One of the challenges faced by pastors is the organization of public prayer. I have long used a document for myself, Regular Items for Thanksgiving and Intercessory Prayer. This document has all the regular things which should be remembered in public prayer on the Lord’s Day — at least the ones I could think of (with the help of my elders). They are organized into eight groups. The idea is to pray through one group each Lord’s Day. I typically do this in the second prayer in the PM service. Using a system like this helps prevent lengthy “around the world” prayers, as well as the neglect of certain matters. I’m sharing it as a MS Word file so other pastors can modify it for their own purposes.
When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language. Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching. Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church. Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process. Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms. Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility. With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms. This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory. We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English. The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith. In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism. In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.
But what about with an instituted church? Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order. In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56). But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?
Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish. Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation. The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort. The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms. Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.” About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.” From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.
Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place? It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another. It was confusing and chaotic. So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.
In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written. Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will. Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations. For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer. There I’m simply substituting the full name for pronoun “he (or she).” That’s not a substantial change.
Let me make two concluding points.
First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so. When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem. If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances. Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes. Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process. The forms are not ours to change.
Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19). I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written. But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order. In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis. If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion. At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon. This is part of what it means to live together in a federation. We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.
The Christian Reformed Churches of Australia held their synod from May 6 to 11 in Melbourne. For those unaware, the CRCA is not the antipodean equivalent of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA), although they do have ecumenical relations. The CRCA was formed through post-war Dutch immigration and today consists of over 50 congregations throughout Australia. Besides the CRCNA, and unlike them, the CRCA also has ecumenical relations with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (“ecumenical fellowship”) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Last year, the CRCA also joined the International Conference of Reformed Churches.
A few items of interest from this recent synod:
In the area of ecumenical relations, the CRCA synod decided to suspend their relationships with two sister churches in South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and the Netherdutch Reformed Church of South Africa have both made synodical decisions compromising the biblical view of homosexuality. If there is no repentance in these South African churches by 2021, the next CRCA synod will terminate these relationships.
Until recently the CRCA Church Order stated in article 56: “The sessions shall see to it that the congregations assemble for public worship twice each Sunday unless valid reasons make this impractical.” A proposal to change this was discussed and approved. The CRCA Church Order now reads: “The sessions shall see to it that the congregations assemble for public worship at least once a Sunday.” This effectively makes two worship services optional in the CRCA.
Finally, there was a noteworthy discussion regarding children at the Lord’s Supper. According to the official Short Minutes a proposal was tabled to allow children access to the Lord’s table “on the basis of their covenantal membership and exercising an age and ability appropriate understanding of God’s grace and how it applies to them.” After extensive discussion, a committee was appointed “to review previous synodical, theological, and exegetical studies, to consult with churches in ecclesiastical fellowship, consider whether the practice is a confessional matter, and to clarify other theological issues and practical implications.” This committee has been mandated to report to the next synod in 2021.
Of course, other matters were discussed as well, and you can read a longer summary of them all here.
Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. Paperback, 155 pages.
I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies. These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students. They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way. Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.
Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it. Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew. It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style. So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics. All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.
Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things. Visual Theology is different; it has four parts: grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ. It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented. It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12). You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ. Visual Theology shows why and how. I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.
As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed. For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33). Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.
By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79). Some readers will detect gaps. Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two. Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings. That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors. Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing. There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.
I have one noteworthy concern: the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism: “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27). The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said. The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism. As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace. However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position. Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.
This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class. For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and more. Visual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation. You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!
In Reformed churches it’s normal to hear the Ten Commandments read during the morning worship service. This is a historic practice going back to the Reformation. Yet, sadly, there are churches claiming to be Reformed that have dropped this practice. There are individuals in Reformed churches which still do it who question why it continues to be done in their churches. They look at it as unnecessary, repetitive, or creating an unhealthy sense of guilt and maybe even shame. Some also object to it because, they say, it adds a legalistic flavour to our worship. So why still read the Ten Commandments?
Let’s start from the way the Scriptures teach Christians to regard the law of God. Think of Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” That is not just a statement of how that one Psalmist felt — rather, it’s a vision for how all believers should regard God’s law. It’s a vision that was perfectly fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, and to be fulfilled in all the disciples united to him in true faith. Similar sentiments are expressed elsewhere in Psalm 119: “I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law. Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules. Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.” Psalm 119 teaches believers to have a positive attitude towards God’s law — to love it and, as part of God’s Word, to treat it with respect. So, from that perspective, what problem could a Christian have with hearing God’s Law read to him or her on a weekly basis? If we were meditating on it regularly throughout the week because we love it so much, why would we object to hearing it in the holy presence of our God on Sunday morning?
We could approach this also from the angle of the function of the law in our worship. While it does remind us of the way of thankful living, its primary purpose is to remind us of our need for God’s grace at the beginning of our worship. Its primary purpose is to create a sense of humility in sinful people appearing before a holy God. It prepares us to confess our sins to our Father and seek forgiveness from him through Jesus Christ. In this regard, we ought to look at the law as our friend. It is there in our worship to help in the renewal of our relationship with our Father through his Son. It helps us to identify our sins and weaknesses, so that we would always be humble before our God. Here you can think of what the Holy Spirit says in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” That passage originally refers to human friends, but the principle still applies here. The best of friends will sometimes hurt you for your good. Similarly, the law is our friend as it exposes our sin and misery and drives us to Christ. How can we be negative towards something God gives us for our good?
I want to leave you with two important points to conclude.
First, we ought always to remember that our public worship service is a meeting with the thrice-holy God. This is the God who left Isaiah awe-struck with fear in Isaiah 6. Sometimes I fear that many Reformed people don’t see that God is present in our worship in a way that he isn’t present elsewhere. If we could perceive the full reality of what that means, would we be glib and casual about coming into God’s presence? Would we not welcome a reminder from him to be appropriately humble?
Second, we ought always to remember how prone we are to minimize, rationalize, deny, and forget our sinfulness. Every Christian is a sinner who still, to varying degrees, has the remnants of a sinful nature. We would rather be told “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14). We would rather have prophets prophesying smooth things (Isa.30:10). We would rather not have the bad news which makes the good news so great, and in so doing, we begin to lose sight of the grandeur of the gospel and the Saviour it proclaims. The law of God is like a mirror giving us our weekly reality check as we begin our worship. It gives that ever-needful reminder that, even as Christians, we are in constant need of God’s mercy in the Redeemer. How could that not be a good and helpful thing?