Iatrogenics and the morality of the COVID-19 Lock-down

I was recently introduced to a new medical term while listening to a recording of Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile. In this book he engages with the medical system and science at various points. I am engaging with what Taleb writes as someone with a BA and an MDiv.

“Iatrogenic” is something relating to illness caused by medical examination or treatment. Iatrogenics is when a treatment causes more harm than benefit. After hearing more about “Iatrogenics,” the old hyppocratic oath to do no harm is not as black and white as it immediately appears to be.

Many might argue for the current lock-down on the basis of the public safety. But it does not appear to me that things are that black and white. Especially in light of iatrogenics.

For example, many patients are not warned of the side-affects of various drugs and prescriptions. If you listen to this interview of Jordan Peterson by his daughter Mikhaila, you will hear his experience with an “iatrogenic result from his treatment.” His account has brought many other cases to public attention. I have talked to various people who have taken certain antidepressants and they are not really sure whether these meds have caused more harm than good. I am not arguing against them. I am just recognizing that there are harmful side-effects.

Here I speak of side-effects whether intended or unintended. I prefer to think that they are unintended, but we must never undermine the nature of sin. I haven’t even addressed the clear and direct harm that doctors are willing to do to people through abortion, doctor assisted suicide and euthanasia. I think some medical professionals are confused about the nature of the hyppocratic oath they took… We live in a culture of death. But I digress…

All of this lead me to reflect more on COVID-19. Recently, some Christians have popped up out of the wood-work to claim the “pro-life position” in the COVID-19 debates. They may have been barely involved in the pro-life movement. But apparently the science proves that many Christians are unloving and even murderous if they push back against COVID restrictions. But these arguments enter into a murky territory of subjectivity and trade-offs which could potentially prove to be very immoral.

Questions abound. I have written publicly on the issue of the “side-effects” of our response to COVID-19. These include mental illness, social division, and economic devastation for small businesses.

My debate with “the science” is not whether every individual scientist and/or medical professional sees a man or a woman simply as a physical being. But our response has not taken into consideration the fact that sin is in the medical system. Our response has not taken into consideration the spiritual side to this situation. For years we have been fighting for the lives of the unborn and the elderly. All of a sudden with COVID our medical system has become saintly?

Many Christian counselors these days are taking a holistic approach to counselling. They are encouraging people to take health measures and go to doctors within a framework of Biblical counseling. I believe and argue that this is an excellent thing to do. Reformed Christians believe that men and women are created with both a body and a soul, both of which have been affected by the consequences of Adam’s sin. They are inter-connected. It should not exclude what I call nouthetic counseling, which deals with the root issues of sin, whether the individual has committed it or it has been done to the individual.

Our medical system does not appear to take this holistic approach. And even denies the spiritual aspect of these matters. At least in the over-arching system. There are definitely those who push against the pressure towards scientific consensus. Encouraging parents to cover their faces in front of their kids, and encouraging “physical distancing” in the schools, does not take into account many different human needs. Even Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto argued against that. Kudos to them. If you look at psychiatry and similar lines of study, many are not allowed to recognize a spiritual element. Doctors have been kicked out for helping patients in the name of Christ. Read “Psychobabble” by Dr. Richard Ganz.

Vaccines themselves (which I neither promote nor discourage) may have iatrogenic effects. A healthy skepticism is… healthy. Vaccine injury is not an uncommon circumstance. While Quebec is the only province in Canada with a system for compensation for vaccine injury the States deals out millions a year in compensation. The connection between vaccines and big pharma as well as the fact that some vaccine-makers have no liability should be a matter of concern or at least serious questioning. Yes, certain diseases have been eliminated and there appears to be a strong connection to vaccines. But how many kids have been killed or damaged by the cure? Again. This is where we get into thorny moral territory. Especially in the area of mandatory vaccinations.

If anyone wonders where I got this from. I recently read this in an article promoting vaccines: “At a population level, these rare risks are far outweighed by the benefits of the high uptake in the vaccination. However, this implies that, in rare instances, an individual will suffer from significant consequences for the benefit of others, and that such an event can be anticipated (expected, even), though not necessarily predicted at the individual level.”

The matter of iatrogenics should not be lightly dismissed in any situation. The history of medical theory has been a history of iatrogenics. I am the recipient of unknown substances and the subject of hypotheses that are still being tested. I should challenge these things holistically and think them through rationally. Above all, as a Christian, I am called to subject them to Biblical principle and reasoning.

How should Christians live and think in an era of medical and scientific power? I’m not telling you which side of a medical issue to take a stand on. But think about this. Modern intellectuals have dealt out a strong dose of skepticism with regards to the authority of Scripture. But where does their authority come from? Apart from the revelation of God which brings us not only to see the appearances, but also what lies behind the appearances, will they promote less than moral solutions to the thorny ethical issues of the day? Christians need to seek ethical answers from the Word of God.

Conversations and discussions are good and helpful in society and it is fine for people to lie on the opposite sides of an issue. But don’t buy into the philosophy that science is neutral. It also must be tested with Biblical ethics. Taleb made this point well.

Listen to Taleb’s book Antifragile. Test every spirit. Read the Scriptures. Be humble. Seek the truth.

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

Is Christianity Revolutionary?

In the early to mid-1900s many theologians wrestled with the revolutionary spirits of the age. Especially in a society that has some lingering influence of Christianity, it seems explicable that those who have been jaded and hurt by the disobedience/unbelief of Christians, and above all those who hate what God wants for their lives, would want to throw off that influence.

I recently wrote an article on the revolutions of 2020. I wrote this drawing on ideas from the Bible, but also the wording of mid-century theologians: “We are not revolutionaries. We are living in a time where ungodly revolutionaries are overthrowing all semblance of order and godliness. The Church does not grow by revolution but by regeneration.”

Revolution is a forcible overthrow of a social order or government in favor of a new system. If we definite revolution in this worldly or naturalistic sense, it is something then that is of this world and not of God, as we find the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men in the Gospels. Defined in this sense, it is very much of this world.

And yet, some have argued that Christianity is indeed in a sense revolutionary. The Swiss theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote this: “One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative. Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary.” I don’t believe that he meant this in the “of this world” sense of the word.

I would describe Christianity as anti-revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word. The Psalmist describes the revolution in Psalm 2 as a vain conspiracy/plot and a wild rage against the Lord and against His Anointed. This revolution seeks to burst the bonds of the Lord apart and cast away His cords. It seeks to break the yoke of Jesus Christ which is easy and light in comparison with the empires of this world.

We should remember that there are two types of revolution. The first is men who rebel against God’s gracious rule and authority (a deep rage that permeates the peoples of the earth). The second is men who rebel against the kingdoms of this world. As the church brings the gospel to the ends of the earth, we should remember that the two are distinct but not divided.

So what about my distinction between revolution and regeneration?

Revolution seeks to re-make the externals of a society. Government shifts from elected officials to health officers. It burns buildings and builds new ones. It puts new graffiti over old paint. But like a graveyard, no matter how much you water the grass and polish the tombstones, you cannot change the fact that it is a graveyard. There are dead bones underneath.

Regeneration seeks to re-make the internal life of men and women. No man can do this. Only God can do this. God uses the courage of His people to speak the truth, to preach the gospel, to live out the change that He has worked in them to spread this regeneration. First and foremost, He does this through His Son Jesus Christ who took the anti-revolutionary route of dying on a cross, before He ascended into heaven over all principalities and powers. This is what it means to be born of God. The world changes not by revolution, but by rebirth.

This is not to deny that this internal change will reveal itself in external action. The two are inseparable. A world leader who has been regenerated by the power of God will also seek to live and act by the power of God. And this really is revolutionary in the sense it it goes against the grain of the sinfulness of this world. What is of God is sent on mission in this world with the confession that Jesus is Lord.

So what? The church will always have to wrestle with the revolutionary spirits of the age and test those spirits under the light of the Word of God. The church must lift the cross above the smoke and flames of every new revolution and point to the kingdom that is from God and of God. Those who have been made new by the power of God, must continue to take responsibility under the Lordship of Christ to live in a way that does not perpetuate wicked revolutions, but the renewing and redeeming power of the Word of God, which drives us to the reality of the cross and resurrection. This includes calling the wicked to repent. Not based on the latest social theory. Not based on their status or academic training. But based on the Word of God.

The Apostle Peter captured the thrilling nature of this struggle for freedom that comes through the gospel and the Word of God. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” (I Peter 2:15-16)

Sermon on Infant Baptism

Scripture Readings: Matt. 19:13-15, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:7-14; Catechism reading: LD 27 (Q&A 74);

Congregation of Jesus Christ. I want to begin with a song from a French Reformed Liturgy: “For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry, ‘It is finished!’ For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there he intercedes — for you, little child, even though you do not know it. But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true. ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’”

So why would you baptize your children? I can think of many reasons not to that I have heard from Baptist brothers and sisters. Notice that we recognize Baptists as brothers and sisters when there is a love for Christ and His Word and because of what Christ has objectively signed and sealed to them in their baptism. But I can think of a couple questions of concern from our Christian family in other congregations. What if the children turn away from the Lord when they grow up? Shouldn’t they make a decision for themselves? Isn’t the covenant in the New Testament only applied to adults? Why do we see no explicit reference to baby baptism in the New Testament? 

I will answer these questions from the Word of God as we look at the teaching of Q&A 74. The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism respond to similar questions at the time of the Reformation. Many Protestants ran so far away from the Roman Catholic Church that they also rejected infant baptism along with real errors. As with every other doctrine, you are called to go back to the Word of God and look at the teaching in the Holy Bible. 

Hear the teaching of the Word of God, summarized under this theme: The children of believers should also be baptized.

  1. As members in the congregation (Q&A 74a, Matt. 19:13-15)
  2. As recipients of the promise (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:9-14)
  3. As marked by the covenant sign (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:9-14)
  1. As members of the congregation (Q&A 74a, Matt. 19:13-15)

We first read: “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation.” I will focus more on this concept of covenant in the 3rd point. For now, remember that God promised Abraham all the way back in Genesis 17:7 that He would make a covenant with Abraham and his children. This covenant is not cancelled in the New Testament. In fact. In Acts 2:38-39 the Apostle Peter applies the covenant promise to you and to your children. But what does it mean that infants are part of God’s congregation?

The congregation is a New Testament word that refers to the assembly of the believers in a given location. A congregation is simply those who are gathered together to worship God and to fellowship together as the Body of Christ. In Joel 2:15-16 when the prophet Joel calls on the people of God to gather for a solemn assembly, he includes the nursing infant in this assembly. When the Apostle Paul writes a letter to the congregation in Ephesus, he addresses the children along with the rest of the congregation in Ephesians 6:1. He does not address the children as unbelievers, but calls on them to obey their parents in the Lord. Your children receive the same comforts and warnings as you do. The entire congregation is called away from an inclination to unbelief towards a love and delight in the promises that are found in Jesus Christ

In Matthew 19:13-15, a number of children are brought to Jesus. This is a passive verb. This means that these children did not necessarily come out of their own desire. They were brought. The disciples thought that Jesus should only hang out with and minister to adults. But Jesus commanded them to let the little children come. In other passages we read that Jesus rebuked the disciples. But what is His reason for letting them come? There is a recognition that even adults have much to learn from the faith of little children. Parents, you have much to learn from the faith of the little ones. I have much to learn as well. To separate the children from the congregation then is opposed to the witness of the Bible. 

Children. This is a high privilege and honor for you. Jesus does not withhold His blessing and His love from you just because you haven’t gone through senior catechism class. Yes. You must keep on learning and growing. The Christian life is one of growth in heart, soul, mind, and strength as you strive to love God. When you come to church with your parents on Sunday, Jesus also comes to you in His love and with His blessing. He calls you to repent of your sins and to trust in Him for the forgiveness of your sins. You have a high privilege and standing within this congregation of the United Reformed Church of PEI.

And so we see that the children of believers should also be baptized:

  1. As recipients of the promise (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:7)

“Through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults.” What is this promise? In the Old Testament this promise is made with Abraham in Gen. 17:7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” In the New Testament this promise is clearly revealed that God binds Himself to you His people in Jesus Christ. If you reject this promise there is punishment. If you receive this promise by faith in Jesus Christ, there is joy and peace. Jesus Himself is the source of life. He is the source of new life. Children, know that Jesus comes to you with this new life! You also must believe that this promise is truly yours!

You may know that excitement when your parents give you a gift on your birthday or at Christmas time. How much greater is the gift of the promise that you are given in your baptism! What an excellent gift to receive redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit. Faith is impossible in and of yourselves and so you need the Holy Spirit! What an excellent promise that even the tiny infant, the 3 year old girl, the 6 year old boy, the 27 year old pastor, the 50 year old mother, the 80 year old grandfather can know this free gift of grace at the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ! It is this joy in Christ and love for Christ that I desire to see as your pastor. There is no greater gift for any pastor or elder or parent than seeing that love for Jesus Christ. There is no other way to experience that than through the power of the Holy Spirit in your lives. 

The Apostle Peter calls out to the crowds in Acts 2:37-41 to repent and be baptized. He follows this by saying that the promise is to you and to your children. There is no fundamental divide or change between the way that God works through families in the Old Testament as compared to the New Testament. No, there is no longer blood sacrifice, or the cutting away of the foreskin. Christ has put away the spiritual training wheels that you see in the Old Testament. The scaffolding has been pulled away. God continues to communicate the good news from generation to generation just as He continues to communicate this good news through the church to those who still remain outside the congregation, living in unbelief. The Church is always sharing the gospel with those outside and passing on the gospel to the next generation.

  1. As marked by the covenant sign (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:9-14)

“Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.” 

In the Old Testament, the male sons of believers would have their foreskins removed on the 8th day after birth as a sign of God’s covenant. In the New Testament, even though that practice may have continued in Jewish communities or for medical reasons, it is no longer required as a religious symbol. Instead, baptism is the sign and seal of those who had been incorporated into God’s covenant and congregation. This is why you see the command to be baptized. This is why the Apostle Paul replaces the sign of circumcision with the sign of baptism in Colossians 2. 

Have you ever found it strange that when the Apostles went around preaching and teaching and someone believed, the entire family would then be baptized? While there are other examples, I am thinking in particular of the Philippian Jailer in Acts 16:25-40. A massive earthquake hits the prison, opening the cells. All the prisoners and Paul and Silas remain in the prison. When the jailer takes the sword to kill himself, Paul calls out to stop him. Paul and Silas are still in the prison cell waiting for him when he runs in, brings them out and asks what he must do to be saved. They respond and say: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” He teaches them and then baptizes the entire family. The Philippian Jailer believes and then God makes a covenant with his family. That sounds a lot like the history of Abraham, right? Abraham believes and then God makes a covenant with his entire family. 

I have witnessed a number of family baptisms. It might be a mother and her children. It might be a husband and wife and their children. It might be a Christian couple who realize later in life that God’s covenant sign should also be applied to their children. Abraham believed and his children were circumcised. The Philippian Jailer believed and his family was baptized. 

What if a child rejects the gospel later in life? Regardless of what position a congregation has on the baptism of infants, every church has members that walk away from the Lord and reject the promises that are signed and sealed in their baptism. Baptism comes with great warnings. Pastors must preach these warnings in baptism along with the comforts. These warnings accompany a call to return to the peace and joy that can be found in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. 

Congregation (and this address includes the little children), God teaches you by your baptism that the blood and Spirit of Christ wash away your sins just as water removes dirt from the body. God assures you by this divine pledge and sign that you are truly washed of your sins spiritually as your bodies are washed with water physically. You need both Christ’s blood and Spirit. You need Christ’s blood to be forgiven of your sins. You need the Holy Spirit to fight sin until you die and you go to be with the Lord. Look to Jesus Christ and His Spirit. This is where your baptism is pointing you. 

You may run into someone who asks you why this congregation baptizes babies. You may wonder yourself. It can be good and healthy to analyze teachings and ask questions. There are three main reasons. (1) infants as well as their parents are part of God’s covenant and congregation; (2) they also receive the promise of the Christ’s blood and Spirit; (3) This was signed in the OT by circumcision and by baptism in the NT. I have always found Jesus’ love for the little children as such an exquisite expression of His love for me! He even takes the little children into His arms and blesses them. And so children remember this. Your baptism is a sign of God’s love for you in Jesus. Your baptism is a sign of God’s loving power. Even though you are so helpless, even though you are unable to deliver yourself, yet He can deliver you from your sins. You are called to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

Sermon on Romans 12:14-13:10 and Belgic Confession Article 36

Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ. You might be able to imagine a discussion about civil authority. One person states that we must obey the civil authority and honor the king and that person may cite Romans 13 and I Peter 2. The next person tells you that you must obey God and not man and will cite Acts 5:29. One person may point to the fine that Jason and the brothers paid for the Apostle Paul in Acts 17. Another person will point out that the Apostle Paul himself fled from the authorities by night, John the Baptist rebuked Herod, the High Priest rebuked Uzziah, and Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all obeyed God against the king’s orders. 

So who is right? Does the Bible hold contradictory commands? Often when we read through Scripture, we look at a text and we forget to consider the immediate context and the broader context of all of Scripture. In the original manuscripts of the Bible, there are no chapters and verses, which forces you to consider the overall argument that is being presented to you. I don’t plan to preach on the entire Bible in one sermon. I do want you to see that Romans 13 makes sense within and is not contradictory to other commands of Scripture. 

I declare the Word of the Lord to you under this theme: there is no authority except from God.

  1. In 1st century Rome (Rom. 13)
  2. In 16th century Europe (BC Art 36)
  3. In 21st century North America.
  1. In 1st century Rome (Rom. 13)

I must begin with two points. 

First, in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul is not specifically addressing democracy, tyranny, or monarchy. He is not addressing the Trump government, the Trudeau government, or the dictatorship in China. He does not have a specific political party in mind. The Apostle Paul’s first allegiance is to the Son of God, the son of King David, that is King Jesus (that is what we read about in Romans 1:1-5). His primary audience is a Christian community living in a world that is not Christian. Second, the Apostle Paul is addressing the matter of legal issues as they were arising among Christians. If you read 12:14-21 or 13:8-10, he is encouraging you to think about how you respond to injustice. Think about a contract that has been broken, for example. He does not forbid Christians from seeking justice. But he lays out ground rules for how to do that. He wants you to seek justice as Christians and not as rioters and rabble-rousers.

There are three matters that Paul addresses in Romans 13: (1) you; (2) God; (3) civil authority.

First he addresses Christian responsibility, you. If you read through vs. 14-21 of ch. 12, he calls you not to repay evil for evil, to show kindness to an enemy, to overcome evil with good. This passage begins with an emphasis on you. It begins with self-government under God. This is also emphasized throughout Romans 13:1-7. Look at vs. 3b: “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.” Look at vs. 4b: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Look at vs. 5: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” It is far better to endure wrong than to do wrong. If you join in on wrong-doing you may incur the wrath of the authority, but you will endure the wrath of God. He also promises in chapter 12:19 that if the approved authorities will not judge, then God Himself will one day judge. So the passage begins with this call to personal responsibility: do good.

Why do we do good? Well, because God is God. In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul addresses God’s authority over all authority. There is no authority on earth that we can consider without understanding God’s authority over all. You may know the famous quote from the Dutch Preacher and statesman Abraham Kuyper: ““There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” We just read in chapter 12, vs. 19, that you must not return evil for evil, because God will repay. God is God and you are not, so don’t play God. In fact, He has set court systems into place to respond to evil in the world. This is important. The court systems have been set in place by God. When the courts systems do wrong, they also are held accountable to God. You are still called to do good. When the court systems do not praise what is right, you are still called to do good.

What is the responsibility or role of the civil authority? God gives the civil authority the task to punish evil and reward good. God has ordained them, but He has also given them a specific task. You might even call it a narrow task. He has given the civil authority the sword to punish evil and reward good. Their duty is not to keep us safe or to take care of us. Their duty is to punish evil and reward good. What is important here is that they have a very specific task which is set within a very specific sphere of authority or responsibility. They do not have unlimited authority or authority with no boundaries at any time. Their authority stands under the authority of God Himself. They are called to act as servants of God, to respect Him.

How does this apply today? Look at the rioting throughout the States and in Toronto and Montreal over the death of George Floyd. A police officer acted unjustly in killing this man. Justice against this civil authority should have been pursued in the civil courts. Instead, large mobs returned evil for evil. They did this through the destruction of private property. In some cases, they killed people. The Apostle Paul knows the nature of sin. There is sin in the heart of the mob. There is sin in the Church. There is sin among civil authorities. He knows that Christians can also get caught up in the mobs of the day and join them in doing evil. And so you are called to take the appropriate routes of justice through the God-ordained means. 

The Apostle Paul does not approve of the unjust use of authority. He does not call for blind submission to abusive authority. The Apostle Paul also calls for the submission of a wife to her husband (Eph. 5), he calls for the submission of members to their church authorities (Heb. 13), he calls for the submission of the Christian to the civil authority (Rom. 13). But no authority is absolute. Husbands do not have unfettered authority. Pastors do not have unfettered authority. Politicians do not have unfettered authority. There is no authority except that which is from God. That means you are set free to do what is right and good and noble and lovely, not using your freedom to mask evil, but fearing God and serving God in all things.

Let us turn to our reading from the Belgic Confession:

  1. In 16th century Europe (BC Art 36)

Throughout history, Christians have struggled with how to live godly lives when the civil authority will punish them for doing good, when unjust authorities rise up and say that evil is good and that good is evil, when they enter into areas of life that do not belong to them. These are not easy answers. We live in a sinful world. Sin doesn’t make sense.

This is why this article of the Belgic Confession was written and edited and debated over. In the 1500s there was a group called the anabaptists who denied any civil authority whatsoever. Meanwhile the civil authorities were persecuting Reformed pastors and elders, by forbidding them to preach and teach and practice God’s Word. The Reformers did not want to deny that the authority had been ordained by God, but they knew that they had to obey Jesus Christ in their teaching and their practice as a church. These pastors and elders struggled in regions where oppressive governments ganged up with the Roman Catholic Church to attack them and restrict their activities. Many Dutch, Polish and French Christians fled to England where they were allowed to worship and shepherd their congregations with greater freedom. Their court systems would not defend what was good as the Apostle Paul teaches that they must in Romans 13. Many were forced to flee. Others were imprisoned. Others were killed.

Like Romans 13, the Belgic Confession focuses on three parties: (1) God; (2) you; (3) the courts.

Consider the sovereignty of God. God has ordained kings, princes, civil officers because of the depravity of the human race. God has placed the sword in the hands of the government. The goal is a society pleasing to God. The civil authority is placed in subjection to God’s Law. 

Consider your responsibility: all must be subject, pay taxes, honor and respect, pray for them. But notice that there is an important clause that is in here: be subject in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word. In other words, do good, that is, good as defined by the Holy Bible. 

And what about the civil courts? There have been some debates on this article over the last 500 years. These debates were not over the civil courts being given to little power or a narrow task, instead the article started off with too broad and too wide a mandate for the civil courts, giving them too much authority in the life of the Church. Their primary task is to punish evil and reward good. The glory of God is the goal of their work. It is also specifically stated that they should do this while completely refraining from every tendency to exercise absolute authority. Why is that added? The 1800s and 1900s saw the rise of a number of tyrants and Romans 13 teaches that there is no authority but from God.

Think about where both Romans 13 and the Belgic Confession directs your attention: to God. One reason that constitutions have bound western civil authorities is due to the influence of Romans 13 and the pattern of authority throughout Scripture. Secularism says that Christianity is one of many religions and this means that civil authority is ultimately a law in and of itself as society determines its own truth. The Holy Spirit says that there is no authority but from God and that all authority must stand under His truth. Husbands are not a law in and of themselves. Pastors and elders are not a law in and of themselves. Police officers and politicians are not a law in and of themselves. Jesus Christ is the one who has been given authority over all things. 

  1. In 21st Century North America

These are Biblical principles for how you can think about authority today. I am focusing on what Belgic Confession Article 36 focuses on: the sovereignty of God.

This is important. No human authority is absolute or unlimited. The authority of a father, a husband, a pastor, an elder, or a civil servant is not absolute or unlimited. 

There is only One whose authority is absolute and unlimited. This is the One who had the authority to lay down His life for His people and take it up again. This is the One who before ascending into heaven blessed His people and said to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20).

If He is the one with all authority, then all authority on earth flows from Him. The bureaucrats in the Roman Empire wouldn’t have agreed with the task and God-centered calling that the Apostle Paul laid out for the civil authority in Romans 13. They would have liked the part where Christians were called to submit, but not the part where they were held accountable to God. They thought that their authority flowed from the emperor. The Apostle Paul said that their authority flowed from God. 

There is no authority but from God. When you look at the entirety of Scripture, you will see that God has ordained civil courts, church courts, parental courts, etc. You will see that at many times in history Christians have spoken out for the vulnerable. Paul calls a wife to submit to her husband, but both Jesus and Paul made provision for a wife to appeal to the church and/or civil courts against a truly abusive husband. Paul calls Christians to submit to their leaders, but church leaders began to realize that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was making statements and wielding authority that did not belong to them, and so they appealed to Acts 6 and I Tim 3 for a consistorial form of church government. Some might argue that the very idea of binding a king to a constitution arose from a Christian framework. Sin exists wherever people are. And so it is the aim to hold all forms of government accountable and transparent to God.

You might be punished by the civil authority for doing what is good. You might be told not to do what is good. As Christians, you are permitted to protest and appeal decisions made by the civil authority in respectful and honorable ways. The Apostle Paul made full use of the Roman court system in order to bring the gospel right to Caesar. He could have been set free in Jerusalem, but he chose instead to appeal to Caesar, and to use his rights as a Roman citizen. This is part of living as a Christian citizen. That is what the courts have been ordained by God for. Christians are not allowed to join riots and destroy private property or human life or reputations by taking the law into their own hands. If those who commit such evil are not judged in the present day, they will receive the wrath of God on the last day. Unless they repent. But you are called to obey God in all things and do good.

Consider the glorious authority of Jesus Christ. There is no authority but from God and He has set His Son to reign. Jesus is not a tyrant. He is a king who is exalted to be king by serving and laying down His life. God showed His love for You and me in that while we were still rebel sinners, He sent Christ to die for us. Even though we rose up and militated against God’s good order, and made our own lives and society a complete mess, Jesus laid down His life on a cross. He did this so that we might be set free from that life of rebellion and sorrow. The reason that it is such a delight to call Jesus King, is because He is Savior and He has come to save His people from their sins and from the power of sin and slavery. He gives this freely. It is a free gospel. A free gospel makes you free men and women. When the Son sets you free you will be free indeed. Amen.

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A Few Questions for Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund recently wrote a response to John Mac Arthur which I want to interact with here. Without directly defending John Mac Arthur’s decision, I want to interact with Gavin Ortlund’s criteria for arguing that Mac Arthur was showing undue definance to Caesar.

He shares his criteria for critiquing John Mac Arthur’s decision to open church: (1) the importance of worship (Hebrews 10:25); (2) love for neighbor (Mark 12:31); (3) obedience to government (Romans 13:1-7); (4) maintaining a good witness (Colossians 4:5-6). I will interact with each one and ask the questions that I hope everyone is asking during these times.

(1) It seems that most evangelical and orthodox Christians are agreed on the basic command that we should be at least gathering to worship. Only 600 out of 10s of thousands of COVID-cases have been contracted in church in the States. In my own province not a single case has been contracted in worship, and there have been no hospitalizations. So it is reasonable to say that we should at least be worshiping. I would ask Gavin if this is worth the divisions that the State has made in only allowing sections of certain congregations to come to worship, and if the limitation on the work of the office-bearers of the church is justified?

(2) Love for neighbour is essentially living in obedience to Christ to the second table of the Law, at least under Mark 12:31. It would be more effective to place the 5th and 6th commandments in this position. And I would argue also the 4th, 8th and 9th. This is a very hard question to answer. There are the hard questions related to the spread COVID which might lead to more hospitalizations (it could also lead to a weakening of the virus). We have seen some hospitalizations, but locally and at large, we have also seen an increase in addiction, in erratic behavior, a drift in church attendance, mental illness, etc. Many had to put medical issues on hold and they got worse. On the East Coast, we are facing an economic crisis for small businesses. As a pastor my primary concern is what the mixture of fear and isolation is doing not only to spiritual health but also to mental and physical health. Many counselors recognize this connection between mind, body, and soul. My question is: are we really loving our neighbour?

(3) Romans 13 speaks of obedience to the civil authority. But it also speaks of the limitations and mandate of the civil authority. Many churches believe that the civil authority has gone past the boundaries of its God given role, partly related to what I point out in the other points. So my question here would be: what are the limitations on the role of the civil authority? I am sure he would hold an abusive husband in his church accountable, how do we hold the civil courts accountable?

4) Christian witness. Christian witness is based on whether or not we are really loving our neighbour. I wonder when we started defining Christian witness by what people say and not by what really is loving our neighbour. Peter doesn’t tell Christians that there will be no slander, but that they should keep doing good even if there is slander: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (I Pet 2:12) Just because many are angry at the church doesn’t mean that many more are not waiting for the church to take leadership. Love is not affirmation, and so witness is not based on affirming the sins and idols of the day. We first must ask the question: am I really loving my neighbour? Love of neighbour, of course, includes honoring God-ordained authority and protecting life. So my question here is: are we really being a good witness? And what exactly is a good witness?

There are many more questions to bring to bear on this discussion. What is a Biblical theory of church and state? What role does subjective and changing scientific theory play in the the decisions and laws of the civil authority? What role does the Old Testament Law play in this? As some have pointed out, there are Laws concerning pandemics in the OT. But how does the love that Christ and the disciples for the sick play into this? How does our misunderstandings of OT law play into this? Scientism and secularism are both matters that the church must contend with in our post-Christian culture.

We need Biblical answers. Not easy answers. Gavin Ortlund remarked that he is not an epidemiologist. I am not either. I know that there are disagreements among epidemiologists. But if we are allowed to make statements concerning a pandemic from God’s Word, then we are also allowed to ask questions. And those questions might lead to new statements.

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The Seminarian and the Local Church

Going to seminary can come with a number of challenges. Seminary is not for the faint of heart, at least, it shouldn’t be… There are spiritual challenges. There are intellectual challenges. There are financial challenges. There are questions about church order and how to seek a call. Trying to learn in an academic environment and in the environment of the church at the same time can also present challenges.

After four years of seminary and almost a year in the ministry, I am convinced of the centrality of the local church in the preparation of students for the ministry. This of course is stated while fully recognizing the importance of seminary education contrary to those who might minimize the intellectual aspect of preparing for ministry.

1. This is where authority over the student lies

In Article 21 of the church order of the URCNA, we make this statement: “The Consistory is the only assembly in the church(es) whose decisions possess direct authority within the congregation, since the Consistory receives its authority directly from Christ, and thereby is directly accountable to Christ.” This principle is laid out practically for the journey of the seminarian into the ministry in Articles 3-6 of the church order. One of the ways that the Church, in subjection to Christ, keeps out the thief and the robber is to ensure that a ministerial student enters into the ministry under authority (Jn. 10:1). I once heard a pastor encourage young women to evaluate the godliness of a man in part based on whether he is willing to submit to authority. In the same way, a church should evaluate a potential minister based on his relationship to the authority of the local church. Is he a thief and a robber or a shepherd?

2. This is where the student should be known the best

This is important. The natural process of things in this world is that some people become more powerful than others. A man should never enter the ministry based on the people he knows and who he becomes friends with. That is a dangerous form of politics. It is the consistory which has the primary responsibility to develop the closest relationship with a man and to evaluate his life and doctrine as best as they can. This then takes stress off the student, to do the work that he needs to do in seminary and in service to the Church, under the oversight and authority of his council.

Of course, the relationship of the seminarian to the church can also be a very rich and rewarding relationship. As the council works in coordination with the seminary and other churches, the opportunities abound for learning pastoral work and preaching, how to train the youth, and bring the gospel to the lost. Life in the congregation can also be very rewarding, presenting opportunities for evangelism, speaking, preaching, learning, fellowship.

Rather than the student being spread out across the federation, the local council can and should then bring a good report to classis and to churches in need of a minister, which will then be affirmed by the classis at classical examinations.

3. This is where the student should be headed

If you are a seminarian, you are headed into local church ministry. A presbyterial form of government is at odds with the positions of bishops and/or bureaucrats. We confess this in the Belgic Confession, Article 31: “As for the Ministers of the Word, they all have the same power and authority, no matter where they may be, since they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the Church.” There are often times when the teaching ministry of a pastor spreads beyond the local church, or when a pastor is called upon to serve at a classical or a synodical level (in the church courts) or to teach in a seminary, for the sake of the local congregation. This can be a good and positive thing. But the authority in each case is always grounded in the authority of the local congregation, whether the local congregation is at its beginning stages, or more established. The starting point should be the local church, as expressed in the local ministry of the congregation.

A Few Examples…

Since my membership was primarily in Rehoboth URC in Hamilton, ON during my seminary years, I will mention a few examples of how helpful they were. As a student preparing for ministry, I regularly met with elders and deacons in the church. I met on a monthly basis with the pastor. Even though I interned in other URCNA churches, they took primary responsibility to ensure the quality of my training. I was interviewed by my ward elder and then the whole council before approaching classis for my candidacy exam. The council reviewed around 10 sermons that I preached in my home church. My ward elder and pastor checked in to see how my family was doing and how I was doing in my personal life. My deacon would regularly check in to evaluate financial need. Even though I did a lot of preaching around Ontario, I found opportunity for fellowship, and to be involved in various ministries in the congregation over the course of my four years there.

Phew….

I found these points to clarify and ease a lot of tensions as I forged my way through the seminary of another federation and as I approached my classical examinations as well as a call to serve in another local congregation. I am sure that it might create more tensions for the student if a given local council does not understand its role in the education of the seminarian or its role and responsibility within the church courts (classis and synod). But I will always be thankful for the role that the local church (Hope Centre URC and then Rehoboth URC) played in my preparation for the ministry. I love this work of the local church as it serves in subjection to Jesus Christ and brings the good news of Jesus Christ to the next generation and to all nations.

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A Vision for the Church in PEI

I have now been out in Prince Edward Island for almost 10 months with my wife and my daughter. It is not a long period of time and a lot has happened since the beginning of October 2019.

For those who are tuning in from the States or somewhere else in the world. What is PEI? PEI is a small island province off of the East Coast of Canada. The province has a diversity of industry including farming, fishing, and tourism, and then of course, the infrastructure to support that. In 2019, stats Canada put its population at about 157,000 people. PEI is where the confederation of Canada was founded on July 1, 1867. If you drive into Charlottetown, you will find the confederation building, the confederation Mall, and if you drive off the Island, you will drive across the Confederation Bridge. It is an enjoyable place to live.

I am a Christian, a follower of Christ. I would summarize many of my teachings as Reformed. This means that I am part of a body of congregations that has carried down the teachings of the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism. I have subscribed to these confessions, because in them I see straightforward, Biblical teaching. They hold pastors accountable to the Word and they refute error. That being said, I would find a lot of unity with those who agree with the 39 Articles (Anglican), the Westminster Confessions (Presbyterian), the Book of Concord (Lutheran), the London Baptist Confession (confessional Baptist). I am Reformed because I believe that in this Reformed teaching we find the most principled way to maintain the four marks of the church that we also find at various points in Scripture: its catholicity, its purity, its unity, its apostolicity.

What is my vision?

  • Biblical worship. Worship is to be regulated and guided by the Word of God. The Holy Spirit also works through the Church to consider history, confessions, and pastoral needs as we work with the principles and apply them in the context of the local church.
  • Biblical evangelism. Evangelism was done throughout the New Testament by teaching and preaching the Word and through Christians sharing the Word. The Church has been given a commission to bring the gospel to all nations and so the United Reformed Church of PEI is also commissioned to bring that gospel to PEI and to the ends of the earth.
  • Biblical fellowship. The New Testament Church was a fellow-shipping church and caring church. The Church is not simply a place for intellectuals or a certain economic class, but a place for mutual care and concern for all those who call upon the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and also a place to show care and concern too our communities.
  • Biblical teaching. Whether it is teaching about God, the Church or Christian living, the Word of God is the standard. Whether it is on the topic of the Church, sacraments, ethics, I have to preach the Word. This is done for the whole of the baptized church and to the whole world.
  • Biblical ecumenicity. The Reformers taught that the Church is born of the Word of God. Even if there is no structural unity, Christians of various backgrounds should be encouraged to study their Bibles together and do everything to combat the divisions that the Apostle Paul fought against in Corinth. The Apostle Paul puts the cross at the center, and places a high importance on Trinitarian baptism. God’s Word is the authority for all of life, including church unity.

One of the most central confessions of the Church is that Jesus is the Christ, that He is the Savior of the world. Everything else flows from that confession in the ordering of the church and the ordering of Christian life in this world. That confession makes this ordering possible. I pray and preach, firmly believing that Christ will build His church on the firm bedrock of this confession and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

You can find more information about the congregation here: https://peiurc.org/. You can find more information about the United Reformed Churches here: https://www.urcna.org/1651/.

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The Failure of Academia

I have always had a love-hate relationship with academia. Don’t get me wrong. I am looking at it as a whole and not at the individual parts. I am friends with and look up to and learn from a number of academics. You might even call me an academic to some degree (I know some academics who might strongly contend with that). I love reading and studying and learning more. But I never have really cared about getting published in academic journals. I might be interested in getting a doctorate some day. But not because I care about the credentials. I would do it for the rigorous scrutiny. That being said, a pastor is not first an academic, but a servant of Christ, or as Paul says, a slave of Jesus Christ.

I want to demonstrate in this post, what is the failure in much of modern academia and how this failure stems back to their rejection of Christian and Biblical principles for education.

In my third year of college, I was particularly fed up with academics. That is, not the people, but the pursuit. Maybe it was because I was studying the philosophy of math and I had a really good professor who was trying to make us think deeply about reality. This lead me into the Book of Ecclesiastes, and I ended up writing a paper on Ecclesiastes for theology while studying the philosophy of math and other classes like the history of western philosophy and art. One verse caught my attention: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecc. 12:11-12)

If you look through some of my philosophy of math books from that year, I wrote a number of comments about the vanity of life in the margins. Weirdly, Ecclesiastes never led me to stop reading and studying, but led me to do it more…

One of the central ideas of Ecclesiastes is that vanity looks like a shepherd trying to shepherd the wind. The Preacher applies this to academia as well in the first chapters. Over the last couple months as I watch leaders who have been trained in 20th and 21st century academia try to respond to the current crisis, it looks a lot like shepherds trying to shepherd the wind, to corral it, to tame it. I appreciate many of their efforts. I am sure there have been things learned. But I also hope that we have spent some time seeking to analyze academia itself, what it is based on and where it is heading.

I often think of Ecclesiastes as presenting a holistic view of life and even education. In Ecclesiastes 5 we are brought into the temple, to consider God’s sovereignty over all things. Before, the preacher pursued knowledge in a segregated universe, that had no unifying factor. But then as he grows in His understanding of the sovereignty of God, he also steadily develops a greater appreciation for how everything fits together in the world. He redevelops a childlike love and wonder for all the moving parts in God’s creation. He recognizes that this world is sinful and broken, but that God is sovereign over all that sin and brokenness.

And here is where I put in a plug for New Saint Andrew’s College, a liberal arts college in Moscow Idaho (https://www.nsa.edu/). In the last couple months I have seen a huge amount of flux in academia. The conflicts over whether or not UofT psychology prof, Jordan Peterson, would use people’s preferred pronouns, heralded a coming confusion. As I write this, universities and colleges are suspending departments and laying off staff for the year of 2020-2021. Gender has finally been redefined in the supreme courts of the USA. Scientists are presenting conflicting reports about viruses. Church leaders are butting heads over the appropriate responses. Academic Institutions are wracking up debt and struggling with conflicting reports from their beloved scientists about how to proceed in the coming school year. It all feels so much like vanity and grasping after wind. Meanwhile, I have been watching the most recent series of promotional videos coming from NSA. They are willing to state obvious truths as riots rip through the States and as governments oppose and contradict one another. They may be one of the few liberal arts programs that thrive. Marxism doesn’t work. Scientism doesn’t work. And they have not just stated these things privately. They have openly challenged the rippling fear with the truth that God is Creator and the truth that He is sovereign.

There are certain truths that should be axiomatic to all of education. God is sovereign and man is not. In Christ, all things hold together (including science and theology). While all universities should start with these truths, yet, one can still hold to these truths even if a university rejects them. My wife received two art and graphic design degrees at two secular universities in BC Canada. Even though I went to a private Christian liberal arts college in the States and she went to two secular universities in Canada, it is important and I would dare say even crucial, that we agree on these axiomatic truths. These truths bring all of our unique studies together in a beautiful harmony that operates under the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

I believe that there is a failure in much of modern academia and this failure stems back to their rejection of Christian and Biblical principles for education. Even much of modern seminary education struggles to speak with authority into modern academia because at root their is a deep antagonism between the mind-set of modern academia and basic Biblical principles. Even in modern orthodox and conservative seminaries there is a struggle with how to use or not to use text-critical methodologies. This is not to say that we cannot learn from modern methodologies. But we should be incredibly careful. We may want to be accepted. But it is this caution that brings about the antithesis. And it is this antithesis is crucial.

Christian education should not be used as an excuse to check out of modern debates and discussions. But if we do not begin with the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ in both word and action, then it too will become a vanity and a grasping and a shepherding of the vapor.

Listen to the most excellent wisdom of the preacher in Jerusalem: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.” (Ecc. 5:1-3) Good academics begins with a deep and profound humility. And the primary expression of this humility is when an academic stands before his Creator and listens to Him speak.

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Refining our Christian Witness

In analyzing our Christian witness in the 21st century, it is interesting to look back and to consider the charges that the early Christians faced in the Roman Empire. My aim is to show that Christian witness is defined not so much by how the world reacts but by the Word of God.

I quote from Everett Ferguson’s book “Church History”: “The Christian Apologists repeatedly responded to three other charges: atheism, cannibalism, and incest.” The charge of atheism came from their rejection of the Greek gods. The charge of cannibalism came from the language that surrounded the Lord’s Supper. The charge of incest likely came from the terminology of “brother” and “sister” that was used in the congregation. Of course, at root, the very act of Christian worship and refusal to burn incense to Caesar was taken as a refusal to show certain acts of loyalty that the empire demanded of “loyal” citizens. This was seen to be treason.

Comparisons between our present age and the 1st century easily get lost in subjectivity. These are different times. The 1st-3rd century was a pre-Christian era and we are living in a post-Christian era. So how shall we then live? Here are three things that existed in that era that we also need in our era.

  1. There is a great need for Christian Apologists who understand the Word and understand the times.
  2. There is a great need for Christian pastors who do not apologize for Christian language and Biblical terminology just because someone has misunderstood it. Rather pastors should avoid the feeling of being threatened and proceed to explain it patiently.
  3. Christians should learn that obedience to Christ is their greatest witness. If obedience to Christ really is the best way to live, then they will be willing to take slander for it.

I call the century that we live in a post-Christian era, not because I think that Christianity is coming to an end, but because we are facing a cycle of unbelief in the West. There are many who have compromised on essential truths and practices. Those who have not compromised have been caught by a great fear.

So what then is Christian witness?

In Luke 24:48 Jesus told His disciples that they were witness of the events of His death and resurrection and the reality of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Him. In John 20, they met in secret for fear of the Jews, and Christ entered among them and told them not to fear. When the Spirit comes upon them, the witness of the church spreads, through obedience to Christ, in the preaching of the gospel and the worship of the church and acts of love and kindness.

I have always appreciated the reason that the Heidelberg Catechism gives for doing good works. Obviously it begins with a focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He bought for us with His blood. It also focuses on the centrality of the work of the Holy Spirit. It concludes with these words: “and that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ.”

I believe that an elder or pastor must be above reproach (I Tim. 3:2). I believe that a good name is better than great riches (Prov. 22:1). I believe that our conduct in the world must be honorable (I Peter 2:12). I believe that if we suffer, it must not be for doing evil, but for doing right (I Peter 4:15-16). But that’s the point. If you do right, you will suffer. As the Puritan pastor, Cotton Mather once stated: “For the faithful, wars will never cease.”

As always, we should be patient and cheerful in our explanations of the truth. King David once asked about how a young man could keep his path straight. It is hard. Young men want respect. But he made a beeline back to the Word of God (Psalm 119:9). That is the only place where men will receive both the praise of God and men (and we must seek the praise of God first and foremost), once they have passed through the finished work of Jesus Christ and have found salvation in Him.

We can always put more work into our Christian witness, to refine our Christian witness. That is part of our sanctification, by which we grow in holiness. For that, the Holy Spirit gives the children of God hard heads and soft hearts. Soft hearts that love and are receptive to the Word of God. Hard heads that break the blows of those who will chastise them for clinging to the Word of God. It all begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ breaking into your life. That’s what it means to be a Christian witness.

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