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 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)

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

Foundations?

“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3)

Recent events in the United States have served, once again, to show that the historic constitutional foundations of this country are no longer guiding a large part of our society. This seems especially true of many of those in positions of power and responsibility. For those of us who believe that those historic American foundations were absolutely based on the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, this is a very difficult and sad day. The moral law, that undergirded all the presuppositions of the founding generations, has been swept away. The Word of God given to Israel, and then incarnated in the Lord Jesus, has ceased to be a “plumb line” for American life.

This is of course not a new development. It has been steadily happening for many decades. But the pace of this descent into darkness has quickened measurably in these last few years. No one who is concerned for the will of God to be done in our land can be pleased with the unraveling of our basic societal unity, nor with the increasing triumph of wickedness. But what are the Lord’s people to do?

This question has been central in my prayers for my country for many years. I have come to one clear understanding about this situation, and how it came to prevail. The main fault is the church that claims to belong to God.

We have collectively turned away from the Lord and his clear teaching, and we have run after false gods. We have been compromised by our careless attention to the the Word of God, by our general acceptance of unrighteous influences in the newspapers and magazines that we read, the radio and TV we attend to, and the movies we watch. Our consciences have been dulled (if not seared) by a wave of behaviors and speech that are inconsistent with a nation of righteous people. And the church has not called us to the truth. To bear the cost of faithful witness. To accept the backlash and still stand. How did this happen?

The number of professed Christians in the USA is somewhere near 70% of the population, and yet small minorities opposed to God and his Word have taken over almost all of the positions of influence and power in this country. In a majority of the Universities, much of the Media, many of the Legislatures, and large numbers of the schools, and even among many historic churches, unbelievers reign.

I would like to blame others, but I have to accept the blame myself. I have been lulled to sleep by a steady stream of small compromises. I have not stood up. I have not protested. I have been so focused on the things inside the particular places where I was called to serve that I have not noticed the erosion of the moral basis of my nation. I have been a negligent citizen. I have not made the “love of righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7) my touchstone. And meanwhile my nation has come under the judgment of God.

What can I do? I must repent. What must you do?

50 Years And Counting

This post first appeared at NAMSnetwork.com on 20 March 2018:

It was a Sunday. The third week of Lent that year. I was sitting not too far from the pulpit, to the right of Cynthia my wife, in the little Church of the Advent in Cynthiana, Kentucky. It was the 17th of March. Then I heard a “voice” inside my self. It spoke to me with an authority that was absolute. “You are meant to be a priest.”

Had I been a member of any other tradition, I might have heard the appropriate title: pastor, preacher, minister. But what I heard I heard. I knew instantly that my calling was to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as a leader in his church.

It seems almost impossible to me to be reflecting on that day fifty years later, but I am. I have just finished a wonderful prayer retreat with seven other men, and God has graciously used the time to encourage and teach me (as he did us all) of his love and grace. And I am as eager to follow where he leads now as I was on that day so many years ago, perhaps more eager. The Lord Jesus has taught me that “in quiet and rest is my strength,” but it is not so I may be permanently still, resting in his grace, but to be renewed for service. To go where he needs me, to be available when he needs me, to do what he asks me.

When my late departed mother heard of my calling so many years ago, she spontaneously uttered a Prayer Book phrase she had prayed since she was a child: “his service is perfect freedom.” A lifetime has taught me that truth. To know God’s will and to begin to walk in it is the most wonderful freedom. It is not always easy, but it is most wonderfully free.

Yet how does this freedom to serve work out in the eighth decade of ones life? How are we to continue to be of use when the world begins to need us less and less, and our bodies begin their inevitable decay?

Long ago I heard an old missionary pastor say: “As long as God has work for me to do, I cannot die.” How I have cherished that saying. If I am alive, there is work for me to do that the Lord requires of me. Not someone else, me. It may be only to live a life of hidden prayer for one person, it may be to write and teach for another, to love and care for an incapacitated spouse, or to simply cooperate with the Lord in the disciple-making journey with a few friends for yet another. But there is always an assignment. A unique and personal one.

Are you seeking to hear the Lord’s voice for the rest of your days? Do you know what he has asked of you, in your uniqueness? Not “then”, but “now”?

Only the Lord Jesus knows our days, but know them he does. We are his workmanship, created for his glory.

How beautiful to hear him still saying: “Follow me.”