Rejecting the Sabbath.       (by Jon Shuler​​)

Long before the majority of Christian people in the United States were ready to turn their back on major parts of God’s Word, they acquiesced to turning their backs on the Sabbath Rest that God had commanded. It happened quickly, and it happened for the love of money. Serving Mammon proved overwhelming to serving God.

As a young boy I remember that all the stores were closed on Sundays. There were, it is true, a few hours in which each pharmacy, in turn, stayed open for emergency medicines to be purchased, but all other retail stores closed. If asked why we kept the Sabbath on Sunday, not Saturday, all would respond with the truth that the Lord Jesus rose on that day, and henceforth the Sabbath for his followers became what the world calls Sunday. It was the Lord’s Day. To fail to keep it holy was to turn from the Lord God’s clear will.

Social Historians may be able to date this change precisely, but I know that it happened between 1963 and 1975 in my hometown. Big box stores, able to undercut local retailers, began to be open on Sunday in the nearby city, and soon many were purchasing their appliances and other goods there. I watched as my uncle and his family fought valiantly to maintain their local business in the face of that rising competition, and finally succumbed to opening on Sunday rather than declare bankruptcy. By then many of the local customers who had sustained them for generations had already abandoned them. When I left at 17 it was not so, and when I came back to visit at 27 it was.

It was not long before more and more establishments were open on Sunday, and soon the draw of restaurants adopting the trend began to invade the community of believers. It was not uncommon for many to make going out for lunch after attending church services, a regular – if not weekly – event. Failing also to heed the biblical strictures against requiring the poor and the stranger to work on the Sabbath, many church goers got a reputation for callous and ungenerous behavior toward those waiting upon them. In time it was soon not uncommon for those who served tables on Sunday to dislike the church goers who came, so many of them seemed to not even notice them. And their tips were so miserly.

While the day of rest became a day of shopping and eating out, another trend was rising, and that was Sunday sports for teenagers. The strange pressure to have their children participate in competitive athletic competitions, and the quest for them to excel, seemed more and more to alter Sunday patterns. Sporting event schedules, even those only for practice, began to preempt the historic pattern of Sunday obligation. And again, Christian people, or so professed, yielded to the pressure of the world. Then clergy and religious institutions caved. More and more decisions were being made by the churches to accommodate the new social patterns, even though directly contrary to God’s Word.

 

Next Week: Modern Marriage & Divorce

 Making a Lie Acceptable      (by Jon Shuler​​)

The most destructive thing it is possible to do to a believer is to make them doubt. It is a form of “making one of these little ones stumble” that Jesus spoke so strongly against. Yet this is what began to happen to Christian leaders with great speed in the twentieth century. First among educated elites, then in time at some of the academically rigorous seminaries, then at almost all of them, then in the churches. And as we said last week, it began by undermining the confidence of simple believers in the historicity of Genesis, but it ended with the rejection of much of the New Testament.

From the earliest of records, the best biblical commentators had distinguished between different literary types in the Holy Scriptures. It was not necessary to hold all of them to a “literal test,” but it was believed that all of them were given to God’s People by his divine sovereignty. They were “written for our learning,” they could “not be broken,” and they were God’s Word. For all Christians the first phrase of Genesis, “In the beginning God created,” was enfolded in the first phrase of John, “In the beginning was the Word.”

There was only one way for the creature to know the mind of God, and that was if the Creator spoke. To believe the Scriptures were true was an article of faith.

When widespread criticism of the historicity of the Pentateuch had prevailed, by the mid 1930’s, it was not long before the same critique was leveled at parts of the Gospels, but especially at the Apostle Paul. Perceived differences in grammar and style were said to be evidence that a “lover of Paul” had written some of the letters attributed to him. This was especially thought to be so of the Pastoral Letters (I & II Timothy, Titus) and Ephesians. What was widely argued was the theory that “pseudonymous authorship” was common in the early centuries, so it was to be expected in the church. Unfortunately, in time, this was to make a lie acceptable.

From the beginning of God’s call to Israel, to lie was considered to violate one of the most sacred of trusts. To lie, to be a false witness, was to violate the Moral Law of God.

Among the followers of Jesus his teaching that Satan is the “Father of lies,” was at the heart of the life of the community. From the earliest of times Paul was aware that there were liars among the churches, and that the godly should be very careful to distinguish between what was true and what was false. To claim that a “lover of Paul” would violate so central a doctrine of the one who had discipled him, and pretend to write in his name, would have been contrary to all that true believers held dear. To falsely write in Paul’s name was to lie. The church believed that all Paul’s letters were genuine and true.

Those who reject the canonical writings of Paul place themselves against “the apostle’s teaching,” and have departed from the faith of the Christian Church by doing so. They have been led to doubt by the Enemy. The true church believes the Holy Spirit guided the writers and the selection. The faithful echo their Lord when tempted: “It is written.”

Those leaders, and churches, that have departed from this path must repent.

 

Next Week: Rejecting the Sabbath.

 Is That All?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

I look back now and realize that in the 1950s there began to be a specific and increasing drift away from clear truths of Holy Scripture in much of the Anglican world. Some of these steps seemed to be rather small at the time, but they gradually instilled an attitude that made breaking the scriptures more and more easy to do. Even among ordained leaders. Yet our Lord Jesus clearly taught it was not to be done!

The pathway to this sin was laid down in the nineteenth century, when many faithful people and leaders were not helped to understand the difference between believing the Holy Scriptures and making every passage of equivalent value or purpose. Much that has been written for our learning is not to be imitated, but the truth is to be learned from it all. It is one thing to know what Judas Iscariot did, it is another thing entirely to imitate him. It is one thing to balance the teaching of one place in the light of another, but an all together different matter to assert that something is untrue.

From at least the early second century, the faith of the church was summed up in the creeds in order to help all who would follow Christ Jesus to know the central truths of the gospel. They did not replace the Holy Scriptures, but they did give clarity and focus to them. In the Western Church the first of these came to be called the Apostle’s Creed, and it was considered the absolute minimum for sustaining the journey of faith. Every affirmation in that creed was based on the truth revealed in the Holy Scripture. It was to point the faithful to the truth of God’s Word. And his Word was trustworthy and true.

In addition, Sunday by Sunday, the people of God heard the Holy Scriptures read, and it was the duty of the ministers of the church to expound them for the church. To depart from them was unthinkable, and whenever it happened ministers were corrected, disciplined, and if necessary removed. Believing the Holy Scriptures were true and authoritative was a matter of faith, and no one dared to argue otherwise.

All this changed in many of the historic churches of America after WWII. Nowhere more rapidly than in the Episcopal Church.

Nothing stands out more in my memory than the gradual undermining of the Apostle Paul, and the authority of his writings for Christian believers. For all the history of the church it was believed that he had been appointed by Almighty God to be a preacher and teacher of the Gentiles. He was raised up to speak to the entire non-Jewish world. His doctrine was not “his” doctrine, but the teaching of Jesus. His guidance was not “made up” but given by the Holy Spirit to the whole church. It was gospel.

The first step was to dispute his clear teaching about the Cross, then about sexual morality, and then about gender roles. Grievously, seventy-five years later, now to hold to the truth of the Holy Scripture in these and many other matters is to be spoken against and marginalized, even in churches that think themselves “orthodox.”

 

Next Week: Making a Lie Acceptable.

 Specifics?    (by Jon Shuler​​)

Last week I asserted that the Word of God was silenced in the church in the Twentieth Century, and that all of us who were part of the leadership in those days are culpable. We have sinned and must repent. But what are some of the specifics? It has taken me many years to clarify my answers to such a question. Almost all of them depend upon understanding changes made in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. In that time major parts of the church and her leadership began to disbelieve that the Holy Scriptures are true in what they teach.

There would have been much dispute if this assertion had been made among the faithful at the time, however. Principally because of the beauty and orthodoxy of the church’s historic liturgy, many who were believers did not notice. They still believed the gospel, believed the Creeds, had a life of prayer and devotion, and were regular in their Sunday attendance at worship. But several things were converging to undermine them.

First was the cultural tide that was turning against Protestantism as historically understood. Romanticism was gaining ground in almost every area of human endeavor, and the church was no exception. An interest in the aesthetics of the Middle Ages in church architecture and liturgy was one expression of this trend. The heightened concern for the externals of worship changed the Sunday patterns in parish after parish, and the role of the ordained ministers of the church was widely transformed. Men went from being thought “pastors of souls” to “priests of the church.” Men called to be shepherds of souls became clerical professionals.

Concurrent with these trends was an elevation of the importance of Holy Eucharist as the central act of the church at worship. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, when a full range of Holy Scriptures would be read aloud, largely disappeared. When the Holy Communion is central, priestly ministry is elevated. Sermons suffered, and biblical literacy plummeted. Being one of “the set apart ones” became central.

But a further change was even more destructive. There was a turn away from the Reformed Theology that had characterized the English Reformation, and that had shaped the founding and growth of the Episcopal Church in this land. Gradually a modified Catholic sacramental theology began to become supreme. This was most especially noticeable as Infant Baptism became detached from the rite of Confirmation. If (as would finally be enshrined in the BCP of 1979), “baptism is full inclusion in the church” there is no reason for Confirmation. Without effective confirmation, more and more men in the church are not true believers. Faith alone began to die.

By the 1950’s most of the clergy of the Episcopal Church were going along with these changes. They broke the Word of God by doing so. And they gave a false model of leadership to the generation that came after them.

 

 

Next Week: Is That All?

 How Have We Sinned?    (by Jon Shuler​​)

I long ago learned that nobody looks forward to being confronted with their sin. Except for the grace of God going before them, no-one turns to the Lord in repentance and true faith. What is true for individuals is even more true for institutions. Because they are made up of fallen human beings, they generally manifest all the same sins seen in the human family. They are prideful, arrogant, self-serving, greedy, hurtful to the weak, covetous, family destroyers, amoral if not immoral, and deceitful. Then there is the church.

Of course the church is supposed to be different. In its very nature in the sight of God it is of course holy. Sunday by Sunday those who recite the creed say they believe her to be so. Theologically, as set apart for God, that is true. But institutionally, as an organization, she is a fallen creature. She is only ever able to be and do what is right momentarily, and always by God’s grace. At times the favor of God’s blessing is manifest and lasts for a long season, but sometimes decades – even centuries – go by with very little evidence that the church is any different than the world. Then God’s judgment falls.

If, as I believe, the Church Universal has entered a time of reformation, the only way she can receive what God has for her is first to recognize that she has come under judgment. Reformation does not begin when things are going well, but when they have gone badly wrong. If the congregations and communities we live in are heading down destructive roads, it is because the voice of those who know better has been silenced. Most particularly, the Word of God has been silenced. And many of us, if not all, are guilty.

The responsibility of the church is to speak the truth of the Word of God. It is why her minsters were first set apart. Their shepherding function was secondary from the beginning. It would be better to say their shepherding function was determined by the fidelity of their speaking the truth of God’s Word. It is in this area, most especially, that the community of God’s people has sinned. We have turned from the truth of God’s Word. But how did this happen in a community constituted in and on that Word?

For much of my adult life I have pondered that question. How can things be as they are in the church if we are called to follow Jesus and his teaching? How can things be as they are if we are submitted to Christ? How can things be as they are if we are abiding in the words of Jesus? If we are devoted to the apostle’s teaching?

It has become more and more clear to me that the answers to those last four questions are indeed one. The church has abandoned fidelity to the Word of God. And the set apart ordained leaders of the church have led the way. The deconstruction began in the secular academy, spread to the theological seminaries, took over critical institutional leadership, globally and nationally, and then reached the local pulpits of this country.

 

Next Week: Specifics

When the Foundations are Destroyed    (by Jon Shuler​​)

History has been one of my great passions. Early in my ministry I did post graduate studies in Church History, imagining that I would one day teach that subject in an academic setting. That was never to be my principle vocation as God unfolded my life, but it has remained an interest to this day. Because of my general love of the subject I have always known how rapidly a culture or civilization could fall. I just never imagined I would live through such a cataclysm. In the year AD 2020 I now know that I am alive to see just such an event.

With ever increasing regularity the events of our day are showing that the historic American Culture, which was built upon Christian presuppositions, is unraveling. This decline is following the same trajectory already seen in Europe, but with a pace that is breathtaking. Things morally unimaginable just a few decades ago are now becoming not only normal but are increasingly demanded to be believed if one is to be included in the dominant society. The changes that are occurring in politics, law, education, economics, the military, and in the religious life of our country are sweeping away centuries of consensus. It seems that “the foundations are being destroyed.” Yet as  distressing as those changes are to a traditional believing Christian, the even more pressing concern must now be, “what can the righteous do?” This question must be answered.

When King David penned Psalm 11, what was he facing? What led him to think that the very foundations were being destroyed? We do not know with any certainty, but we do know what the Spirit of God spoke into his heart. There was not a crisis from God’s point of view! He was still reigning! His righteousness and truth were not effected by the turmoil among his people. He remained their only refuge. This is still so today, and it must be the very first truth we speak to our souls. God is in charge, and he will never forsake those who are truly his.

That same truth must be embraced by the faithful church as well. It is not just an individual truth, it is also a corporate reality. We trust in the living God alone. And because the faithful people of God are submitted to God’s Word, we must turn to that source to find guidance for our own day. And when we do we are soon face to face with this truth: “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.”

When judgment falls on God’s people it is always because they have decided that they do not want what he has revealed. They have determined to go their own way. Biblical judgment can truly be described as God giving people what they want. And what they want, apart from his revealed truth, will lead to chaos, destruction, and death. It is only a matter of time. When a blessed nation honors and worships the one true and living God, his grace upholds and sustains them. When the majority of its leaders and people do not do so, judgment falls. The terrible truth is that it is the believers of this nation who must first repent. We have not lived nor shared the gospel faithfully with our nation.

 

Next Week: How Have We Sinned?

On to Disciple-making University   (by Jon Shuler​​)

The Lord’s ways are mysterious. The sabbatical was only days old when the bishop with authority over me asked that I take up the Rectorship of a large parish that had lost its rector. I did not want to do it. The memory of my struggles in the last large parish and the desire I had to stay focused on new church planting work was uppermost in my mind. But prayer convinced my wife and I that we were to go. The leadership of the parish knew they were getting a missionary priest, not a pastoral one, but their need was acute, and they consented to the bishop’s wishes. The parish was averaging over five hundred on a Sunday, and they had had a succession of rectors who were theologically evangelical. The ground seemed to me ripe for bringing them to understand disciple-making discipleship, and disciple-making mission.

Five wonderful and fruitful years went by quickly. Changing the parish culture to a disciple-making one went slowly but steadily. My senior Associate was deeply committed to the principle, and he began to reshape many ministries to that biblical pattern. I was able to give attention to the global missions side of parish life. We reshaped our parish expectations for the missionaries supported by us, by making this question central: “Are you planting new Great Commission Congregations?” The leadership also embraced what had become the global church planting ministry of NAMS, at least so far as financial support was concerned. I concluded my season of ministry as agreed, and was delighted when they elected my young colleague to be their next rector.

During those years I had begun finally to realize how unhurried must be the ministry of making new disciples. A wise and loving older pastor in Colorado had become my discipling mentor, and we talked for an hour by phone each week. I was steadily applying the learning I was receiving from him to my work with men and women in the parish and the NAMS Community. Our new focus was beginning to reshape our global impact and our local one. At the center of the NAMS ministry was the continuing relationship with younger men that I had been discipling for many years, and soon it began to be very clear that it was time for them to take over the global work. At the end of five years Cynthia and I returned to the coastal town in South Carolina  where we had lived twelve years earlier, and a wonderful new phase of learning ensued.

My priestly ministry was not often needed in the principle parish, but the opportunity to disciple men was everywhere. With a dear friend who also was passionate about disciple-making, a new chapter unfolded. Soon I was working with several dozen men who wanted to learn to be disciple-making men, developing a regular retreat ministry associated with that effort, and helping to start a once a year ecumenical disciple-making gathering. I felt as though I was finally understanding the basics of being a disciple-making man, not as a teacher but as a doer. I seemed at long last to be about to graduate from my education begun in 1988. I could truly say that disciple-making had become my life, from which there would ever be a retirement.

 

 Next Week: When the Foundations are Destroyed.

A Rector is Sent to Boarding School   (by Jon Shuler​​)

My thinking went like this. We had made great progress in activating a large number of our people, and it was very gratifying. But in the larger community of the diocese, the region, and the country, there seemed to me to be a great shortage of similar work. Perhaps the parish should take up the work of planting new congregations as well?

I had first helped plant a new Anglican congregation as a young Curate, and had repeatedly spoken of that need and encouraged it through diocesan machinery. Now I started to speak of new work in our own city, and our own Metro Region with our parish as the initiator. The idea was almost universally unwelcome. No one could imagine themselves leaving the Ascension for a new work. I was discouraged, but had no thought of going anywhere. I would continue my work as Rector and build on the foundation we had pioneered. Then I was sent out. I still had much to learn.

For twenty years I had carried a “word” spoken into my spirit in 1973. “There needs to be an Anglican Order of Church Planters.” Every attempt I had made to discuss or act on it had faltered. Now I began to pray for the Lord to help me find the man who could do it. I was imagining hiring him onto my staff, and making the parish the center of the work. In the midst of this season events swept over me that made it clear that I was to do the work, and that remaining Rector would be impossible. The North American Missionary Society (NAMS) was born. I sincerely believed that I could hand the work of the parish off to another, and begin the work from Knoxville, but it was not to be.

Nonetheless, the work began in 1993 with the stated purpose of planting new Great Commission Congregations in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition. I brought all that I had learned about church growth and disciple-making to the effort, and soon NAMS was involved in helping to plant new churches all over North America. Everything I said or wrote emphasized “disciple-making discipleship” and “churches planting churches,“ but once again I did not understand the power of culture. What bishops and diocese wanted, and their people, was one more parish like they already knew. We taught multiplication, but what we got was serial church planting, one by one, with great effort and only by raising large resources.

Anglicans teach that where the gospel is preached and the sacraments duly administered the church is present. But I was determined that passing the Lord’s life  along to others was also necessary. The number of new congregations we were able to assist grew and grew, until by 2006 we could number over 200 new works NAMS had assisted. But were they multiplying? Then I took a much needed sabbatical.

I prayed over our data, while away, and it was clear that we had managed to assist only a tiny handful of churches that had themselves helped to start another. Painfully I realized that once again I had taught the principle of replication. As I should have known by then, teaching it does not make it happen. But I still did fully understand.

 

Next Week: On to Disciple-making University

A Rector Goes to Junior High School   (by Jon Shuler​​)

What was I doing wrong? I had nearly forty men and women serving faithfully in the new 2:42 Ministry. Could we not just keep growing the number of leaders and groups year by year in the same way we had started? I thought not, because that was taking all the energy of the paid staff. I wanted to see self replicating groups, and would not rest until we did. And so I taught more and more passionately. It was probably then that the saying began to circulate: “We liked Fr. Shuler when he first came, but now he has become a Baptist.” Of course I did not see it. I was trying harder and harder to get the results I believed God wanted, but did not understand that I had the perfect system to get the results I was getting. And I was building deep resistance in some quarters of the parish, a fact that would only become clear some years later.

What we did see, that is the staff and clergy, was that the new 2:42 Ministry was contributing to a revitalization in the parish that was encouraging to us all. We embarked on a plan to gradually bring the principles we were learning into every preexisting ministry. We wanted the youth leaders to disciple new youth leaders, the nursery team to disciple new nursery workers, the children’s ministry leaders to disciple new children’s ministry leaders, and so on. Soon the pattern began to emerge that if you were part of a ministry, you had a monthly meeting to grow in your understanding of how to multiply that ministry. Disciple-making discipleship was translated into leader-making leadership.

For a time we saw much new fruit. Some of the most effective of the leaders began to take up positions in older ministries. They brought with them the things they were learning in the monthly meetings of what we were calling the 2:42 Community. But there were pockets of resistance that could not be denied. The choral tradition of the parish was impervious to change. Its patterns were not going to change without blood on the floor. So too those of the Altar and Flower Guilds. One of the amusing memories I now have comes from the time I tried to bring the Altar Guild into the new reality.

I asked if I could present my ideas to their monthly meeting, and was warmly invited. Tea and cookies were served, and polite listeners indulged the rector. I asked again, and again the reception was polite. I then asked for the third visit, which once again went well on the surface. At the conclusion of that gathering the leader asked to speak with me in my office. When we had been seated this is what she said: “Fr Shuler you know we love you, but if you keep messing with the Altar Guild we will have to find a new rector.” I decided to leave well enough alone.

For five years trying to reshape an existing large parish into a disciple-making parish taught me much. The memory of the growth that we had experienced, and the faithfulness of the wonderful staff, remains a source of thanksgiving to this day. We saw many lives changed. But I was increasingly thinking secretly that leading such a parish transition was not satisfying the another part of my calling. How were we to be more effective in spreading the kingdom? We needed to plant new churches.

 

Next Week: A Rector is Sent to Boarding School

A Rector Goes Back to Elementary School      (by Jon Shuler​​)

It is one thing to learn a new thing, it is another thing altogether to change a behavior learned over a lifetime. I established the right purpose for the new ministry, I have no doubt, and set worthy standards and goals. But I had still to realize that to make a disciple means more than being a teacher. It means someone learns to imitate you as a disciple-maker. We created a wonderful profusion of little groups that largely imitated the life of the very system I was trying to escape from. How was this so?

The groups almost to a fault became microcosms of the bigger parish. I hoped for disciple-making small groups but we developed small fellowship and learning groups. This was not intentional, so how did this happen? I knew the new leaders and their apprentices needed to be coached into new behaviors, so I established another class! Once a month I met with all the leaders, and after songs of praise and prayer I taught a lesson focused on some skill necessary to be a good group leader. We then broke them into small “huddles” to discuss that week’s lesson and any other matter arising from the past month’s ministry in their groups. At first we developed another night for Apprentice Leaders to meet, but we soon were asked to fold them into the Leader’s night , and so we did. It felt so good to the rector to have multiple dozens of men and women coming on a Monday night and leading small groups. I did not see what was happening.

There is no way that I would wish to undo much of what transpired over the next several years. This new addition to parish life became the most dynamic and exciting ministry opportunity for our people. Good and godly activities sprouted everywhere for a season. But what I did not see, or understand, was that the small groups were becoming as limited in their understanding of disciple-making as the whole church had been. Leaders who excelled in the work established little groups who looked forward to their leading and teaching. They brought what I taught monthly to their groups, and they became  versions of the old saw: “We four and no more.” They did not multiply. They became “teaching and fellowship” gatherings, not kingdom spreading groups. And the reason was the limited understanding of the rector.

The content of my teaching was on target, but my understanding of the difference between teaching and training was still lacking. People who are trained begin to exercise the new behaviors, but those who are only taught become eager for more teaching. I did not see that there is no shortcut to making a disciple-making disciple. It requires time and persistence, and always presupposes a person wanting to learn the new behavior alongside someone who already is living it. Someone wanting to be a doer and not a hearer only, must spend time with someone who already is. We found it easy to gather those who would read another book, attend another fellowship meeting, even engage a new ministry task, but not learning to be disciple-making disciples. And why? The students become like the teacher.

 

Next Week: A Rector Goes to Junior High School