Category Archives: The Church

True and False Catholicism

“Swimming the Tiber” is a popular way of saying that a Protestant has defected to Roman Catholicism (the Tiber River flows through Rome).  If you’re paying attention, periodically you hear of someone “swimming the Tiber.”  Especially if it’s someone who has been extensively trained in Reformed theology, you might be left wondering if the Reformation actually got it all wrong.  You may wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Roman Catholic doctrine.  You might doubt whether the Reformation is something to be celebrated, or whether it should be deplored as having been unnecessary.  Should we celebrate the 500th birthday of the Reformation or mourn it?

When those sorts of doubts arise, it’s good to take a careful look at exactly what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  It’s good to compare these teachings with the Word of God.  That’s what I’m going to do in this post.  I’ll take the modern standard of Roman Catholic doctrine as our guide.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in several languages in 1994 and is an excellent compendium of Roman Catholic teaching.  If you regularly have contact with Roman Catholics with an eye to evangelism, it would definitely be helpful to have this book in your library.  From our side, I’ll refer to the Reformed confessions alongside Scripture.  I do this because the Reformed confessions are faithful summaries of what Scripture teaches.   Good editions of the confessions have Scripture proof-texts accompanying and you can always look those up should you question whether a particular point is actually taught in the Bible.

The Most Important Issue

Let’s start with the most important issue.  In my experiences with educated Roman Catholics, this is where any discussion will lead you.  We tend to focus in on hot-button issues:  Mary, the Mass, purgatory, and the like.  However, when we get into some heavy discussion on these issues, appeals are made to authority.  The Reformed person appeals to Scripture.  But the Roman Catholic is not persuaded by appeals to Scripture.  In their minds, Scripture belongs with tradition and tradition stands on an equal footing with Scripture.  The two will never contradict each other.  Thus, in any discussion with Roman Catholics, things will always get bogged down over the question of authority.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) maintains that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture come from the same source:  God.  There is one common source, but two distinct ways in which God’s revelation comes to the Church:

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.”

Those statements come from article 81.  Then we read the following in article 82:

“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.  Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”

Tradition is more tightly defined in the eighty-third article as what has been handed down from the apostles via oral transmission.  The apostles, in turn, received the tradition from the Lord Jesus.  The Roman Catholic Church also distinguishes between the great Tradition, which is unchangeable, and “various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.”  The latter “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium [body of authoritative teachers].”  In short, the Roman Catholic view can be defined as Scripture plus tradition – but both are regarded as having a divine origin and so both are equally authoritative.

Oftentimes, the biblical or Reformed view is defined as “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “by Scripture alone.”  Unfortunately, this often degenerates into what some have called “Solo Scriptura.”  “Solo Scriptura” is the caricature of the biblical view and it is maintained by many evangelicals.  It is the reason why one writer stated, without hyperbole:   “…Evangelicalism has created far more novel doctrines than Roman Catholicism.” [1]  With this view of Scripture, the Bible stands with me all by itself.  I will come with my private interpretation of the Bible and it is valid and authoritative for me.   This “Solo Scriptura” view is not biblical.

The biblical view is that the Bible alone is the most clear and authoritative source of revelation – the only other source being “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” (Belgic Confession, article 2).  The Bible alone is where God reveals all we need to know for our salvation.  The Bible alone has been “breathed out by God” and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  Scripture must therefore be acknowledged as the only ultimate and infallible norm for Christians.  However, Scripture must always be interpreted in an ecclesiastical context – after all, it is the Church which has been entrusted with the Scriptures.  We may not have an individualistic approach to the Bible.  The Bible always has to be understood not only in its own context, but also in the context of the true Church.  This is why astute Bible students (including ministers) place great value upon commentaries.  Good commentaries (like those of John Calvin) give Bible students an excellent sense of how the Scriptures have been understood by those who have gone before us.

At the same time, it is very clear in our Belgic Confession (article 7) that we cannot consider “any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures.”  According to the same article, we may not place custom or tradition on the same level as God’s Word either.  This is a direct jab against the teaching of the Roman Catholics.  The reason given is biblical:  “for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath” (cf. Psalm 62:9).  So, the biblical view of the authority of Scripture acknowledges several things:  the supreme and ultimate authority of the Bible, the importance of the Church in interpreting the Bible, and the sinfulness of man has an impact on his interpretation and understanding of the Bible.

This biblical view can be truly labelled as Catholic in the good sense of the word.  This was the view held during the first three centuries of the Church.  It was the view that found acceptance by the majority of the Church through most of the Middle Ages.  Finally, this was the view that re-emerged during the Great Reformation under men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.[2]  The Roman Catholic view as it stands today actually originates around the twelfth century.  As Keith Mathison puts it, “The historical novelty [of this view] is simply not in debate among patristic and medieval scholars.”[3]  In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.

The Doctrine of Man

We spent a lot of time on that question of authority because it is so critically important.  It lies at the root of most of the other doctrinal problems in the Roman Catholic Church.   We could touch on many other issues, but let’s stay where the fire is hottest.  Let’s briefly examine what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about man.  The Roman Catholic Church holds to a position called “Semi-Pelagianism.”  Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that man is not conceived and born in sin.  Man is born essentially good and he learns evil by imitation.  Augustine of Hippo opposed Pelagius and insisted on man’s corruption.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that Pelagius was wrong.  They maintain a doctrine called “Original Sin” and assert that “original sin is transmitted with human nature by propagation, not by imitation.” (CCC, art.419)

Though the Roman Catholic Church holds to original sin, it is defined in a special way:

“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.  It is a deprivation of the original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted; it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’  Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”  (CCC, art.405)

Take note of the view of human nature here:  it “has not been totally corrupted,” it is wounded, inclined to sin.  This is a more pessimistic view than Pelagius, but more optimistic than the biblical view of man as dead in sins and trespasses (cf. Eph. 2:1).  For this reason, we rightly label this doctrine semi-Pelagianism.  Under this doctrine, man is given a significant role in his own salvation.  He is weakened, but once he is baptized, original sin disappears, though its effects may still be seen.  At the end of the day, man retains some good within him.  With a little push from God’s grace, man can help to save himself.

The true Catholic view is quite a bit different.  In article 15 of the Belgic Confession, the truth of Scripture is summarized like this:

“We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race.  It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb…It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”

The direction of the Belgic Confession seems clear enough.  However, in the seventeenth century, the followers of Jacob Arminius tried to weaken the interpretation of the Belgic Confession.  The Synod of Dort in 1618-19 answered with its Canons that make very clear that man is pervasively depraved.  The Canons of Dort, following Scripture, state without reservation that all men are not merely wounded, but “dead in sin, and slaves of sin.  And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation.” (CoD, 3/4.3).  This view is the truly Catholic one, for it encapsulates the doctrine of the apostles (cf. Col. 2:13) that has been maintained by true believers around the world (including Augustine, Calvin and others) for centuries.   This view alone gives all the glory for man’s salvation to God.

Worship

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the place of Mary, the saints, the Mass and other sacraments, and the use of images are especially objectionable to Bible-believing Christians.  All of these teachings can be lumped together under the general heading of worship.  It has often been noted that worship was one of the central issues in the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.  It only makes sense, then, that we ask what the Roman Catholic Church believes about worship.

We can do this by looking at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the first and second commandments.  The RCC traditionally puts the first and second commandments together and calls them the first commandment.  Yet, the Catechism does divide the explanation.  What we call the first commandment is explained as forbidding the honor of other gods as well as a prohibition against superstition and irreligion.  What we call the second commandment is first explained as prohibiting the “representation of God by the hand of man.” (art. 2129).  However, the doors are quickly opened with the following articles:

2130  Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word:  so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131  Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.  By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.”

What is striking about the Roman Catholic understanding of the second commandment is that there is no recognition that this commandment originally pertained to the worship of God through graven images.  This is exactly where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong in its understanding of worship.  In art. 2132 of CCC, it is stated plainly:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.  The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church worships God through these images.  Roman Catholics will say the same about their “veneration” of Mary and the other saints:  we are worshipping God through them and thus the “veneration” is no idolatry.   This is nothing less than a violation of the second commandment.

This was recognized during the Reformation.  The Heidelberg Catechism states that we may not have images “in order to worship them or to serve God through them” (QA 97).  Further, this Reformed Catechism also asserts that the second commandment gives us a basic principle for our worship:  we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” (QA 96)  The same principle is found with the Belgic Confession in article 7, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length,” and then also in article 32, “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  This is the application of Sola Scriptura to our worship.

The Roman Catholic Church follows a different route when it comes to worship:  we may add to or take away from the worship of God as we please.  Thus, the RCC has an elaborate ritual for baptism that obscures the simplicity of the sacrament as found in Scripture:  sprinkling or immersion with plain water.  Following their unscriptural worship principle, the RCC adds images and countless other innovations.  The whole procedure and doctrine of the mass, though it often uses the words of Scripture, not only twists those very words, but also adds or takes away from the teaching of our Lord Jesus.

Other Examples

Numerous books have been written documenting the differences between the teaching of the Papacy and the teaching of Scripture.  This article could quickly turn into one of those books!  Before we finish off, here are two more examples of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the teaching of Scripture as summarized in our Confessions:

Regarding justification, Rome teaches:

“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.  Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” (art. 1992)

But the Bible teaches:

“Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law (Rom. 3:28).  Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness;  He imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”  (Belgic Confession, art.22)

Note the difference between an infused justification (“conferred in Baptism”) and an imputed justification that is by faith alone.

Regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement, Rome teaches:

“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception:  ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”  (art.605)

But Scripture teaches us:

“For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…This means:  God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father.”  (Canons of Dort, chapter 2.8)

Here the difference is between a universal atonement, and an efficacious atonement restricted to God’s elect.  Only the latter is the teaching of Jesus, the only head of the church (e.g. John 10:15).

On these and so many other points, the Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching of Scripture.  We may say without hesitation that the RCC represents the spirit of Antichrist.  In fact, the Westminster Confession is not off the mark when it implies that the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan (25.5).  And certainly we may agree that the Pope is not in any sense the head of the church of Jesus Christ, “but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.” (25.6).

Through the Apostles’ Creed, we continue to confess that we believe a Catholic Church.  Through the course of our brief examination, we have seen that there is a true Catholicism and a false Catholicism.  There is a church chosen to everlasting life which experiences the unity of true faith – a true faith built upon submission to God’s Word alone.  This is the true Catholic Church.  There is also a church that “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” (BC art.29).  This is the false Catholic Church – the Roman Catholic Church.  We are the true Catholics and we should not be ashamed to say so.  Moreover, we should also be eager to bring the true gospel to those enslaved to the many soul-endangering errors of Rome.

[1]  The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Moscow: Canon Press, 2001, p.280.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., p.211.


Presbyterianism and Admission to the Lord’s Supper

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I’m still working on getting acquainted with my new context here in Australia.  There’s a lot to learn!  I’m keen to pick up whatever I can about the church history in this vast land.  That led me to the autobiography of J. Graham Miller, A Day’s March Nearer Home.  Now to be clear, Miller was actually a Kiwi, but he did spent a lot of his ministry years in Australia, and eventually retired here as well.  Miller was a Presbyterian, eventually affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Australia.  The editor of this autobiography was Iain Murray, who has also served in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

In chapter 11, Miller reminisces about growing up in a Presbyterian manse in New Zealand.  His father, a Presbyterian minister, was quite strict in his beliefs about who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.  This was in the 1920s.  Graham Miller shared his father’s view.  At this point, Iain Murray (the editor) adds an explanatory footnote:

It needs to be understood that in Presbyterian churches the Lord’s Supper was only open to communicant members.  Only as regard for church discipline declined or disappeared was admission to the Lord’s Table left to the discretion of the individual worshipper.  Historically the Presbyterian churches never practised ‘open’ communion. (page 216)

This might be a surprising statement to some.  We’re told here that an open Lord’s Supper table is certainly not intrinsic to confessional Presbyterianism — as if the Westminster Standards demand or logically entail this practice.  Historically speaking, this practice was unknown, according to Murray.

I have found at least two examples that appear to confirm Murray’s claim.  The first is a booklet by Rev. W.J. McKnight, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA.  The (undated) booklet is entitled, Concerning Close Communion: An Investigation.  McKnight argues that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to communicant members in good standing of the church where the sacrament is being celebrated.  I’m told that this was the practice of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) until 1977.  After 1977, the RPCNA switched to “session-controlled communion.”  Sessions (equivalent to a Reformed consistory) admit communicants to the Lord’s Supper table.

I observed a second example in Hamilton, Ontario.  The city has an annual “Open Doors” event where significant historic buildings open up to the public.  One year, our family was able to tour around inside the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church.  This church was once part of the Free Church of Scotland (now a sister-church of the CanRC), but was eventually taken up into the merger process leading to the Presbyterian Church of Canada.  Inside this church, there is a fascinating little museum of communion tokens.  In historic Scottish Presbyterianism, the Lord’s Supper was typically celebrated once per year.  Prior to this occasion, the elders visited all the communicant members to ascertain their spiritual condition.  If they were faithfully walking with the Lord, they would receive a token, which would grant them admission to the sacrament.  No token, no admission.

Admission to the Lord’s Supper was a significant point of discussion between the CanRC and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the lead-up to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship in 2001.  However, eventually agreement was reached on this point.  Both the CanRC and OPC agreed that the Lord’s Supper has to be supervised by the elders.  That also applies to admission.  You can find the text of the agreement here.  I might also add that both the OPC and CanRC also together “rejected the legitimacy of the pluriformity of the church.” (article 45 of the Acts of Synod 2001 —reference is made to this document).  That had also been a matter of contention.

One of the thorny issues in history is causation.  When it comes to church history, what caused a certain practice to develop?  We have to be cautious of simplistic explanations.  To blame an open (or more open) Lord’s Supper somehow on the Westminster Standards isn’t going to work.  Historically, Presbyterian churches holding closely to the Westminster Standards have maintained a restricted or even closed view of admission.  It could be argued, and has been argued, that the Westminster Standards actually require that view.  No, whenever we encounter an open Lord’s Supper (or one with just a “verbal warning”), we are looking at something that has a different explanation.  Iain Murray chalked it up to declining regard for church discipline.  Perhaps in some places at some times.  But maybe there are other explanations for other places and times.  Whatever the explanations may be, where it’s needed, the resources for returning to a proper supervision of the Lord’s Supper are present in Presbyterianism itself.


Reflections on “The Holland I Never Knew”

UC Observer

Anne Bokma and I have some things in common.  We both have Dutch ancestry.  We both belong to the first generation born to post-war Dutch immigrants, though she was probably born about a decade before me.  We both grew up Canadian Reformed.  We’re both no longer Canadian Reformed.  But we also have some differences.  I suppose chief among them would be the fact that I’m not Canadian Reformed because I moved to Australia and became Free Reformed.  She remains in Canada and is now a Unitarian.

I learned about Anne’s experiences from an article she wrote for the United Church Observer, “The Holland I Never Knew.”   You should read it.  It’s well-written and provides some good insights into the thoughts and story of someone ex-CanRC.  It doesn’t strike me as being bitter or angry — more matter of fact and reflective.  Let me add some of my own reflections upon reading it.

I’m saddened by it more than anything else.  I find it particularly sad because in this story the gospel of grace is absent.  One might instinctively say that you could expect that from someone in her shoes.  Hold on.  Could it be that a regular, clear, sound communication of the gospel of grace was actually objectively missing in this story?  Isn’t it at least possible?  Yes, I know there are other possibilities, but we should be open to this one.

I look at my own upbringing and I shudder to think that I came so close to Anne’s story.  I grew up in a community where a church split happened in the 1980s.  One week some friends were at our Christian school, and the next week they weren’t.  Ostensibly the split happened over some points of doctrine, but there were other — ugly — things simmering beneath the surface.  There were other things going on too, things best left unsaid, I think.  I grew up being rather spiritually indifferent and not a little cynical.  I was going to join the Air Force and quietly slip away from the church to pursue my own life by my own standards.  The Air Force was my ticket out.  Until it wasn’t.  One day the recruiting office phoned and gave me the bad news that saved my life:  I was a bit near-sighted in my right eye and therefore disqualified from the pilot selection process.  I washed out after barely beginning.  That was a major crisis for a young man who had only ever dreamed of turning and burning in CF-18s.

Into that time of crisis stepped some people from a neighbouring CanRC who ran an annual youth camp.  This was a special group of believers, folks who took the gospel seriously and who also made discipleship of young people a priority.  I’d been to this camp before, but it was in 1991 that something finally clicked.  I was confronted with questions of ultimate importance:  why are you here on this earth?  Who are you living for?  What’s this life all about?  Who is Jesus Christ to you?  There’s no doubt in my mind that God worked in a powerful way through these sincere, spiritually-minded CanRC brothers and sisters to bring me to a deeper and more meaningful Christian commitment.  To this day, I praise and thank God for them.

When it comes to national life, there have been patriots (or better:  nationalists) who look at their country and no matter what side it takes, it’s right because it’s their country.  Some take that approach to the church too.  They will never admit that their church/church federation has done anything wrong or has ever dropped the ball on anything.  Ecclesiastical pride is something that I’ve never understood or encouraged — it runs totally contrary to what the Bible teaches.  The church is made up of sinful people and, as a result, there’s going to be a lot of messy stuff going on.  We should be able to openly acknowledge our brokenness, both on a personal level and on an institutional level.  In the past, I’ve written blog posts that have been critical of some aspects of CanRC church life.  I caught some flack for doing so — not just disagreeing with what I was saying, but the fact that I was saying anything negative or self-critical.  I don’t regret it.  We should be able to talk about these things.  There are two things we need more as Reformed people (wherever we are, Canada, Australia…):  1) the humility to admit our failures, lacks, weaknesses, and yes, even outright sinfulness or toleration of sin; 2)  the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed unambiguously and clearly as our only hope.

Yes, ultimately we all bear personal responsibility for the bad choices we make.  I was personally responsible for my cynicism and spiritual indifference as a young man.  I was personally responsible for seeking freedom (call it “redemption” if you want, but it’s pretty skewed) in the cockpit of a fighter jet.  We can say the same for Anne Bokma and the choices she’s made — personal responsibility is there too.  Yet, does the church always get away scot-free?  Does the church never bear any responsibility for her gaffes or failures?  Can’t we be honest about that and admit that we have much to learn about being a church of Jesus Christ?  We are not only individually disciples of Christ, but also corporately.  We’re disciples together, disciples who yet have much to learn from their Master.  The greatest danger is when you prematurely conclude that you’ve graduated.  Think about that.


Vector That Meal!

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Many Reformed churches have meal ministries.  You know the sort of thing.  A family in the church has a newborn baby.  Some ladies (typically the ladies) organize some meals to be brought over for a week or two.  Or someone comes home from the hospital after major surgery and then they get to enjoy two weeks of lasagna and casseroles.  In the last church I served, the deacons and their wives organized all of this using a helpful website called Meal Train.  You can find it here — it’s absolutely brilliant.

These “meal ministries” are often directed inwards.  They exist only for the membership of the church.  But do they have to?  Couldn’t we take something that we’re already doing and then use it to serve the community around us as well?  I wish I could say that I thought of that question.  Credit goes to Kevin Harney.  In his book Organic Outreach for Churches, he asks:  “What if we continued taking meals to church members, but we also made this service available to people in our community who don’t know Jesus?”  He calls this vectoring.  You vector an existing program or ministry in the church meant to serve the members.  You just redirect some of the time, energy, and resources a couple of degrees outward.

Harney relates how this concept was implemented at Corinth Reformed Church:

The first family in our community to receive meals as a result of our vectoring this ministry outward were friends of my family.  They didn’t attend any church.  We had met when our boys were in the community soccer program.  The wife was having surgery soon and her recovery would be very slow.  My wife called her before the surgery and asked if it would be okay to line up five or six families from our church to take them meals on the day after she got home from the hospital.  At first, she didn’t know how to respond.  Finally, she cautiously said, “I think that would be okay.”

When she came home after surgery, people from the church extended love and care to her and her family by taking meals for a week.  They were not pushy or aggressive.  They just used their hands to prepare meals and then delivered them with the love of Jesus.  The entire family was touched and blessed by the kindness of the church.  Once she was up and around, she called the church and got the address of every person who had brought her a meal.  Then she went to each home and delivered a little potted plant as a thank-you.

Several things happened through this whole process.  Bridges were built.  Friendships were forged.  Service was offered.  The love of Jesus was incarnated.  And our church learned that it’s not hard to take something we are already doing for ourselves and vector it a couple of degrees to also serve our community.  (pages 144-145)

What a great idea!  It’s a simple way to help direct the church outwards to those around us.


Reaching Out at the Expense of the Church?

Most believers will agree that the church should be outward looking and care about the lost.  However, for some, it’s a question of timing.  You might hear things like, “First, we need to take care of ourselves.  We have to take care of our own people and their needs first and then, once everything is in order within the church, then we can start looking outwards.”  I struggle to find such a mentality in Scripture.  In Scripture, what the church is called to be, it’s called to be all around at all times.  It’s called to simultaneously care for its own members and for the lost — they are not mutually exclusive.  One could even question whether our priorities should be the other way around:  putting the lost first.  Consider this excerpt from Kevin Harney’s Organic Outreach:

When people complained to me about our outreach efforts, about the financial costs, or about the changes we were making at the church, I asked them, “As followers of Jesus, what do we have that can never be taken away?”  Sometimes the person stared at me with a confused look.  So I clarified what I was asking until they understood.  They often began to list elements of their heavenly inheritance.

“We have heaven as our home.”

“We have the family of God, the church.”

“We have the love and grace of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, cleansing from our sins.”

Once they got rolling, they ended up with a great list of the heavenly storehouse of blessings Jesus’ followers have.  After conversing about all of that, I would ask them another question:  “What do lost people have that will last forever?”

Very quickly, most people ended up saying, “Nothing.”  Or they said, “Eternal separation from God.”  Most of the time, this became a sacred and sober moment, sometimes accompanied by tears, as we talked about how people who are without Jesus, no matter what they might have in this world, really have nothing of value.

From this point of biblical understanding, we usually began to have a meaningful discussion about how the church should use its time, resources, and influence to reach those who are spiritually poor.  (pp. 36-37)

One could go further and say that a church that cares about the lost is also going to be serving its own membership in the process.  It’s well-known that as believers share their faith, they find that their own faith is strengthened and encouraged.  One should never pit these two against one another.