Whom Does Jesus Recognize? (by Jon Shuler​​)

Some years ago I was in a discussion with a brother, now a bishop in ACNA, who praised a certain then famous evangelical leader as “the most apostolic leader I have ever known,” and then said, “but I wouldn’t take communion from him.” I was stunned. I found the two statements impossible to hold together. If the grace of God was given to that man to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, with true apostolic grace, how could someone deny God’s grace given to him to celebrate communion? There is only one answer, it seems to me, he has set up a standard for communion which stands over against the grace of God. I think my brother’s position was and is untenable, and contrary to the truth as it is in Jesus. But it does reveal a common confusion

How does the Lord Jesus determine who is and is not a part of his church? Whom does he recognize? First as a Christian, and then when his church is present?

To open these questions we must ask what do the Scriptures reveal? Who is a Christian? It seems beyond debate that when someone came to living faith, they had to be baptized. Consider the first converts on the day of Pentecost, or the Ethiopian Eunuch, or the experience of Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 2:41; 8:38; 9:18). Is it conceivable that they were not now considered as belonging to the Lord? Would he not call them his own? Were they not now called by his name?

What then of the church in the beginning? When is it present? If a few were true believers and baptized, was the church of Jesus Christ present? Who would dare say “No”? When converts were made by Barnabas and Paul in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia (cf Acts 13:13-14:18), was the church not yet present? Can men and women in whom the Spirit of Jesus lives, when they gather, not constitute his body?

Further evidence abounds in the Scriptures. There was a church in Lydia’s house, and that of Aquila and Priscilla, and also in that of Gaius, of Nympha, and of Philemon. ( Acts 16:5; Rom 16:5, 23; Col 4:15; Phlm 2 ) It seems incontrovertible that the church grew organically from household to household in the early centuries, and in time it out organized the Roman Empire. Does anyone dare say this was not “the Lord’s doing?” And should it not be “marvelous in our eyes?” (Mt 21:42)

My readers may say to me, “But what about the rest of the story?,” and I will grant it. The apostles appointed leaders once there was a sign of stable life. (Acts 14:23) It is no doubt reasonable to conclude as well, that those recognized leaders took responsibility for the ordering of the future baptisms and for the Lord’s Supper. But is there any evidence that more was required of them than the maturity of faith and character delineated in the Pastoral Epistles? When our fathers were struggling with these questions in the 16th century Reformation, they enunciated a clear definition of the church, for which see Article XIX of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. Would that be acceptable to the Lord Jesus?

Next Week: What Does the XIXth Article Mean Today?

Essential Faith? (by Jon Shuler​​)

I am thinking about “New Wineskins,” and their relationship to what is essential to be a Christian Church. I have argued that the Church of England did not understand itself to be creating a new wineskin when it separated from the Roman Catholic Church, but rather understood itself as a reformed wineskin. I am arguing that there is only one new wineskin, superseding the wineskin that was Israel, and that it is the one church of Jesus Christ.

Staying in a strange city while on vacation, I looked for an Anglican Church to attend. There were none, but one community attracted me when I searched on line. When I attended, the liturgy, the hymnody, the creed, the communion, and the worshipful spirit were decidedly familiar to me, but they were not Anglican. I was quite delighted to discover All Saints Church in Lancaster, PA. They belong to a new movement, emphasizing evangelical biblical faith and historical and theological continuity with the church of the ages. Whether they would appreciate my categorization or not, they are part of a new denomination. There are just over one hundred congregations in their movement, but they are growing and international.

Why wouldn’t they want to be part of our existing communion, I wondered, with over five hundred years of reformed history, not to mention roots in nearly fourteen hundred years before that? I can only give one possible answer: they think churches like the one I belong to have forfeited the claim to being a faithful church. They are not persuaded that we are holding to the essential elements of the faith “once delivered to the saints” as they understand them.They must have concluded that a “new wineskin” was needed, and they have understood that to mean organizing and standing apart from all those who have gone before, even while they honor those who were faithful before.

It did please me to see that a local church which held to, as a doctrinal standard, the 39 Articles of Religion, could apply to belong to their movement. These articles were for centuries the standard of doctrine in the Anglican Family, and are printed still in the Book of Common Prayer. “Could an Anglican Church belong to your movement and still remain in the Anglican Family,” I asked? The question was treated graciously, and the response I was given suggested openness to further discussion with the appropriate authorities. But I doubt if any North American Anglican jurisdiction would permit it.

If you ask me: “Why?” I will have to confess that what is essential to being a Christian is currently very muddled in my family, and therefore also our understanding of church. We are not persuaded that you can really be a true Christian, in a truly faithful church, if you do not believe as we do, organize along the same lines as we do, and prioritize the same things that we do. We have our own Anglican wineskin. And we now require more than what was once considered essential to the faith in order to belong. What our reformers in the 16th century believed was essential, we no longer believe be sufficient.

Next Week: Whom Does Jesus Recognize?

Creating New Wineskins? (by Jon Shuler​​)

I do not remember the place, but I remember the moment. A group of clergy had just been told that three Anglican Archbishops had decided to form a new ecclesiastical missionary group, to be called the Anglican Mission in America, or AMiA for short. Many in the room were still at that time clergy in the Episcopal Church, and were not sure how to think about the announcement. While walking out of the building one of my friends turned to me exuding joy, and said: “Now we have our new wineskin.”

Soon that friend was involved in the planting of many churches in his metro area, and he continues in that ministry to this day. But it was not long before it was clear to some of us that the birth of the AMiA gave him a way to function almost entirely according to his own lights. It was no surprise, therefore, when he later separated from the AMiA and joined in the formation of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). As I write this the latter community has largely decided that it does not want to be a part of the Anglican Communion, since a global movement has now arisen called the GAFCON Movement. This latter group recognizes ACNA, but the Anglican Communion does not. Many see theological differences that forebode yet further splits in ACNA, and GAFCON is largely funded by them. Is there no end to new wineskins?

When our Lord Jesus taught that new wine required new wineskins, did he mean the never ending division we have seen in historic Protestantism, and are currently seeing among Anglicans? Or was he making clear, as he did in many other ways, that something was happening in his ministry that was to be a clean break with Judaism. The Church of Jesus Christ was a new wineskin. What God Almighty was doing was new. Built on the promises of old, but startlingly changed. If that is so, how can we know if any new movement or sad division is legitimate? The Scriptures teach that there is only one church.

I write as a son of the Church of England, which in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation reconstituted itself as a Reformed Catholic Church. That meant that it was not claiming to be a new wineskin, but a reformed version of the one church founded by Christ Jesus. I believe at their best those in ACNA would say the same thing. But my experience convinces me that many simply want their own preferred wineskin. So I ask, do they want a church to their own liking, or the wineskin Jesus rules over?

Some who have come to think the way I do have left the Anglican Family for the Roman Catholic Church, believing that no other community exemplifies the unity God desires. Others have left for Rome because they think they alone are capable of upholding the truth of the gospel in the face of modern heresies. I do not agree with either conviction.

I believe the family of Anglicans were allowed to walk apart from Rome by God’s providential will, in order to model a reformed wineskin. One more nearly conformed to God’s plan than any available in 16th century England. But we must be reformed again.

Next Week: Essential Faith?

Covenantal Confusion (by Jon Shuler​​)

Six years in England many years ago, and frequent visits and ministry missions since, have made me attentive to the news from the Church of England, and also, for similar reasons, from the Anglican community in Europe. A recent communique from two bishops exercising jurisdiction in parts of Europe thus attracted my careful attention. [“Covenant and Communion: The Church(es) in Europe.” The Living Church July 11, 2021]

My first thought upon seeing the title was a memory of an old moment in ministry when a brother priest opined that the “Founding Charism” of Anglicanism was compromise. My second was to see again our Anglican arrogance in discussing two tiny ecclesiastical networks in Europe as though they were “the” two churches in Europe. My third thought was an indignant one, after reading carefully through the document and seeing that it never once mentioned the Lord Jesus, or his mission given to the church. To presume to speak for the church and never mention the Holy Name? To discuss covenants between ecclesiastical jurisdictions and never mention his Holy Mission?

Personal experience through the years has convinced me that many of the Anglican Churches of Europe have been much sought out by clergy who do not adhere to the classic doctrinal understanding, nor moral standards, of the Holy Scriptures that are at the heart of all true Christian community. There has been a tacit acceptance of this fact in ecclesiastical circles, and no one who is at all familiar with many of these churches could deny it. Though biblically faithful Anglican communities do exist in Europe, they are not numerous.

Disputes over boundaries have always bedeviled the relationships between these various jurisdictions, and the latest communique brings these old arguments forward. It appeals for these disputes to end by proposing that episcopal ministry authority be understood as personal not territorial in nature. The concept has much ancient precedent, but it was stoutly rejected by most of the world’s Anglican leaders when appealed to at the birth of the AMiA in AD 2000. Now is it to become normative?

What leaves this writer most discouraged, however, is the bishop’s avoidance of facing the need for doctrinal unity to take precedence over institutional unity. They suggest that the two of them share “the blessed circumstance of being in communion in the same place,” but do not acknowledge that there is little doctrinal unity between them. And they know it.

The glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ was called by the church from the beginning a “New Covenant.” It is a covenant in his shed blood upon the cross. There was no confusion in the apostolic church that the commandments of Jesus and “the apostle’s teaching and fellowship” defined communion. There was no confusion that the Word of God was the foundation of that covenant, and defined his church.

Next Week: Who Creates New Wineskins?

Where NAMS Is Not Needed (by Jon Shuler​​)

I should be stronger in facing rejection. I have begged God to make me so. A dear Christian brother said to me yesterday: “Why do you care if the bishop is upset?” My answer comes from the heart of my brokenness. I want the affirmation of an earthly father, but even more I believe that the doctrine, life, faith, and unity of the church of Jesus Christ really matters in the sight of God. I believe he calls the Anglican Family to be a holy expression of the truth that is in Jesus. I believe he has assigned NAMS to be a servant to that calling. I believe the church needs NAMS

By 2014 the global work of the New Anglican Missionary Society (NAMS) was growing on every continent but the one I live in. A massive schism had riven the reform movement I had been part of for most of my life, and now two mutually hostile groups of Anglicans were not only separated from much of the global Anglican community, but they were implacably separated from one another. It had broken my heart. I went on retreat to be alone with the Lord.

This time I was able to get away to the most sacred place I know on this earth, and to be there all alone for 48 hours. No phone, no power, no other people. I was interceding for the work of NAMS, and still struggling with the confusion in my mind and heart over the reality that we seemed to face in North America. And then the Lord spoke.

“Wherever the church is making disciple-making disciples, raising disciple-making leaders, and planting disciple-making churches, NAMS is not needed.”

I sat stunned for some time. What a strange communication to my spirit, I at first thought. But the more I prayed the more joy flooded my soul. Though revealed in the negative, the words made clear to me that NAMS ministry was needed everywhere. I had traveled the world for decades, and I knew of no place where those three things were being done so effectively that a society of servant men and women, committed to the mission of Jesus, could not be helpful. That conviction now runs deep in all the NAMS global leadership, and in every one of our base communities. We stand ready to serve for the spread of the kingdom of God in the work of planting new communities of faith.

The conviction is growing among us that we are simply one small part of God’s purpose to see the earth covered with the knowledge of his glory, “like the waters cover the sea.”

The decline and death of the old Western Christian order is not an impediment to God. Nor the decline, and even death if he so allows, of any particular man made denomination or organization. His kingdom is not stoppable. His victory in the cross of Christ Jesus is not one that can ever be undone. While those of us NAMS Companions who are now alive have breath, we will serve the mission of the Risen Lord Jesus.

Next Week: Covenantal Confusion

Following Jesus in a Post Christian America (by Jon Shuler​​)

In the year of our Lord 2021 it is easy for me to see that I am living in a post Christian culture, but that was not so evident in 2009. I believed it then, but I had no idea of the totality of the change that was sweeping over the country of my birth. I had seen the reality in England, years before, but I was unprepared for the rapidity of the decline in America.

As I have written, I went on retreat in the latter year to seek God’s guidance for myself and the ministry of NAMS. I was sure that God had called it into existence, and I believed that it was called as a servant in mission to my family of the church. But at that time the offering we were making was manifestly not welcome among most Anglicans in North America, I cried out to the Lord Jesus to speak to my heart.

Many years before I had come to a clear understanding that though we may subjectively believe we have “heard” from the Lord, it is in no way a guarantee that we are right. Most importantly I had come to share the ancient wisdom that no true private revelation could be true if it manifestly contradicted the Holy Scripture as interpreted in Christ Jesus. Still the Lord has taught all his disciples that they will “hear his voice,” and I was desperately asking for his guidance. My question was a simple one: “Is the work you called NAMS to do over?” We had been involved in hundreds of new starts on this continent, and multiple dozens overseas, but were we done?

I arrived at the retreat center late on a Sunday afternoon, and there was no one there. I sat on a bench and began to pray, and soon a volunteer drove up to register me and assign me a room. As I filled in the form I noticed the cross hanging round her neck. It was made of tortoise shell, and was exactly the cross logo of NAMS. Never since adopting that logo in 1994, had I ever seen it anywhere else in the world unless we printed it. My inquiry about its origin proved fruitless. It was a gift from an anonymous friend when she was struggling to beat cancer. “I really love it,” she said. “So do I.” I had not been one hour into a forty-eight hour retreat, and I was sure God had spoken to me. That logo cross hanging around her neck was all I needed. God’s call had not been revoked.

Twelve years later, as I write this blog, I am convinced that NAMS has been called by the Lord of the church to be a servant in a post Christian era in the developed world, and a faithful servant globally. Old denominations are struggling to survive, and some are taking drastic steps to seek revitalization. Only time will tell if it is too late for many of them, or if God will grant a new day of grace.

NAMS knows how the church can survive and extend the kingdom of God, The most important things we know have been shown us by the Lord, and were confirmed by him (I say by faith) in another retreat that came in 2014.

Next Week: Where NAMS Is Not Needed

“Who Will Follow If…?” (by Jon Shuler​​)

The joy of being asked to lead a thriving congregation in their time of need was very real, so it is reasonable to ask why the memory of taking on that ministry should be one of my painful memories, as I mentioned last week? There are at least three answers that I am sure are true.

First I was saddened to realize just how weak were my disciple-making skills after almost twenty years of trying to teach and lead with disciple-making as the primary focus of my ministry. I had so overestimated my competence, and I was beginning to see that my Anglican habits and culture were still impeding my obedience to the clear command of Jesus. I experienced real pain in my repentance.

Second, the more I focused on the clear Final Command of Jesus, as the priority for the ministry of that parish, the more I experienced myself being an outsider to the wider Anglican Family. This was not an entirely new experience for me, but it was unexpected in 2008 since the new ecclesiastical jurisdiction the parish had chosen to affiiiate with was an intentional movement which had begun with a call to gospel reformation. My time in Florida led me more and more to the realization that God had put in my heart a desire to see changes that many of my brothers in ministry thought were wrong. As a young Christian years before I had expected opposition from the world, but I was not expecting opposition from inside the household of faith. Life in the parish was going well, I thought, but the wider context of my ministry in North America and beyond was not. As a life long member of this branch of the body of Christ, this was causing me pain. I was unsure how to understand what I was going through.

Third, and for today finally, I was facing the fact that my years as an active priest in the church were coming to an end, at least as I had so far understood my ministry. In 2008 I was only three years away from the standard retirement age in contemporary America. I began to realize in a very personal way that my season “on the stage” was coming to an end. Even as I write that it causes me pain, because it reveals so much of my self conscious pride and confusion about the central work of the ministry. My understanding of myself, after nearly fifty years in service was shown to me to be very flawed. It put me into a season of deep introspection and repentance. I wish I could say that it is over, but that would be untrue.

Whenever I have lost my way, the Lord Jesus has always called me to come apart and be alone with him on retreat. And when I made that time and found a place in 2009, he met me (as always) and asked this question: “Will you follow me if it means you lose all you once held dear?”

Next Week: Following Jesus in a Post Christian America

Painful Memories (by Jon Shuler​​)

Almost everything that I write about has come from the life I have lived as a priest of the church, by the gracious gift of God. Much of it the hard won truth learned from mistakes and my own sins. If my words sometimes seem to cut to the heart, it is because those same words have cut mine. I have learned, actually am still learning, the truth of the Letter to the Hebrews. God disciplines those he loves. If he has called you to his service, he will discipline you for effectiveness and productivity in the kingdom.

In 1988, as rector of a sizable parish, I experienced that discipline, and it has made a lasting memory. In that year I believe the Lord Jesus conveyed to my very core that the mission of his church was written for us in Matthew 28:19. That was phase one.

Sometime later that same year I experienced a personal interrogatory from God, or so I believe. In a series of questions put to me in prayer, I was brought to recognize the pitiful outcome of one years ministry in the parish. Near the end of the series I was made to see that barely a dozen new confirmed members had been added, after all the time, energy, volunteers, staff, and financial resources.. Then this question was put to me: “Would any of them die for me?” The question was followed by a statement. “I called you to make disciples, and you are making Episcopalians.” I was a broken man. That was phase two.

My ministry since that day has been shadowed by the certainty that I will be held accountable for my obedience to that call. For years before that day I was actively, and quite contentedly, busy in the normal life of a priest in the Anglican Family. But from that day I experienced my life as one under discipline. The discipline of one who is loved, but nevertheless disciplined.

Ten years later I had another painful moment. I was serving as a missionary in South East Asia, and the Lord was granting a harvest of souls. I was doing nothing different, but people were coming to faith. I dared, foolishly, to complain to God. Why had he not brought me to this field when I was a younger man? Immediately I was struck in my heart by the voice of God, who made it very clear to me who was in charge of every detail of my life. I had no grounds to complain. None.

Then again, ten years later I was serving as an Interim in Florida. The parish was in very real distress, after the loss of a beloved senior minister. I arrived thinking I knew what was necessary for them to be well. The Lord showed me I did not. He made it abundantly clear to me that thirty years later, I was still not understanding how to make a disciple of Jesus.

Painful memories, but grace filled, from 1988, 1998, and 2008.

Next Week: “Who Will Follow If….”

The Most Basic Building Block? (by Jon Shuler​​)

Anyone familiar with sports knows that the most essential training to prepare for a new season involves returning to the fundamentals. This kind of remedial action in any organization is sometimes called clarifying the “basic building blocks.” Using it as a metaphor let us ask: What then is the most basic building block for the kingdom of God?

Is it not one convinced and committed believer? Someone who has responded to the love of God in Christ Jesus, has been brought through to a living faith that has changed them from the inside out, and who is dedicated to the journey of obedient discipleship? In other words a disciple of Christ Jesus.

When ever there are two of these disciples gathered, the Lord of Lords promises to be with them. In that Spirit made threesome is also the beginning of the church as the body of Christ in any place. If those two have learned from the Master, and are beginning to be obedient, they will not be small indefinitely. The two will become four, and the four eight, and the eight will multiply in short order. Gathering will soon require multiple spaces during the week and a larger common place on the Lord’s Day. One glorious reality they will discover is that the Lord Jesus will be with them whenever and however they gather. They cannot outgrow his presence with his faithful ones. When the basic building block is present the body of Christ grows and the kingdom spreads.

Once this process was witnessed in England. From it grew the church in England, and for centuries that church grew and gave itself away. When did that stop, and why?

Many answers have been given, and most of them have some salience. The doctrinal battles of the late 16th Century that began to divide the Protestant world into defined sub groups of Christians. The fracturing of Christendom itself at the Reformation. The European wars of religion in the 17th century. The coming of the Industrial Revolution. Each of these can be pointed to. But behind every other suggestion is one that alone leads to the truth, and that is the erosion and breakdown of an understanding of the nature and practice of disciple making discipleship. When the church community began to lose this understanding of the word disciple, that a truly “made” disciple implicitly means a disciple making disciple, the deterioration began.

For centuries the erosion was slowed by the continuing widespread understanding that parents were to disciple their children, and that masters were to disciple their charges. Schoolteachers were discipling their students, and members of all guilds and professions were doing the same. But when the Medieval Culture that kept these patterns alive began to die, a decline probably well along by the late 13th Century. A new pattern of church life was gradually replacing the apostolic one. A single ordained priestly leader in a single village, with the task of preaching and teaching the faith and administering the sacraments had emerged as normal. That pattern in the local parish soon became so deep that nothing in the Reformation era replaced it. The most important behavior necessary for the spread of the kingdom of God was missing.

Next Week: Painful Memories

Questions for Leaders (by Jon Shuler​​)

It is an absolute truth of the gospel that each person will one day give an account for the deeds done in the body. No one will escape. It is also true that those with the responsibility to teach will be judged more severely. These two facts, if faced, must raise serious questions for those currently leading the church of Jesus Christ. Before them all must be this question: “What will be the standard by which we are judged?

The Lord Jesus has told us clearly, we will be judged by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He has told us directly that only those who hear his words and obey them are part of his family. Only those who keep his commandments truly love him. Never in all Christian history has it been thought by any faithful believer that it was acceptable to ignore the plain teaching of Jesus. He will come again to judge “the quick and the dead.”

It is of course true that there have always been those in the church who are not themselves moved by the Spirit of God. The wheat and the tares coexist until the last Great Day. But it has never been a sign of faith and truth to allow, let alone encourage, those who lead to be such. Those called by the Lord to his service, in his household, are with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength to serve God and his people. They are to live under the Word of God and teach that Word to all who draw near. There are many things in the Scriptures that are not central to the obedient following of Jesus, but the things that are unquestionably clear are everywhere to be seen in the New Testament. Reading it prayerfully even a baby Christian begins to feel the pull to amendment of life. To grow up into maturity in Christ becomes their hearts desire. That alone indicates the reality of the new birth.

If that is so for all believers, how much more so for those who lead his people? Can there really be confusion about what is central? The living and preaching of the Gospel. The call to authentic faith. Learning to crucify the flesh and to yearn for the Spirit to guide and correct. Sharing the joy of the fellowship with those who love the Lord. Drawing near to the Lord’s Table together with them. Making disciples.

A critically important saying that I have shared before is this: “It you are not doing it, it is not in your DNA.” When leaders hear the clear words of Jesus and respond with excuses and alibis we betray ourselves. If we are giving our best energies, our best time, our best resources to things that are not eternal, we reveal that we have defective DNA. If we have become used to overlooking and disobeying clear teaching from our Lord, we have something seriously wrong. The glorious apostolic inheritance granted to the first community of faith has somehow suffered a spiritual genetic mutation in us. Why are so few of us making disciples?

Returning to the primary question for all leaders which we asked above: “What will be the standard by which we are judged?

Next Week: The Most Basic Building Block?