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.

Photo by Rohit Farmer on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

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/.

Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash