in his first post on Aimee Byrd’s new book, certain statements in a book stand out to some reviewers as controlling or recurring factors in its argumentation. To other reviewers, more incidental statements get their attention because to their eyes those assertions are as conspicuous as missed paint strokes on the dining room wall. Despite our differences in approach to Byrd’s work, however, Lane and I have a common interest in giving it a respectful, rigorous, and vigorous hearing. For my part, I take it that Aimee Byrd is a serious-minded disciple of Christ, a member-in-good-standing of a Reformed congregation of Christ’s church. In my view, she has posed fair and important questions to which pastors and teachers should give thoughtful answers, and she has made serious pleas to which careful responses are required. From all I can see, she desires and anticipates that her research, interpretations, and theological reasoning will be seriously weighed. For what my thoughts may be worth, I’ll focus on selected points in her presentation.

Before getting to those points, let me orient the reader to my stance by summarizing what I understand to be the overall strength and weakness of Byrd’s three-part book. From where I sit, the book is strongest when, in part 2, she points out errors in certain complementarian teaching and calls for a reemphasis on the proper goal (i.e., Christlikeness) and focus (i.e., the church’s historic confessions) of discipleship, a reemphasis marked by an equal investment in the discipleship of women and men with that goal and focus in mind. On the other hand, however, the book is weakest when, in parts 1 and 3, she identifies the fruit of that discipleship as laywomen and laymen serving in the same capacities in God’s household. In the end, I believe the book’s weakness has made and will make it harder for its strength to be appreciated in certain circles.

With that orientation, let’s begin this interaction with Byrd’s book by noticing that the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do” is now commonplace in discussions (including Byrd’s) of women and speaking gifts in Reformed circles and elsewhere. This is especially the case when the adage is set over against the concept of “authoritative teaching” in conversations about church ministry. Meanwhile, denominational study committee reports (like those in the OPC and PCA) and new books (like Byrd’s) continue to be published on women and men in church ministry. It seems appropriate, then, to focus again on the activity of men and women in the ministry of teaching in God’s household as it is represented in Scripture. Admittedly, in this series of posts,[i] we will not be able to cover all facets of this topic. We will offer, instead, a succession of posts on selected points as key components for any broader consideration.

Given our focus on teaching, it would be a good preliminary step to clarify what is meant by authoritative and non-authoritative teaching. Basically, the difference is this: “authoritative teaching” is “official teaching,” teaching done while holding the office of elder; “non-authoritative teaching” is “non-official teaching,” teaching done while not holding the office of elder but having the approval of elders. In large measure, the description overlaps with the historic Reformed distinction between teaching in the special office (held by elders ordained to it) and in the general office (granted to all believers). We’ll make use of the special/general distinction later. For now, without disputing the official/non-official distinction, let’s ask, what is its exegetical basis in Scripture? Granted that the verb “teach” and its cognates, used without qualification, mean “instruct according to the apostolic traditions” (e.g., Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 1:3; 4:11; 6:2b-5; 2 Tim 2:2; Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 4:17; Col 1:28; 2:7; 2 Thess 2:15), the exegetical basis of the official/non-official distinction in recent discussion has most frequently involved the claim that in 1 Tim 2:12 Paul refers not to teaching, on the one hand, and exercising authority, on the other; rather, he refers to “teaching from a position or an office of authority” and thus to “teaching authoritatively, teaching officially.” What can we say about this interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12?

First, a brief word about context. The immediate context of 1 Tim 2:12 (i.e., 2:1–3:15) is devoted to regulations for the public activity of men and women as it relates to prayer, apparel, discipleship, and officers in God’s household. Thus, it is clear enough that the activity in view here takes place in the church’s public meetings. Second, as for limiting the instruction in 1 Tim 2:12 to the concept of “authoritative teaching,” there is scant evidence to support the claim that in fact that text refers only to “teaching authoritatively or officially.” That is, the syntactical construction does not tell us that the two infinitives conjoined in 1 Tim 2:12—“to teach or to exercise authority”—express one idea (such that the second infinitive modifies the first, thus expressing the one idea “teach authoritatively”). Instead, the two infinitives are conjoined to express two related but distinct ideas. The point is, the syntax of 1 Tim 2:12 strongly favors the view that Paul has two activities in mind, not one.[ii] Well, so what? What’s the payoff of the “two-activities” interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12 for the coactivity of men and women in teaching the church?

The “two-activities” interpretation constrains us to conclude, in contrast to Byrd’s argument that the reciprocal coactivity of men and women in God’s household is the fruit of discipleship, that the Apostle does not permit men and women to be coactive in teaching the church in its public meetings. In fact, Paul’s references to teaching and governing in 1 Tim 2:12 reappear in the qualifications of men who aspire to the church’s eldership (see 1 Tim 3:1; teaching, 1 Tim 3:2 and 5:17b; governing, 1 Tim 3:5 and 5:17a). Seeing, then, that Paul addresses restrictions on two public activities of women and men in 1 Tim 2:12, there is sufficiently explicit biblical basis to conclude that the Apostle limits the public teaching and governing of God’s household to men who aspire to and qualify for eldership (the bases of this policy in the creation and fall of the first man and woman have been discussed elsewhere). That being the case, this text makes a decisive, even controlling contribution to the discussion that Byrd rightly wants us to have. Believing, however, that her affirmations of male-only ordination are enough to satisfy us on this text or its implications, she chooses not to discuss it. This choice, in my judgment, is a major miscalculation, since it raises doubts about the advisability of publishing a book that does not address the texts that pose, at least ostensibly, the most obvious and serious challenges to her proposals. Even so, she is right to put forward other biblical texts on men and women in teaching for us to consider. We’ll turn to some of those passages in subsequent posts.

[i] This series of posts represents the content of a complete rewriting of an article of mine that appeared in Ordained Servant, a publication of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January 2001), pp. 10-13.
[ii] For more on this point, see A. J. Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence Structure in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in A. J. Köstenberger and T. R. Schreiner, eds., Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (3rd. ed.; Baker, 2016), pp. 117-162.

Maximum Fruitfulness: Discipleship for Unity, Discernment, and Stewardship

Posted by R. Fowler White

In a previous post – “Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations” – I laid out a working hypothesis about the fruitfulness to which we aspire in church ministry. My view is that, accepting that the church’s purpose is to gather and perfect (i.e., grow) the saints, we pray and work to see the saints bear the fruit of unity, discernment, and stewardship. United, discerning, and faithful, we saints will stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by our opponents (Phil 1.27-28).

That said, the question arises as to how we’ll see those aspirations fulfilled. Even in what we’ve said so far we’ve implied the general answer to this question: God grows His saints through the ministry of discipleship, that is, through the lifelong process of being renewed to know God (Col 3.10) and His will (Rom 12.1-2). It’s a process that focuses on learning from and with others the historic doctrines and practices by which God has built Christ’s church (Rom 6.17-18; Eph 4.20-23). We say “learning from and with others” because that learning occurs in community with others devoted to fulfilling the duties of Christian discipleship. Furthermore, that devotion has to be grounded in a shared confidence that God gives growth to Christ’s disciples by His appointed means and that He gives His Spirit and gifts for their common good. So, confident in God’s means of growth, disciples commit themselves especially to the ordinances of the Word, prayer, and sacraments. Likewise, confident in God’s Spirit and gifts, those gifted in the ministries of the Word and leading commit themselves to equipping others for Christian living, mindful that, for good or ill, “everyone when fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6.40; cf. Eph 4.12; Heb 5.12-14). Discipleship, then, is a lifelong process of renewal that takes place in community.

Now, if discipleship may be said to consist of learning historic Christian doctrine and practice, it is no surprise to expect that, in that process, the early beliefs and behaviors of disciples will change. Take beliefs first. Converted to the elementary truths of the gospel, we expect disciples to mature over time as they learn the core doctrines of Scripture (e.g., Heb 5.12; 6.1-2). Yet, because both Scripture and the church are rooted in history, we have also to anticipate that learning Scripture’s doctrines will involve discovering the key storylines of revelation and redemption and of the church and its doctrinal standards. Those discoveries made, disciples appreciate more and more how Scripture is the rule of faith and life for the church and its members. That is, Scripture does not just formally organize the gathered disciples as God’s house (e.g., 1 Tim 3:15); it orders their beliefs, the better to perfect them in the knowledge of God and His will (2 Tim 3.14-17).

Just as Scripture orders the beliefs of Christ’s disciples, so it also orders their behaviors. As their renewal continues, disciples acquire “know-how” with respect to self, family, church, workplace, and civil government, in order then to bear fruit in their relations and occupations and in the use of their gifts. New “habits of holiness” are formed: devotion to the Word, prayer, and sacraments improves; membership vows, marriage vows, baptism vows are taken seriously; and duties as a worker and a citizen are fulfilled. In sum, these holy habits will find disciples declaring the gospel of forgiveness (justification) and obeying the law of love (the Two Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments), whether in family, church, workplace, or society.

We like to say that there is a regulative principle of worship. We should also say that there is a regulative principle of discipleship. Just as we cannot worship any way we want, so we cannot make disciples any way we want. As people covenanted together to bear witness to the historic Christian faith and moral vision, each congregation of Christ’s church receives the joyful commission to make disciples and is required to teach them to observe all that He commanded. Barbeques, bake sales, bounce houses, and ball games – as fun as they may be – are not the stuff of discipleship. Our assignment is to pass on the gospel of forgiveness and the law of love that our Lord taught while on earth. Such is how we will make disciples and see the unity, discernment, and stewardship that we seek. Broadly speaking, it seems to me, this is what it means to gather and perfect the saints.

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