Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons

I’m just dropping a quick note here about this new book for office bearers published by Reformed Fellowship.  If you’re an elder or deacon, veteran or rookie, I think you’ll find something helpful in this volume.  It’s got twenty chapters with the following titles:

  1. Training Church Officers
  2. Practicing the Mission of the Church: Apostolicity in Action
  3. Positive Leadership: Leading Like Jesus (Not Rehoboam)
  4. Continuing in Prayer
  5. Elders and Deacons as Hospitality Leaders
  6. Ministering to the Sick and Dying
  7. The Office Bearer and Household Management
  8. Classical Christian Catechesis
  9. Managing the Offerings of God’s People
  10. Getting Acquainted with the Congregation’s Needs
  11. Avoiding Burnout
  12. Tending the Shepherd (1): Honorable Provision
  13. Tending the Shepherd (2): Sabbaths and Sabbaticals
  14. How to Evaluate Your Pastor
  15. How to Be a Clerk
  16. Navigating the Broader Assemblies: Serving at Classis and Synod
  17. How to Serve on a Pastoral Search Committee
  18. What Every Elder Needs to Know about Congregational Singing
  19. Encouraging Lay Witnessing
  20. Promoting the Work of Missions

As you can see, most of the chapters are practically oriented.  The book includes study questions for each chapter.  Most of the authors are United Reformed ministers, though there are also CanRC and OPC contributors.  Some of the content is specifically oriented to a United Reformed context.  However, much of that can be easily adapted to other contexts, or otherwise safely disregarded.

For the last 10+ years, over two churches, I’ve gone through John Sittema’s With a Shepherd’s Heart.  That’s still a great book for office bearer training, but recently I recommended that we give Faithful and Fruitful a try.  We look forward to reading and discussing it together at our 2020 consistory meetings.


A Day in the Dry Hills of Sabu

The pin shows the location of Sabu between Sumba and Timor. Australia is in the lower right-hand corner.

Our church in Launceston is privileged to support the spread of the gospel in Sabu.  I was asked to go there and represent our church at the ordination of two men to the ministry of the gospel.  Sabu is a small Indonesian island, wedged between the larger islands of Sumba and Timor.  Being in the south of the Indonesian archipelago, it’s physically not that far from the northern reaches of Australia.  Yet, culturally, it may as well be on the other side of the world.

It’s a typical, warm, dry morning as we make our way through the hilly arid landscape up to the church at Taka.  Rocks outnumber trees and the dry, brown dust says this is a tough place to earn a living off the land.  Compared to my current home in Tasmania, the bird and animal life is scarce.

We arrive at the church and already a few dozen people have gathered.  Eventually, they’ll total 150-200 people, filling the building and spilling out the back under a tent that’s been erected for the joyous occasion.  Many attendees are wearing the traditional Sabunese ikat, a woven garment with graphic designs unique to each clan.  They greet each other – and me – by rubbing noses.  As they smile, many mouths and teeth are visibly stained red.  This comes from the habit of chewing betel nuts – which gives a mild stimulant effect.

Amos and Yohanes, newly ordained Reformed ministers in Sabu.

The ordination service itself is familiar to a Reformed believer from anywhere.  It follows the standard Reformed liturgy.  Almost all the singing is from the Psalms, sung to Genevan tunes.  The Form for Ordination seems to be the form used everywhere else.  The men, Amos and Yohanes, are asked a series of questions.  They answer, “I do.”  Then follows the laying on of hands and I’m asked to participate in this, along with all the other pastors present.  Amos and Yohanes kneel on two pillows at the front of the church.  The pastors present (about 8 of us) gather around and we don’t actually place our hands on the brothers, but over them.  Then presiding pastor Pila says (in Indonesian, of course):

God, our heavenly Father, who has called you to this holy office, enlighten you with his Spirit and so govern you in your ministry that you may fulfil it obediently and that it may bear fruit to the honour of his name and the expansion of the kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

After the service ends, a number of people speak a few words.  I’m also given the opportunity to extend greetings on behalf of our church and its mission committee.  I present a gift to each of the newly minted pastors:  Richard Pratt’s He Gave Them Stories (in Indonesian).

We proceed to a house a short way down the dusty road for a celebratory feast.  The ladies have prepared an enormous amount of food to share for lunch.  Besides the obligatory rice, there’s also chicken, some goat, and liver, though I’m not sure from which animal.  For me, the highlight was a savoury pork heart stew with a vinegary sauce.

Joining me as I enjoy this feast are Pastor Windi and Elder Max.  They’re from another Reformed church on the island (Gurijara) and they both speak English fairly well.  Once we’re done eating, they invite me to travel with them to see some more of the island and its Reformed churches.  I hop on the back of Max’s motorbike and away we go.  With me weighing it down, the poor motorbike struggles to get much beyond 40 Km/h.

Elder Max and yours truly.

Max is a high school teacher and his English is good.  He’s quite talkative, even as we’re driving.  Because of his work, he seems to be well-known to many people in Sabu.  Almost every person he passes gets a little beep of the horn and sometimes a greeting or comment.  Before long, we’re at the church building in Gurijara.  This is the largest Reformed church on the island – I’m told it’s about 180 members.  They show me around the simple building and explain how they hope to eventually build a replacement next door.

Before we continue from Gurijara, I have to pause.  By this time the tropical sun is high and intense.  There’s hardly a cloud in sight.  Sunburn threatens and I’ve forgot to bring sunblock from home.  I went to every toko in the town of Seba but no one stocked sunblock.  The closest I could get was some hand and face lotion that included some sunscreen.  I apply that and even if I don’t get much sun protection, at least I smell flowery.

New Reformed church building under construction in Sabu Timor.

Our next stop is Sabu Timor.  We tour the new Reformed church under construction there – it’s going to be a large building once it’s completed.  The foundations are poured and supporting pillars are in place.  The next step is to build the walls, but progress is slow and no one is sure when it’ll be done.  There’s a store next to the construction site, owned by a church member.  We enjoy some water and Max gets some extra air pumped into his tires.  Yeah, it’s not exactly a feathery local riding with him.  But at least I smell nice.

Max and Windi offer to show me the old building in Sabu Timor.  We drive down the road a short ways and then we cut off onto a narrow track.  We drive past the veranda of a home, around the back, and then we’re there.  There are some church members waiting for us. They warmly greet us and we all rub noses.  We sit in some blue plastic chairs and take in the view out of the church and over the nearby ocean.  A refreshing breeze is blowing off the water and it’s a comfortable spot to relax.  Before long, the ladies are bringing in iced tea and a small meal of rice, cabbage, and omelette.

Max points out the most elderly member of the church.  She’s 83 years old and the matriarch of the village.  Everyone in the church is related to her, many of them are her children and grandchildren.  She’s blind in one eye, a little slow in her movement, but otherwise still seems quite alert.  Dressed in her traditional ikat, she quietly strikes a dignified poise.

One of the elders brings his guitar and serenades us with some strumming.  Max asks if I like singing and I say, “Sure, but not everyone likes my singing.”  He suggests we sing, “Silent Night” and we do, and it goes okay — in other words, no one runs away.  Then Windi says we should sing “How Great Thou Art.”  The guitarist first strums out the chorus and then we launch into the first verse.  We get to the chorus and just as we hit the high note at the end of the first line (“Then sings my soul…”), a village dog wanders in and starts howling along.  We all start laughing – all except the village matriarch.  She leaps out of her chair and goes at the poor musical dog.  She chases him out of the church and then, for good measure, takes a small plastic water bottle and hucks it at him.  You can hear the poor dog whimpering off into the shadows.  You don’t mess with the village matriarch when she’s enjoying her music!

From Sabu Timor, we head back to the main town of Seba.  I get dropped off at the homestay and Max heads back to his home in the nearby hills.  Seeing some of Sabu was interesting, enjoying some of the food was tantalizing, but the best thing of all was the reward of meeting God’s people.  It was awesome to share in their joy at the ordination of Amos and Yohanes.  And also getting a glimpse into their lives in this unique place was something that far transcends what you’d experience as an ordinary tourist.


That morning I listened to Kanye West

I’ve never been a Kanye West fan. About a year ago, I was flipping through the radio channels while driving. I came across a station playing one of his songs. It was one of the most vile, misogynistic songs I’ve ever heard. As we were eating our dinner, I told our kids about what I’d heard earlier in the day. Knowing Kanye better than I did, they weren’t surprised. But they sure were surprised to hear their dad listening to Kanye West last Saturday morning.

I was rather surprised too. His new album had just dropped and the title led me to listen. Jesus is King blew me off my feet. How could it happen that the same man responsible for that horrible song could produce an entire album in praise of the Saviour?

Click here to continue reading at Reformed Perspective’s website…


New Chinese Resource Added

Added to the Chinese sermons section:

感谢神因他永不改变之爱 (Psalm 107:17-22)


De Brès, the Belgic Confession, and Persecution

The hanging of Guy de Brès and Peregrin de la Grange on 31st of May, 1567.

Did you know the Belgic Confession is the only officially adopted Reformed confession written by a martyr?  True, other confessions were written by martyrs.  The most notable is the Guanabara Confession.  It was written in 1557 by three Huguenot martyrs in Brazil – it bears the distinction of being the first Reformed confession written in the Americas.  Yet, unlike our Belgic, the Guanabara Confession was never adopted by any church.  The Belgic Confession stands alone.

If we closely survey the Belgic Confession, we’ll find the themes of martyrdom and persecution pervading it.  It’s common knowledge that Guido de Brès borrowed heavily from the French Confession of 1559.  However, one of the significant differences between the French Confession and the Belgic is the emphasis in the Belgic on persecution and martyrdom.  In fact, there is no European Reformation confession as oriented to this subject as the Belgic.

De Brès — A Life on the Run

This is owing to the life and times of its author.  After his conversion to the biblical, Reformed faith in 1547, the life of de Brès was marked by persecution.  He lived in the Low Countries, which William Monter called the “epicentre of heresy executions in Europe.”  Because of persecution, de Brès had to flee to England in 1548, one year after his conversion.  There he received some theological training.

After things started to become difficult in England too, he returned to the Low Countries in 1552.  He became a pastor in Lille, a city where many believers had been martyred by the Spanish authorities.  Several members of his church in Lille were martyred during his time as their pastor too.  Soon, de Brès himself had to flee again, first to Frankfurt, and then later to Lausanne.

By 1559, there was more religious freedom for the Reformed in the Low Countries and so de Brès returned.  He became pastor of the church at Tournai.  There he enjoyed relative peace for about two years.  Things took a turn for the worse in 1561.  The Spanish authorities again cracked down on Reformed believers and de Brès was again forced to run for his life.  Shortly before this, he wrote the Belgic Confession for the Reformed churches.

The Belgic Confession and Persecution

As mentioned earlier, the Confession was penned in the context of blood and death.  It shows throughout.  Our English edition today contains a brief introduction.  That introduction is, of course, fairly recent.  The original Belgic Confession had different introductory material.  It was published as a small booklet.  After the title page, there was a poem, likely written by de Brès.  It pleads for the ruling authorities to give the Reformed believers a fair hearing.  The possibility of another kind of verdict looms in the background.

Then follows the Dedicatory Epistle to Philip II, the Spanish ruler.  The theme of persecution and martyrdom permeates this epistle like no other writing of de Brès.  This writing is not often quoted, but when it is, usually it is this remarkable passage:

The banishments, prisons, racks, exiles, tortures and countless other persecutions plainly demonstrate that our desire and conviction is not carnal, for we would lead a far easier life if we did not embrace and maintain this doctrine.  But having the fear of God before our eyes, and being in dread of the warning of Jesus Christ, who tells us that he shall forsake us before God and his Father if we deny him before men, we suffer our backs to be beaten, our tongues to be cut, our mouths to be gagged and our whole body to be burnt, for we know that he who would follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.

That passage speaks powerfully of the determination of de Brès and his fellow Reformed believers.

Right before the actual body of the Belgic Confession, de Brès included “Some passages of the New Testament in which the faithful are exhorted to render confession of their faith before men.”  Four of the six passages quoted come from a biblical context of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom.

Then throughout the Confession itself we find references to enemies, persecution, and martyrdom.  In article 12, we read about the devils and evil spirits who “lie in wait like murderers to ruin the church and all its members…” They wait “to destroy everything by their wicked devices.”  In article 13, concerning the providence of God, de Brès writes about the consolation this doctrine provides:  “In this we trust, because we know that he holds in check the devil and all our enemies so that they cannot hurt us without his permission and will.” Article 27 is perhaps the most pointed.  De Brès writes of how God preserves the church “against the fury of the whole world.”  He makes a reference to the reign of Ahab during which “the Lord kept for himself seven thousand persons who had not bowed their knees to Baal.” Article 28 continues the theme when it speaks of believers joining the assembly of the church “wherever God has established it.  They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.” In article 29, de Brès mentions the characteristics of the false church.  Among these is the fact that “It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God.”  Finally, in the last article, de Brès writes about the last judgment.  He says the righteous will be vindicated:  “Their innocence will be known to all and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring upon the wicked who persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.”

The booklet containing the Confession was concluded with a remonstrance addressed to the magistrates of the Low Countries.  In this remonstrance, de Brès called for them to carry out their God-given task of delivering justice.  Not unexpectedly, this document also contains the themes of persecution and martyrdom.

The Enduring Testimony of Pastor Guido de Brès

Eventually, de Brès himself faced the gallows.  After Tournai, he fled south to France where he served the Reformed churches from 1561 to 1566.  De Brès returned north to his homeland in July of 1566, but the following year Spanish repression resumed.  De Brès escaped for a time, but eventually was betrayed and captured.  On May 31, 1567 he was hung for ostensibly celebrating the Lord’s Supper contrary to the commandment of the magistrates.

De Brès left us a beautiful gift with his Belgic Confession.  Yet it’s also important to remember he was a pastor and as such, he soundly blessed those under his ministry.  In his Histoire des Martyrs, Jean Crespin writes of an entire Reformed family that was martyred by the Spanish.  The Ogviers were put to death in Lille in 1556.  The family consisted of Robert, his wife Jeanne, their son Martin, and their daughter Baudechon.  Their pastor had been none other than Guido de Brès.

While they were in prison, Martin Ogvier wrote several letters and Crespin reproduces them, some in full and some in parts.  At a certain point Ogvier mentions his pastor:

Flee from those who teach you the wide road, and hold in reverence those who teach the straight way, for it will take you to salvation.  This is what our brother G. (whom you well know) has up till the present very faithfully and with exceptional diligence proclaimed to you…

“Brother G.” here is a reference to Guido de Brès.

Before he went to be with the Lord, Martin Ogvier spoke to his fellow prisoners and again he mentioned his pastor Guy (Guido) de Brès:

Lift up your hearts, my brothers, take courage, it’s done:  I’ve endured the last assault.  I pray you, don’t forget the holy doctrine of the Gospel and all the good teachings which you have heard from our brother Guy.  Show that you have received them in your hearts and not only in your ears.  Follow us, we’re going on ahead, and do not fear, for God will certainly not forsake you.  Good bye, my brothers.

I think that’s what every pastor would want to hear if his people were about to face the same death:  remember what he preached!

These days we might sometimes wonder whether we’re heading into a time of persecution, or maybe even martyrdom.  Certainly there is much more anti-Christian sentiment today than, say 25 years ago.  Whether intense persecution is on the horizon or not, we like Martin Ogvier, must learn to imitate the boldness of men like Guido de Brès.  We can treasure and hold forth our Belgic Confession, a faithful biblical summary, but also a testimony reminding us that the blood of the martyrs is always seed.