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?

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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?

The Inner Life of the Leader — Part III (by Jon Shuler)

The Sovereignty of God was not much discussed in the Anglican world I grew up in, but I have come to hold to that doctrine as I have grown older in the faith of Jesus Christ. Mercifully, as a child, I was surrounded by Episcopalians who were true believers, even though they were weak in the knowledge of how to share their faith in words. They were ill equipped to stand against the waves of false teaching that began to buffet them in the 1960’s, however, and I suffered for their lack.

But from them, and even more from the words of the Book of Common Prayer (1928) that I heard every Sunday, prevenient grace affected my life. I did learn that there really was a moral right and wrong. I did learn to have an intellectual belief that the Christian Faith was true. But I did not live up to the moral teaching or know how to defend that faith. When I fell in love with a woman who held fast to those moral teachings, I determined to live by them. That determination led me into the arms of God, when I failed miserably to be able to live what they taught. I know now it was all of grace.

Later the stirrings of a call to ordination emerged in me, and I went to see my childhood rector. He took me to the bishop of the diocese, who sent me to the Standing Committee. They tentatively approved me, and I was sent to a psychiatrist, and finally I was recommended as a Postulant for Holy Orders. The bishop arranged for me to go to the most liberal seminary in the Episcopal Church, but I asked if I could study in England. I had some the notion England would be better. He agreed, and I was spared. Not once in the entire sequence of events was I asked to explain my personal faith.

By God’s good grace, I found myself in an Evangelical Church of England Theological College that held to and taught the faith that once the whole Church of England proclaimed. That faith which laid the first foundations of the Episcopal Church in this country, and contributed to the spread of that faith worldwide. The men and women who taught me in that college helped me to truly know Christ Jesus as my Savior and Lord.

In 1973 when I was about to be ordained, I asked for a preacher who would proclaim the true gospel. Because he was from another diocese, and unknown in mine, the request was granted. That day, after the service, my childhood rector asked the preacher to lay hands on him and pray that he might receive the Holy Spirit, but within a few short years my rector took his own life. My home parish and diocese covered it up.

What happened to those of us who grew up in that leadership culture? The answer is painful but clear: we did not learn the true faith. We did not understand, most of us, what distinguished between a formal faith and a true heart faith. We went off to college, the Navy, the Army, careers, and marriages with no real grasp of the Truth of the Gospel. As the church of our childhood moved further and further away from its historic moorings, most of us ceased to be part of any organized parish or congregation. The tragedy I mentioned several weeks ago played itself out.

 

Next Week: Preaching that is True

The Inner Life of the Leader (Part II) (by Jon Shuler) 

Something happened after World War II in the American church. There was a marked increase of men going in to the ordained ministry who believed themselves called to take care of people. They wanted to be leaders of the Flock of Christ, and they wanted to be part of historic Christian Denominations. But in many of these men one thing was lacking: the conviction that the Holy Scriptures were trustworthy and true.

They were faithful to the traditions and patterns of their denominations, by and large, but they were trained in such a way as to believe they must modernize the faith if it was to make sense to “modern people.” They might have occasionally referred to “the faith once delivered to the saints,” but they considered themselves on a mission to bring the church to a more enlightened place in modern society. Some even believed that Jesus of Nazareth was Savior and Lord, but they increasingly couched this in non biblical theological terms, and philosophical presuppositions that were not Christian.

Many of the most gifted of these men made their way into mainline Theological Seminaries. By the middle of the 1950’s some of them were becoming ever more influential, and they sent out an increasing tide of men who shared their outlook and presuppositions. During the 1960’s they decimated the body of true believers in those denominations they came to dominate. In the Episcopal Church the evidence begins to be irrefutable after 1965. From that day to this, the number of practicing Christians among them has been in continuous decline. Only God knows who among them are true believers, for surely a remnant remains.

One of these men was the rector of my childhood parish. I respected him, and even can say I grew to admire him in my adolescence, but he did not teach me the fundamentals of the faith. He taught me about the church, and her history, and her traditions. As the years of his rectorship stretched out he became more and more a teacher of religion, and less and less a teacher of the Christian Faith.

There was a saving grace in those years, however, as the liturgical life of the parish kept words and sacraments before the congregation that bore witness to the Truth. A believing person could worship regularly, pay little attention to the preaching, and hold fast to the historic Faith and Order of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, as it had come to us through the 16th century Reformation. But if that person was not discipled to seek the truth in the words of Jesus, and the teaching of his apostles, he or she was becoming more and more vulnerable to the slow erosion of true faith in the congregation. The church was less and less understanding itself as submitted to Christ.

It was in this environment that those born after WWII were being raised, and were being bombarded by an ever increasing cultural tide of unbelief, in the church and outside of it. These children were attending the services of the church, they were being sacramentally confirmed, but they were not coming to saving faith. I was one of them.

 

 

Next Week: The Inner Life of the Leader (Part III)

The Inner Life of the Leader (Part I) (by Jon Shuler)

It is clear from the New Testament itself that the quality of leadership in the church was of very real concern to the Lord Jesus and the Apostles. The people of God needed good and godly leaders. Those who saw clearly and rightly were to guide the flock. The sheep needed good shepherds. The blind must not lead or those who follow will go astray. And most importantly of all, hypocrites and deceivers must not lead.

Confusion and misunderstanding among leaders will of course occur. During our Lord’s lifetime on earth, his chosen apostles were often uncomprehending. But godly leaders, when they are in error, are correctable.

Sometimes the correction is a direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. A man prayerfully is reading the scriptures and the Word of God comes alive to him in searing conviction. And that conviction leads to repentance. Or, less frequently but no less effectively, the Holy Spirit speaks directly to the mind and heart of the one in error. Another time the prophetic word of correction comes from a beloved spouse or friend. It can even come from a random event or word that the Spirit uses to pierce the soul. The mark of the faithful leader in every case is always seen in the leader’s response: conviction, followed by repentance.

The early church developed patterns of corporate correction based on the teaching of Jesus. Obeying the Lord one believer was to go to another. Pastoral leaders were to correct errant members of the flock of God in their charge. Beyond this, a universal pattern emerged to maintain unity in the faith between congregations and to correct errors of behavior or doctrine. A threefold order of ministry gave structural connection to the one body of Christ. Boundaries of right belief were defined by creeds and councils. But always these ordered patterns and boundaries were to uphold the teaching of the Lord Jesus and his apostles, not to overturn it. The New Testament became the final form of that teaching, with irrefutable and supreme authority.

For many centuries the church was united, in East and West, around these clear foundational structures. Whenever conflict arose, the leaders met to pray and seek reconciliation. Decisions made were spread among the faithful, and gradually a body of church law emerged. Based on biblical principles and precedents, this development became the standard by which all were judged. Most particularly those set apart to lead.

Our Fathers at the Reformation, after centuries of gradual erosion and careless neglect in the church in England, restored this ancient framework to guard the truth of the gospel. To be a church that truly submits to Christ. This is our Anglican heritage.

But what happens when ordained leaders proclaim publicly what they do not believe inwardly? What happens when the inner spiritual life of the leader of the congregation is not congruent with their outward profession?

Next Week: The Inner Life of the Leader (Part II)

What Has Happened? (by Jon Shuler)

My maternal grandfather was a believer and a churchman. He would never miss Sunday Services unless he was ill. He sang in the choir. He read his bible. He said his prayers. He lived an honorable life, loving and providing for his wife and children. He loved his neighbors. He was a good citizen. But he never discussed his faith with his grandchildren, so far as I know.

My maternal grandmother was a believer. She loved the Lord Jesus. She prayed and read her bible every day. In her widowhood, which lasted nearly twenty years, she could be found most mornings with her bible open on the kitchen table. When I came home from my theological training and first parish curacy in England, she always wanted to talk to me about the things of God. I treasure those memories.

All three of their children attended church most Sundays for as long as they lived. But what of their grandchildren?

There were seventeen of us grandchildren, and at the present time I am only aware of five of us who are active in the life of any church. There may be more, but I am not sure. What I do know to be true is that an active life in a typical local church does not equate to saving faith. And saving faith will not come without hearing and understanding the gospel. Keeping religious habits is not saving faith. More than five may be true believers, but I do not know.

What I do know is that the gospel was not frequently heard and understood in my home church growing up. What was heard were the beautiful cadences of an ancient liturgy. A liturgy, which if understood, communicated the gospel. But only if understood.

The sermons? They were refined, and intellectually stimulating. They urged us to good deeds, and right thoughts. They taught us “what the church teaches.” We became well aware that “we were different” from most Protestants, because we were walking in the patterns of the ancient church – without the tyranny of a distant pope, or the errors of extreme bible thumpers.

What we were not taught, with any consistency, is that what defines a Christian is a true personal faith in Jesus Christ, as that is revealed in the Holy Scriptures. We were not helped to see that true faith is a matter of the heart, of the Holy Spirit. True faith can not be hidden. When true faith comes, a person is born again of the Spirit of God.

Where did this tragedy begin? What happens in a family with faithful parents, when so many of the grandchildren fall away from the faith?

No man can give a full answer, but the history of God’s people is illustrative. Again and again Holy Scripture reveals that such error begins with leaders.

 

Next Week: The Inner Life of the Leader


For more information about Rev. Jon Shuler, his ministry and teaching, please visit: jonshuler.com

Who Is A Christian? 

This is such a simple question, but so difficult for many to answer.

Churchmen will immediately answer: Someone who is baptized. But the fathers of the reformation would disagree. They preached (quoting the Apostle) that that person is a Christian who “professes with his lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believes with his heart that God raised him from the dead.” That man is a born again man. That man can enter the kingdom of God. That man should be baptized, but that does not make him a Christian. The Holy Spirit makes him a Christian, or he is not one. This was the doctrine for which men and women died in the Sixteenth Century. This was the doctrine that turned the whole of Western Europe upside down, just as it had turned the First Century upside down.

The fathers of the Reformation, when they had the God-given opportunity, rewrote the documents of the church of their day. They brought the teaching of the apostles to the fore. Especially the teaching of the apostle Paul. They rewrote hymns, prayers, liturgies, covenants, wills, and bibles to make a few things absolutely clear. They unseated kings and rulers. They removed teachers of theology and schoolmasters. They were absolutely persuaded that the good news of Jesus Christ had been obscured and must be brought again into the light. And as they did this work, many in the organized church of their day attacked them. The Reformers found that their fiercest enemies were men who called themselves Christians.

Students of the New Testament will point out to me, perhaps, that the name “Christian” was not given by Jesus. He called his followers his “disciples.” It was observers who called them “those people who follow Chrestus,” Christians, and it stuck for a hundred generations.

But what does it mean today? What does the average person think it means when someone says they are a Christian? At least in the West?

There is one way to find out. Ask some people you know or meet. See what answers you get.

If they are church people you will get a set of answers that almost always will be about religious behavior. If they are unbelievers, they will soon tell you that Christians are of all people the least attractive they know.

If you doubt this talk to the people who serve in restaurants at mid-day on Sunday.

 

Next Week: What Has Happened?

 

[ If this post moves you, please contact Joel or Jon at info@jonshuler.com ]