Thinking Through The Four Observations — Observation #3. (by Jon Shuler)

Believing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people.

It is natural for men and women who first encounter the love of God in Christ Jesus, who repent and welcome him into their lives, to want to convey this Good News to their immediate friends and neighbors. It was this desire that led Andrew to go and find Peter, and Philip to go and find Nathaniel. This first instinct is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the fulness of God’s intention for the spread of the gospel is greater. He cares for all the peoples of the earth, and he desires that they know and walk in the liberty of the children of God. Whenever reformation comes this truth comes to the fore.

Today in the West many see all cultures and religious traditions as equally valuable and good. They should be left alone. But the love of God, as it has been revealed in Christ Jesus, is meant to be taken to every corner of the globe. This amazing news, manifest in the life and death of Christ, is Good News for every people and nation. No one is to be excepted.

The first outflowing of this grace will touch those near at hand, but it will soon spread to others from the nations. Strangers and sojourners who live in the lands of the new anointing will hear the truth, and the Spirit of God will awaken in some of them a desire to go back to their own people, to share the joyful news they have heard. New communities of faith will be formed in those places that have never before heard of Jesus the crucified Redeemer. And the faithful church, if there, will re-awaken to the unending command of the Lord Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

Some will then be called to leave their own lands to take the blessing to others. To find men and women with receptive hearts and share with them a love that will never let them go, and never forsake them.The kingdom of God will break in among them.

Reformation can never come, however, to a church that will not embrace the Father’s heart for the lost. Failure to mobilize to carry that love beyond the walls of their own hearts, their own families and friends, or beyond their own buildings is a sin. When those to whom the gospel has come close their hearts to those who have not yet heard, it is only a matter of time before the forbearance of the Lord is exhausted. He will seek those who will worship and serve him in Spirit and in Truth.

Yet most of God’s people need not go far. The eyes of their hearts will be opened by God’s Spirit to see those they are called to serve right where they live. Their mission field is very near. But they must learn to see as God sees. There are people everywhere waiting to hear the Good News from someone who will share it in love. Someone who will be faithful to reach outside the boundaries of their community of faith. Someone who will not rest while any have not heard in their town or city. When this change occurs in a faithful few, and then a few more, reformation begins.


Next Week: Observation #4: The Church is organized to make disciples.


Thinking Through The Four Observations (by Jon Shuler)

Observation #1 – Leaders Are Rarely Seminary Trained.

When true reformation comes to the church of Jesus Christ, it always disrupts the ordinary way things have recently been done. It is part of the very nature of reformation that it only comes because many things have gone wrong. God is intervening because many of his people, and their leaders, have grown cold in the face of these errors. God intervenes to put things right. But in times like these God always has to raise up leaders who will turn their face toward him, and obey what he asks of them – whatever the consequences. This pattern has been seen in all of Church History.

Understanding this reality, goes a long way to helping us to understand the first observation from last week’s post. Reformation almost always begins through the leadership of men not sharing the currently accepted and “normal” way of being trained to lead. They are often outsiders, not thinking the way the majority think. They do not see the current situation the way those in authority see it.

This phenomena may manifest itself in one of two ways. The first of these, and most common, is God raises up leaders trained on a different path than those currently leading. An example from ancient history is the bishop of Rome known as Gregory the Great. Gregory was a Benedictine Monk, and a part of an order founded by St Benedict of Nursia, who died in AD 547. Benedict had established (we would say planted) thirteen small monasteries before he died, all of which were outside of the Catholic authority and leadership structures of their day. Yet in AD 590 one of his followers, Gregory, was made bishop of Rome, and inaugurated a season of lasting reform whose influence is still felt in 2019. He was trained outside the ordinary structures.

The second way this phenomena manifests itself is through a leader trained in the way common in his day, but who has experienced what he believes to be a direct intervention of God in his life. God has shown him a different way for the church to be guided and shaped. When truly God inspired, this leads him, and those who follow him, back to revealed truth already given to the church but neglected or obscured in his own lifetime. He leads in a way outside the “accepted norms,” but consistent with the Word of God. He is a reformer. Thomas Cranmer was such a man. So was John Wesley.

For at least the last 200 years, if not longer, the Western Seminary system has taught men to be men of the mind. To be scholars. It has neglected the formation of the whole man: heart, mind, soul, and strength, putting the Lord Jesus second after knowledge. This has separated many leaders from their people, and has communicated (often unintentionally) to the flock of God that they “do not know enough” to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. They must read more. They must study more. They must have more classes, more programs, more guidance. They must have “expert” instruction to be good Christians. It does not put obeying the Lord Jesus first. It screens out reformation.


Next Week: Observation #2 – Believing that the Word of God is True.

Principles for a New Reformation? (by Jon Shuler)

Some years ago I accused a dear brother of not believing in “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” which we both say we “believe in” every time we recite the Nicene Creed. His response to me was: “I believe in it. I just don’t think you can organize it on earth.” That day I disagreed. Now, on the basis of a long journey of intentionally trying to follow Jesus, I think I believe his answer was correct. But I remain a part of an historic church that I was called by the Lord to serve, and I remain loyal to that call, so what do I do if I believe a new reformation must come?

As a global missionary I have sometimes seen the hand of God move in power by the Holy Spirit, and everywhere I have seen that grace, or heard about it, there are a four things that always seem to be present. So let me posit that these things might need to be in place if there is to be a new reformation in our day. I am persuaded these observations might point us to some foundational principles.

First, and perhaps surprisingly to some of my readers, when true reformation comes the senior leadership of the existing church has usually not been trained in the traditional seminary system of the West. It is not that the leaders are uneducated, but that they are free from many of the cultural blinders that generally are placed over the eyes of men trained (usually in an historic tradition) in a Western rationalist way.

Second, the senior leadership of the church believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, are true. They believe the Word of God written has come to them from the hand of God. They believe they are bound to submit to it.

Third, the senior leadership believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. Absolutely true for all people, at all times and in all places. No people or culture is to be neglected. For these leaders obedience to God’s Word as revealed in Jesus Christ is always the final court of appeal.

And fourth, the local church – when true reformation breaks out – is organized on the basis of small gatherings of believers, which exist for the purpose of making disciples who can make disciples. They are not for fellowship, alone, nor for teaching, alone, but for the primary purpose of equipping every believer to be a disciple-making follower of Christ Jesus.

So if, after hearing these four things, someone then asks: What happens when the current senior leadership of the church are confronted with these things?” I would ask that person: “What happened when Jesus confronted the religious leadership of his day?” Those who ask usually have the answer, but they rarely are attracted to the conclusion.

If there is to be true reformation in existing churches, the senior leadership must repent.


Next Week: Thinking Through The Four Observations.

Drawing a Line? (by Jon Shuler)

Two thousand years of Christian History have produced many changes in the secondary things of the faith. But what is primary and unchangeable? All believers have drawn a line somewhere since the death of the first apostles. But where draw the line?

The first believers appealed to the specific teaching of Jesus and the twelve the Lord appointed. Then Paul met the Risen Jesus who called and appointed him too. The other apostles came to believe, in time, that he was indeed truly so called, as Paul himself claimed: “Last of all…he appeared to me.” After Paul the number of the apostles was closed. Appeal was to them collectively. But what happened when they died?

What we know is that the local churches continued to pass on what they had received from those apostles who first came to them. Those who were eyewitnesses told their story. Some wrote down what they knew. In time the church sorted out the writings that were accorded authority, either from the apostles own hands, or from those associated with them. The New Testament was recognized to have the status of Holy Scripture. It was the summation of the “apostle’s teaching” as Luke puts it in Acts, and from then on the line was drawn there. But still it was not enough. Disputes emerged about how to interpret the writings. Church leaders argued, debated, and disagreed about what the parameters of acceptable belief were to be. They appealed to the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit among them, and to the witness of the New Testament writings. They struggled to define theological orthodoxy – right belief – for believers.

Next came the creeds. The essentials of the faith to be believed and professed before receiving water baptism, the creeds attempted to sum up the central truths of the Holy Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament.The oldest of these creeds is known to us still as the Apostle’s Creed. It is derived from the early second century baptismal creed of the church in Rome, and assumed its present and final form in the third century. The Nicene Creed would followed in the fourth century, and it took on near universal authority in the Christian world. It was a defining line.

After the creeds came the councils. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) was the model. These were gatherings of church leaders, all now called bishops (overseers), to deliberate and decide together what accorded with the faith of the apostles and what did not. Every evidence we have of these gatherings shows that the bishops appealed to the New Testament to clarify disputed points. And they sought to decide consensually.

The boundaries of the faith were settled. The organization of the one church was settled. The lines had been drawn. For a thousand years these would not be disputed. This is what the apostles taught: “The faith once delivered to the saints.” Anglican Christians call this settled pattern “the historic Faith and Order” of the church. These things were foundational, but secondary. The gospel was primary and unchangeable. The lines were designed to uphold the truth revealed in Christ Jesus.


Next Week: Reformation

Apostolic Tradition? (by Jon Shuler)

“Truth or Traditions?” last week stirred deep feelings in some readers. “We only keep Traditions (with a capital “T”) that are apostolic,” they said. “These are not separate from the ‘Truth.’ ”

How shall we unpack that?

Luke the Evangelist and Church Historian left us a significant record of the first days of the church after Pentecost. The new believers “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship….” What was it that the apostles taught?

Can anyone doubt it was what they had learned from Jesus Christ their risen Lord? It was this that they conveyed to new converts. The gospel of Jesus Christ, enfolded in the memory of all that he had said and done. In a very short time this was recorded in four gospels, and expounded in apostolic letters and writings. It is the heart of what we call the New Testament.

When there was dispute about the truth in the subsequent years, the leaders returned to these writings to resolve the conflict. They did not invent new teachings. They conveyed what had first been conveyed. Little by little they became deeply convinced that God had given them what we now call the New Testament to stand in the place that was once taken by the apostles themselves. To depart from these writings was to depart from the community of the Lord’s people, the church of Jesus Christ.

But they were human beings, and they did organize themselves in confidence that the Holy Spirit was with them, and leading them, as Jesus had told them he would. Traditions grew up among them while the apostles were still alive.

We know that everywhere there were Christians, they met on the Lord’s Day for worship and to hear the message of the gospel, to baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to share in the fellowship of love brought to them by the Lord. And we know that from the beginning there were leaders who had responsibility to oversee the local body in the truth, leaders who were in accountable connection and submission to one another. We know their leaders met with other leaders too, and adjudicated later disputes. But none of this was of greater authority than the truth given by Jesus. The truth we have in our New Testament. For the better part of 500 years these things were described as “apostolic traditions.” These are the things that missionaries took throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

If someone wants to appeal to these traditions as “Traditions,” I have no complaint. Nor did any faithful leader in the early church. They do not overturn the truth, they uphold it.

But what of traditions (small “t” ) added later? Things not in the apostolic record?


Next Week: Drawing a Line?

Truth or Traditions?  (by Jon Shuler)

Some of my friends have objected to the last few posts. Our leader is a “real believer,” they said, “even though our church is not flourishing. He has a personal walk with the Lord.” How to respond?

First let me say this is encouraging. I am always pleased to meet and know others who are pursuing the righteousness of faith. May God increase their number.

But all too often this protest masks a deeper problem, which is preaching and teaching the traditions of men, while verbally professing the things of God. Or as the great prophet of Israel said: “This people draw near with their mouth…while their hearts are far from me….”

Our Lord himself, drawing on this same prophet was even more emphatic: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” How does this happen if leaders are truly walking with the Lord?

My own experience teaches me that it happens slowly and subtly, especially in a community with a strong liturgical heritage. The weekly recitation of ancient words, many deeply biblical in origin, gradually becomes a way of praying without thinking. The beauty of earlier formularies lulls the leader into a kind of awe. There begins to be a readiness to defend ancient ways, and ancient words, in the face of alternative ideas and practices. The theological sophistication of the few becomes the bulwark of the many, while the daily “hearing the voice of the Lord” becomes rarer and rarer, in private and in public. In time, the people spoken against are those of the faithful who call for the Lord to be obeyed, as revealed in his Word, even if the tradition must be set aside.

Early in my own awakening to these things, I thought this was a uniquely Anglican (or catholic) problem. But I have come to realize that it happens in every family of the church. “Our way” of following the Lord becomes “the right way,” and the Word of God is placed in a second position, even as the official profession is that it is first.

This problem of truth versus tradition is precisely what the Lord Jesus faced in his earthly ministry. He was opposed by leaders who thought he was undermining Godly and good traditions. He was spoken against by those who defended the ways of their fathers, even when those ways were leading God’s people astray. The Son of God came among them, speaking God’s Word, and they attacked him for not honoring God. Is there any way out of this dilemma? Our Lord Jesus explicitly taught his followers that there was one sure test of the fidelity of their discipleship: he said they would abide in his word.

So too the faithful church.


Next Week: Apostolic Tradition?

Preaching that is True (by Jon Shuler) 

A student of church history will confirm that the sermons of any given age reveal the central focus of that season in the life of the church. A believing historian knows that when sermons focus on the Word of God written, the church flourishes. When sermons become opportunities for moralizing or personal opinions the church goes into decline.

The sermon evidence in the Anglican Family over the last hundred years shows a marked decline in the centrality of the Word of God. The date of the beginning of this declension is debatable, but the outcome is indisputable. The Anglican witness in North America (which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States) has been weakening every year since 1915. That is if one simply measures church attendance.

But attendance at church is no guarantee of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only the Spirit of God, living in a true believer, can produce true believers. And that Spirit accompanies true preaching, not false. Faith comes by hearing the truth.

What happens when the clear Word of God is not preached week by week? The believing community goes into inexorable decline. Godly people die off, some believers leave to find a community that upholds “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and many who remain become captured by something other the the truth of the gospel. Only a very few, a faithful remnant, remain. There are always some who have not “bowed the knee to Baal,” but they are “like sheep without a shepherd.”

But what are they to do? If the leader (for Anglicans the priest in charge) does not have a secret life with God there is almost no hope of faithful growth. If a leader does not walk with God he can not lead others to God. If an ordained leader is not born again of the Spirit of God he will not preach, he will not teach, he will not live by the teachings of the Lord Jesus. Why? Because he is is not submitted to the lordship of Christ.

What is absolutely true, however, is that the faithful remnant can, and must, flee to the one true shepherd, the only good shepherd. If the remnant flee to Jesus, he will come to their aid, and lead them into right paths. First he will sustain them by their daily time in the Word of God. Second he will give them a few other believers to meet with. Third he will lead them to pray earnestly for a godly leader. They will pray that either the current leader be converted, or that he be removed, and a believing leader be sent.

Of course this may not happen quickly. God alone determines the time. But the earnest prayers of the faithful must be for God to give them a leader who has a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. That leader will have a hidden life with his Lord. That leader will draw deep from the well of God’s Word. That leader will teach what the Lord Jesus teaches. That leader walks in the teaching of the apostles, which always leads the hearers to Christ Jesus.


Next Week: Truth or Traditions?