Category Archives: Pastoral Q & A

Pastoral Q & A: What If I Can’t Be Welcoming to Visitors?

It’s often stressed how important it is for our churches to be outward looking and, as part of that, to be friendly to visitors.  When you see a visitor at the worship services, be kind and welcoming.  But what if it’s taken everything in your power just to get to church?  What if you’re having an awful day and not feeling particularly friendly?

Let’s first recognize a few factors.  There’s a great difference between being or feeling unable to be welcoming and not wanting to be welcoming.  If someone doesn’t see the importance of being friendly and welcoming, that’s a more significant problem.  Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  If that’s true of our own homes, then it certainly it ought to be all the more true when we gather as God’s house for worship.  God’s house, his church, should also be a place of hospitality – a warm and welcoming environment.  If we’re going to reflect our Saviour Jesus, then we would want to be friendly and kind to visitors.  If someone doesn’t want to follow Christ in that regard, then that’s a spiritual problem that calls for repentance.

But that’s different than being or feeling unable to be welcoming.  There can be different reasons for that.  Sometimes it’s just a temporary thing.  You had a fight with your spouse that morning and, when you left for church, things were still unresolved.  Or maybe it was your children.  You arrive at church and you’re feeling less than friendly.  It happens.

There can also be more chronic challenges.  Sometimes there are mental health issues like anxiety or depression.  When these are ongoing, it can be a huge hurdle just to get out of bed and find the energy to go to church.  Arriving at church, you may not feel like talking to anyone, let alone to a complete stranger.

Last of all, people have different personalities.  Some are naturally more introverted and shy.  I count myself in that category.  I don’t like socializing in big crowds and find it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers.  I was once a missionary, but I’m the most unlikely person to be one.  When your character is more reserved, it can be hard to push yourself out there.

So, how do we deal with these real challenges?  We have to bring this down to what it really is.  It’s God’s will that we should be friendly and welcoming to visitors.  But, for whatever reason, it seems difficult or even impossible for us to follow God’s will.  We can’t do it.  The temptation here is to rely on our own wisdom and just walk away feeling absolved.  That temptation has to be resisted.  Instead, we need to ask:  what’s the biblical answer to this problem?  It’s to remember that God is sovereign over everything, including our hearts, our wills, and our energy.  When we say God is sovereign, we mean that he rules over it all.  He is the one who can change it.  Since that’s true, we’re called to pray to the sovereign God and ask him to change it.

Let’s put it into practice.

For the one who’s had family conflict on Sunday morning, pause and pray:  “Father, even though I’ve had a rough morning, help me not to take it out on anyone else.  If you bring a visitor across my path, please help me to be friendly and kind.”

For those dealing with the chronic health challenges, including mental health, pray regularly:  “Father, I’m struggling, but help me to look outside myself.  Despite my struggles, please help me to reflect the loving heart of Christ to those you bring across my path.”

If you’re shy and introverted, pray: “Father, even though I want to run away, help me to be bold.  Please help me to get out of my comfort zone and if there are visitors, help me to love them and say the right words to welcome them.”

If you pray along these lines, things will change.  The sovereign God works to change things through our prayers brought to him through the intercession of Christ.  God will begin helping you to overcome your circumstances and follow his will.  I’m not saying that change will happen all at once.  But persistently praying in this way will, in due time, have an effect.


Pastoral Q & A: Should We Call Unbelievers “Pre-Christians”?

While it’s not overwhelming or huge, there seems to be a bit of a trend to refer to unbelievers as “pre-Christians.”  A parishioner attended another church in our state recently and came across this way of speaking and asked me about it.  Is it acceptable to substitute “pre-Christian” for “non-Christian” or “unbeliever”?

If we turn to Scripture, the word “unbeliever” is used 14 times in the New Testament.  It’s used to translate the Greek word apistos.  Sometimes the word “Gentile” (Gr. ethnos) is used to refer to those who aren’t Christians, extending the Old Testament idea of the pagan nations surrounding Israel.  In Ephesians 2:3, non-Christians are referred to as “children of wrath.”  Later in the same chapter, they are “strangers to the covenants of promise” (2:12) and “aliens” (2:19).  However, the standard word in Scripture is simply “unbeliever.”  The word “pre-Christian” is not used at all.

Nevertheless, there is no issue with using a non-scriptural word if it captures a biblical concept.  The classic example is the word “Trinity” – it’s not used in the Bible, but the concept is definitely there.  So, can a biblical case be made for referring to unbelievers as “pre-Christians”?

I can appreciate the positive attitude this term is meant to convey.  When we give a Christian witness to someone, we certainly hope that the Holy Spirit will use our witness to bring someone to faith in Christ.  We pray in that way and perhaps we should pray more expectantly than we often do.

Yet the fact of the matter is that we don’t know God’s plans for the salvation of any given person.  Scripture reveals a doctrine of election:  God has chosen some to eternal life before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).  But we don’t know who they are and neither should we presume to know.   Instead, we address each person with the thought that only God knows whether or not that person is going to be a Christian.  Our calling is not to guess or assume an outcome, but simply to present the gospel.

There is another aspect to this.  From the point of view of a non-Christian, adopting the language “pre-Christian” could also be offensive.  When I was in seminary, I attended a book club once or twice.  Some of the other attendees were Reformed Baptists.  One of them jokingly referred to me as a “Reformed-Baptist-in-training.”  I knew he was just kidding around and so it didn’t bother me.  Friends can banter like that.  But couldn’t this language of “pre-Christian” be unnecessarily offensive to an unbeliever just off the street?  If I put myself in those shoes, I would think:  “What arrogance!  They think they’re definitely going to make me a Christian.”  The gospel is offensive enough on its own; we don’t need to add offense with unnecessary and presumptuous terminology.

So in the interests of humble modesty about God’s plans, and in the interests of avoiding unnecessary offense in our witness, it’s best just to use the standard biblical terminology.  If someone isn’t a Christian, then we ought to just say they’re an unbeliever or a non-Christian.  Keep it simple.


Pastoral Q & A: How Do I Indicate My Aspiration to Serve as an Elder or Deacon?

Wanting to be an office bearer is a great thing – Scripture says so in 1 Timothy 3:1, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”  We certainly want to encourage men in our churches to have such aspirations.  For those who aspire to the ministry it’s relatively easy to indicate your aspirations.  You do pre-seminary studies and then go to seminary.  However, how do you let people know if you have an aspiration to be an elder or deacon?  Perhaps you could say it directly, or you might wait until your elder asks you on a home visit.  But what if verbally indicating your aspiration might be frowned upon or even seen as somewhat arrogant?

As it turns out, there are more ways to indicate the aspiration to serve as an elder or deacon.  Let’s look at three ways in particular.

Christian Maturity

Scripture speaks about the qualifications of office bearers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  One should certainly go to those qualifications and use them as targets to aim for in a thankful Christian life.  However, they can all be summed up with one word:  maturity.  An office bearer has to consistently demonstrate Christian maturity.  There has to be evidence of a life lived in union with Jesus Christ.  That’s going to be seen first and foremost in a love for Christ and for the gospel.  If the gospel doesn’t personally excite you, if you don’t feel love for Christ in your heart, how would you lead others in that direction?  If you don’t love reading and studying the Bible, how would you guide others to do it?

If you aspire to be an office bearer, Christian maturity also has to be seen in the home:  “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will be care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4-5).  As an outworking of that, an aspiring office bearer ought to be leading his children in daily family worship.  You have to be discipling your own children before you can be discipling others.

If someone aspires to office, there also has to be maturity evidenced in regards to the church and his involvement with it.  For example, an aspiring office bearer makes public worship twice on the Lord’s Day a priority.  Titus 1:9 says, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught…”  That implies being under the Word as often as it is taught.  An office bearer has to set an example in this regard and so an aspiring office bearer is going to aim for this too.

A Desire to Learn

In Hosea 4:6, God said “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Learning is essential for all Christians.  This is why 2 Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”  But this imperative to grow in our understanding of the Christian faith is sharper for those who are leaders in Christ’s church.  The young pastor Timothy was called to do his best to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:14).  He was to immerse himself in studying and teaching the Scriptures so that everyone could see his progress (1 Tim. 4:13-15).

So what about those aspiring to the office of elder?  An elder is called to first exemplify the learning and growing Christian.  Moreover, he’s also called to oversee the teaching and preaching in the church.  How is he going to be equipped for that if he’s not reading and learning more?  Even deacons are called to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9).  They have to have a good (and growing) grasp on the doctrines of the Christian faith.  After all, they’re also leaders in the church – governing the ministry of mercy.

If you aspire to be an office bearer, one of the best things you can do is go to your pastor or ward elder and say:  “I want to read a good book.  Can you recommend something?”  Readers are leaders – and serious readers in the congregation are going to get noticed.

A Desire to Serve

Last of all, being an office bearer is all about service.  Being a shepherd is about serving the flock.  What about the deacons?  The very word “deacon” means “servant” or “minister.”  Those who aspire to this noble task should strive for a track record of service in other capacities.  When the opportunity arises to volunteer, the man who aspires to office should be the first one to put up his hand.  Those who are keeping busy with non-office bearer work in the church community will often find themselves being noticed when it comes time to nominate for elders and deacons.

To sum up, perhaps you’ve noticed that these three ways have one thing in common:  they’re all things we ought to be striving for as Christians at any rate.  Every Christian ought to aim for growing levels of maturity.  Every Christian ought to desire to learn and serve.  So, basically, if you aspire to be an office bearer, live like a Christian.

    


Pastoral Q & A: The Morning After Pill

Can a Christian woman use the “Morning After Pill” as emergency contraception?

Let’s first be clear what we’re talking about.  The “Morning After Pill” is often marketed under the name “Plan B,” though there are other drugs and brands.  This is not RU-486 (mifepristone), a drug that causes abortion typically later in pregnancy.  The MAP is regarded as a form of emergency contraception — it’s for when other ways of preventing a pregnancy have either failed or been neglected.  The question is whether this is something Christian women can take advantage of.  To answer that, let’s imagine two scenarios.

Scenario 1

A young unmarried woman has been having sex with her boyfriend.  On one occasion, they forget to use their normal method of contraception.  She’s concerned that she may get pregnant, so she goes to the pharmacy for “Plan B.”  She takes the tablets and does not become pregnant.

Scenario 2

A woman in her 30s (with four children already) believes it would be unwise for her to have any more children.  She and her husband normally use a barrier method of contraception.  On one occasion, they forget and she’s concerned that she may get pregnant.  So “Plan B” is the answer.  As in the first scenario, no pregnancy results.

In both situations, the MAP/Plan B seems to prevent an undesirable pregnancy.  In both situations, the woman claims to be a Christian.  In both situations, the woman first goes to the Health Direct website of the Australian government (or equivalent) and is relieved to read that the MAP does not cause an abortion.  Instead, it simply stops or delays ovulation and it may also prevent sperm from reaching the egg.  But “if the sperm has already fertilised the egg, it is too late and the pill won’t work.”  So, going with the official information, neither scenario has caused an abortion.  No life has been taken.  Therefore, there is apparently no ethical issue with the Sixth Commandment (“You shall not kill”).

We need to think about this more carefully.

The first thing we need to reflect on is the actual facts regarding the MAP/Plan B.  The Health Direct website (and others like it) does not tell the full story.  The truth of the matter is that there are studies which suggest that the MAP can have an abortive effect (even the Wikipedia article acknowledges this — with sources).  If an egg has been fertilized, the MAP can prevent that human life from continuing to live in the womb.  No one can categorically say with 100% certainty that the MAP never causes early abortions.

That should change the way we look at this.  In pro-life circles, we sometimes use the illustration of a building about to be demolished.  Before a demolition company levels a building, they have to make absolutely certain there are no people in the building.  If there’s a shred of doubt about whether somebody’s still inside, you don’t level the building.  Similarly, if there’s any doubt about whether the MAP can cause an abortion, we would not want to take that risk.  We would never want to have blood on our hands, even by accident.

So, let’s go back to those two scenarios.

The first one is the most ethically problematic.  If the young woman in the first scenario claims to be a Christian, she is almost certainly self-deceived about her spiritual status.  You cannot be a true Christian and be actively engaged in any premarital sexual relations (Hebrews 13:4, etc.).  That would be living unrepentantly in sin — “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).  And if a woman in a scenario like that takes the MAP, she could be adding sin against the Sixth Commandment to her sin against the Seventh Commandment.  If she really wants to be a Christian, she must turn away from her life of sin, seek God’s forgiveness in Christ, and follow the Lord.  That will include accepting the consequences for her sexual sin, including, if it so happens, any pregnancy which might result from it.

The second scenario is somewhat more challenging.  I believe married Christian couples can have lawful reasons for using certain methods of contraception.  For example, a woman may struggle with severe postpartum depression which may leave her incapacitated for months after a birth.  She may feel suicidal or even homicidal.  In such cases, couples are wise to limit the size of their family using lawful means God has made available.  However, what if those means fail?  One thing we can say with certainty:  abortion of any sort or the possibility of an abortion is out of the question for Christian couples.  The MAP is not the answer in this scenario.  The couple has to prayerfully accept what God may bring.  If he brings them the conception of a child and they cannot see themselves clear to caring for another child, then adoption (to another Christian family) may be the best option.  But here again, using the MAP and possibly sinning against the Sixth Commandment must be ruled out.

Let me conclude with what I would say to someone who has taken the MAP.  I’ll be direct:  you may have caused an abortion.  Perhaps you did it ignorantly, working only with the information provided on official government websites and so on.  Perhaps what led you to take it was what the Bible describes as “sin with the uplifted hand,” deliberate and intentional living in sin (i.e. premarital sex).  But, whatever, the case may, if you did cause an abortion, this is not an unforgivable sin.  God’s grace in Jesus Christ is available for all who repent and believe.  God’s grace is big enough to cover this too.  However, let us respond to his grace with a hatred for all sin and a love for all life, even at its earliest stages.


Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

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 the 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.