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.

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Reformation (by Jon Shuler) 

Between AD 325 (the Nicene Council) and AD 1517 (Luther’s opening challenge to the Roman Catholic Church) a lot had transpired. Nearly twelve hundred years of developments and accretions to the settled faith and order of the early church had occurred. Many by then believed that there was need for a purifying review of these additions. And a remarkable invention – moveable type for the printing press – was putting the New Testament in the hands of believers, and in their own language. This new reality challenged nearly everything the faithful of the sixteenth century church in the West had been taught. Reformation began. The central question would become: “By what authority do you teach the faith?” By what authority do you reform it?

On the one side were the traditionalists. The church is our authority, they believed. On the other side were the reformers. The Holy Scriptures are the authority, they believed.

The dispute was fierce, and much occurred that would (and does) grieve the heart of God. After many decades of struggle two settled realities were true of Europe. Some followers of Jesus were called Catholics, and some were called Protestants. The Catholics appealed to the church as supreme. The Protestants appealed to the Holy Scriptures as supreme. They each drew lines of inclusion and exclusion. But both sides professed to be followers of Christ Jesus.

In the Church of England, a third way emerged. The reformers in that land appealed to the early unbroken centuries of Christian History to draw their lines. The Holy Scriptures were the “rule and supreme authority” of that which must be “believed for salvation.” The “truth as it is in Jesus” was the only foundation. But the ancient ordering of the church should remain unbroken, they thought. It was not contrary to true apostolic faith, but was meant to uphold and protect that faith. The “historic Faith and Order” (as Anglican Christians would later call it) of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic

church” (words from the Nicene Creed of AD 325) would be upheld and propagated. But order would always be for the sake of the true faith of the gospel.

Over five hundred years since those first stirrings of reformation in Northern Europe, what can an honest observer say today? With heart sickness this observer says: “We need another reformation.” The problems that confronted our godly ancestors in the sixteenth century confront us now. Everywhere the descendants of both the Catholic and Protestant divisions are in distress. Confusion, sin, and unbelief reign everywhere in the historic churches. And many leaders are loathe to face the true depths of the problem. But what shall be the authority by which we reform, if we believe we must?

Christians of a “Catholic disposition and faith” look to the church and its organized ways. Those of a “Protestant disposition and faith” look to the Holy Scriptures. Neither can seem to agree. Is there another way? A twenty-first century path?

 

Next Week: Principles for a New Reformation?

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?

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