Church Criteria

Dear Church Family,

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a friend who had recently moved to another part of the country. As is usually the case with most Christians, he immediately began to visit local churches in search of a church home. His search was (and is) not without difficulty. [As an aside, this speaks to how a Christian might think about prioritizing looking for a church home before making the decision to move. I’m not picking on my friend, but why is it that looking for a church home often an afterthought, rather than a prerequisite when Christians consider moving to a new geographical location? But that is a topic for another day.]

Anyway, my friend had finally found a church where the preaching and teaching was biblical; however, he had some concerns about how the church administered the Lord’s Supper and the church worshipped. So, his question was: How should someone prioritize what he looks for in a church? Yes, sound and biblical preaching and teaching is an essential, but what about some of these other matters like worship, administration of the sacraments, etc?

These are very important questions. These are questions that have been asked since, at least the Reformation. Of course, no church is perfect. As the old saying goes, “If you ever find the perfect church, don’t go there; you’ll ruin it.” Therefore, we have to be willing, within certain criteria, to be flexible. And, we must be careful not to allow our own personal quirks or opinions to guide us in answering this question. At the same time, there are some objective principles which we may use in our evaluations. So, with some editing for style and to maintain my friend’s anonymity, here’s how I answered his question. [By the way, just to allay anyone’s fears that I might turn any private email conversation into a public essay, I sent a copy of this essay to my friend and received his permission before publishing it.]

The Reformed Confessions on the Marks and Distinctives of the Church

The Belgic Confession (Article 29) defines the three marks of the church like this:

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith would be in general agreement with these three, but also speaks to the purity of worship (WCF 25:4):

“This catholic [visible and universal] Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

Interconnectedness

So, I actually wouldn’t want to choose one of these four (preaching, administration of the sacraments, discipline, and worship) over the others. They are all interconnected. Unfortunately, the reality today is that you find fewer and fewer churches that understand this interconnectivity. Having to choose would be like having to choose one criteria to the exclusion of others with respect to finding a wife. So, is it OK to say, “Well, she has a great personality, she’s a wonderful Christian who loves the Lord, but I’m not physically attracted to her at all”? Or, “She’s a Christian and very beautiful, but whenever we talk I’m bored out of my skull.” I know that some of these are more subjective criteria than are the marks of the church, but I think the illustration still holds.

My point is: keep looking until you feel like you’re not having to settle. Too often the corporate worship of the church is conducted in such a way that tends toward performance, entertainment, and an emphasis on the emotional response and sentimentalism. Allowing people to just go and get communion on their own during a service is not proper administration of the sacraments, it’s more like trough-feeding on demand – “come and go, as you please!” These are connected to the preaching. Even if the preaching is biblical and sound, it is set in the midst of a worship service and context that works against the whole idea of authoritative preaching.

“White space” in Worship

My friend also noted that in many of the churches that he has visited, there is a “serious overemphasis on the worship band concept, to the point of being overkill; leading me to be irritated or stressed…being bombarded by the cacophony of the praise band. There are many Sundays where I wish I could just be still, quiet, and be at spiritual rest (or even physical rest) during the service” (quoted from his email, with permission).

For my part, there is a difference between a ‘praise band’ and what we may call ‘varied accompaniment.’ [But again, that is a topic for another day.] However, I find my friend’s insight about continually being bombarded in the worship service to be insightful and poignant. I believe that “white space” is a good thing; some people call it “dead space” (quiet time between the elements of worship, time for private prayer and reflection, and not filling every second of the service with speaking).

Purposeful times of silence or simple ‘dramatic pauses’ in the liturgy of our corporate worship are helpful in that they give us time to reflect, to consider, to meditate, to take note of and digest what we have prayed, sung, or heard. Too often, those who lead in worship feel compelled to fill every moment with speaking for fear that it will be ‘awkward.’ I believe this to be the result of what we experience in our media-saturated culture. On-air dead time is a major no-no. But, in the church, we ought to strive to be counter-cultural, at least in this regard. Most people’s lives are inundated by the frenetic pace of the world and the bombardment of news and information, 24/7 – as if anyone really needs news and information 24/7! But deliberately encouraging pauses and times of silence in corporate worship helps us to withdraw from that bombardment, and actually mimics the worship of heaven (Revelation 8:1).

Conclusion

Well, I began this week’s reflection by speaking about marks and distinctives of the church and somehow meandered to talking about the benefits of “white space” in corporate worship. But, that’s sometimes the nature of correspondence. Here’s how I concluded my response to my friend:

“I hope that helps. Remember, you’re looking for a church where you can belong and worship, not a place where you can simply ‘download’ (listen to) a good Bible study on Sunday mornings. You wouldn’t settle for a woman who’s only attraction is that she’s engaging to talk to as a wife (at least I hope you wouldn’t), and you shouldn’t settle for anything less in a church. Hope that helps. These are all good questions. I may do some more thinking about this and make it my weekly ‘pastoral reflection’ for this Wednesday. We’ll see.”

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Allegorically Speaking

Dear Church Family,

The passage which we will be looking at in the sermon this coming Sunday (Galatians 4:21-31) is considered by some to be the most difficult passage in the whole of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. It’s a difficult passage and argument to follow because Paul assumes a knowledge of the Old Testament, and his argumentation is somewhat complicated through a series of parallels. So, in preparation for our worship this Sunday, I thought it would be good to at least familiarize ourselves with this text.

Galatians 4:21-31

21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?  22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman.  23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.  24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar.  25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.  26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.  27 For it is written, "REJOICE, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; BREAK FORTH AND SHOUT, YOU WHO ARE NOT IN LABOR; FOR MORE NUMEROUS ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DESOLATE THAN OF THE ONE WHO HAS A HUSBAND."  28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.  29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.  30 But what does the Scripture say? "CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON, FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN."  31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

Outline

In this passage, the Apostle Paul appeals to ‘the law’ (the Torah, or first five books of the Bible) to speak to those who desire to be ‘under the law’ (v 21). Paul shows how a correct appeal to Scripture will actually undo his opponents’ attempts to appeal to Scripture.

(vv 22-23) First, Paul establishes the historical record: Abraham had two sons. Through Hagar the bondwoman or slave, Abraham had Ishmael who was born according to the flesh. Through Sarah the free woman, Abraham had Isaac who was born according to promise.

(vv 24-27) Second, Paul gives an allegorical interpretation of this biblical history. We should note here that while allegorical, Paul’s interpretation is not random or arbitrary. However, this is probably the most difficult part of Paul’s argument to follow. It’s a bit difficult to follow because Paul simultaneously traces two lines (or two covenants, as he calls them), while contrasting them to each other. Two very different covenants proceed from two different women, and each represents two different religions. In fact, the two covenants are diametrically opposed to each other, even as they correspond to one another. I have found it helpful for my own thinking to chart out Paul’s comparisons in a table as follows:

 

Abraham

Mothers

Hagar

Sarah

(Status)

(Bond-woman)

(Free-woman)

Sons

Ishmael

Isaac

(Means)

(born according to the flesh)

(born according to promise)

Origin

Mount Sinai

?

Mother Cities

Present Jerusalem

Jerusalem Above

Offspring

Children are slaves

Children are free

(Status)

(born according to the flesh)

(children of promise)

 

(vv 28-31) Third, having contrasted these two covenants, Paul makes application. Those who have come to trust in Jesus Christ are, like Isaac, children of promise, born according to the Spirit. Those who seek to justify themselves through works of the Law are in slavery, children of the flesh, born according to the flesh. And, the children of the flesh (the Judaizing false teachers) are persecuting the children of promise; therefore, they must be cast out.

Positive and Negative Applications

The Apostle Paul makes both positive and negative applications in this passage. That is to say, he affirms certain truths about the Christian believers in Galatia and he denies certain claims which have been made by the false teachers in Galatia.

Positively, the Christian believers in Galatia are not slaves but free because they have embraced the promises of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Though they may be persecuted in this life, they are children of the Jerusalem above and thus are secure in their salvation. Because they have been born of the Spirit as a result of the promises of God and not born of their own work and will, they may rest secure in the knowledge they are the true descendants of Abraham.

Negatively, the false teachers in Galatia are not free but slaves because they have sought to justify themselves through works of the Law. They are the persecutors who are seeking to mock the faith of the true believers and enslave them all over again. Rather than having certain spiritual rights and privileges because they are physically descended from Abraham, by denying sufficiency of Christ’s work for justification, they show themselves to be descended through Ishmael not Isaac. Thus, unless the repent and trust in Christ alone for salvation, they must be cast out.

Conclusion

I hope that this brief outline and charting of Paul’s argumentation is helpful for us in preparing for worship this coming Sunday and hearing from God in the reading and preaching of His Word. There is much more that could be said about the teaching and application of this passage which we will explore on Sunday, but even in the sermon on Sunday morning we will not be able to plumb all of the teaching and application found in these verses.

However, I’ll leave you with one final question that we will seek to answer in the sermon on Sunday. In the chart above, you may notice that there is a question mark in one of the blocks. That’s because in Paul’s explanation, he leaves something out. In speaking of the covenant proceeding from Hagar, he says that “Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem” (v 25). Yet, while he speaks of how the ‘Jerusalem above’ in contrast with the ‘present Jerusalem’ (v 26), he doesn’t specifically mentions a contrast to ‘Mount Sinai.’

Among other things, this Sunday we’ll try to answer this question: What is the implicit, unstated thing that Paul has in mind which corresponds to ‘Mount Sinai’? It’s an important question, because it is the origin and source of our spiritual life and worship.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Pastoral Reflection

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this coming Sunday, we will be looking at Galatians 4:12-20 where the Apostle Paul examines and questions the relationship between himself and the believers in Galatia. In this section, we see Paul’s pastoral heart, and his desire for a peaceful and fruitful relationship to continue between himself and those in the churches that he has planted. The ultimate goal of his labors is that Christ would be formed in them – that they would be conformed not to his image, but to the image of Christ, Himself (v 19).

As I’ve been reflecting on this passage, I’ve naturally been driven to reflect on my relationship, as the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PPC), with you all. Beginning to minister as the pastor at the beginning of October 2012, I have been in this role at PPC for almost seven months now. As part of this reflection, I have also gone back and reread the letter that I sent to you all back in August 2012, which I wrote in response to receiving the call to come and be your pastor.

Upon rereading that letter, I discovered that the good things that I initially learned and experienced in coming to visit PPC last summer are still true. In fact, the reality of the grace of God at work among the members and families of PPC has only become more apparent over the course of the last several months. Sometimes friends and family, or other ministers in our presbytery will ask, “So, how’s it going in Midland?” To which I respond by telling them of how gracious, generous, kind, and welcoming are the people in the church. How the church was growing even as I arrived, with people waiting to join. I boast in the elders of PPC, and how all the people of the congregation delight in hearing God’s Word read, preached, and taught.

Rereading that letter from last summer was also good reminder to me of the promises which I made to you all at that time, which I reiterate to you today. And, where I have come up short, I thank you for your grace, patience, and understanding. Thank you for making my first six months here an easy transition and a continuing growth in joy in the ministry for myself and my family. What I said last August, is still true today: it was a ‘no-brainer’ for us to make the decision to come to PPC here in Midland, and I thank God for His “Providence” (this church called Providence, and His providence in bringing us here). Now, without further ado, for this week’s ‘Pastoral Reflection,’ below is that letter in its entirety.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

[----------Beginning of Quote----------]

August 13, 2012

To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Providence Presbyterian Church in Midland, Texas. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thank you for your trust and confidence in calling me to be the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PPC). In the process of seeking a call to the pastorate, I have had a hope and idea – perhaps even an ideal – of the kind of church that would be a perfect fit. That hope began to be realized when I first read the informational document prepared by the pulpit committee. PPC was described in these four ways: Confessionally Reformed, Deep Personal Congregational Devotion, Culturally Diverse, and Warmly Hospitable. As I interacted with the pulpit committee, I began to learn more about the congregation, and the priorities of the church. And, upon visiting and interacting with you all (if only for a short time), that hope of the ideal fit began to take on flesh.

In that informational document prepared by the pulpit committee, one of the phrases used to describe Midland was that the city “enjoys a delightful climate.” Whether or not that is true remains to be seen, I suppose; however, Stacie and I have found this to be spiritually true of the church: the people of Providence Presbyterian Church enjoy a delightful climate, basking in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. I look forward to getting to know everyone better in the congregation and the privilege of leading the church in worship and the ministry of the Word.

For my part, I promise to guard both myself and my teaching, to persevere in the public reading of Scripture, exhortation, and teaching, and in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, to show myself to be an example of those who believe (1 Timothy 4:11-16). I will endeavor to labor among you in gentleness, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children; I will endeavor to labor among you devoutly, uprightly, and blamelessly, exhorting, encouraging, and imploring just as a father would his own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). As I seek to be an under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd, I commit to praying for each one of you and your families. Please pray for me and my family.

In general, I believe the biblical mission of each and every particular church may be summarized in this way: “To proclaim and extol the name of Jesus Christ, our King and Savior, as we nurture and grow faithful disciples and ambassadors of the kingdom of God, in order to expand His rule and reign through the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” This mission is accomplished in the three priorities of the corporate life of the church: worship, discipleship, and evangelism. I am grateful and praise God for the faithfulness of PPC in this regard, and look forward to joining with you.

Now to some specifics. We are in the process of purchasing a home in Midland, and anticipate moving sometime near the end of September. The details of our move are still being worked out, but we are trying to make the move as soon as possible. In coordination with the elders of the session and the North Texas Presbytery (NTP), I also anticipate that a commission of the NTP will hold an installation service at PPC sometime in October.

Before closing this letter, I want to express my gratitude to the entire congregation for making this process so simple and easy. I don’t mean that only with respect to the many practical aspects of the search and call process, but also with respect to the decision-making process. You all have made accepting the call to come as the pastor of PPC an easy decision to make. It has been, as they say, a ‘no-brainer’ for me and my family! We are particularly grateful for the hospitality of the two families (Greg & Rachel Berkhouse and Jerry & Cindy Walton) who hosted Stacie and me on our two visits to Midland for our candidating and house-hunting visits.

Finally, I am grateful for the elders of the church: Greg Eddings, Reed Gilmore, and Greg Berhouse. Providence Presbyterian Church is blessed to have men of such caliber to shepherd and guard the flock. I have been impressed by their love for the church, theological acumen, moderation, and wisdom. Stacie and I were able to worship and partake of the Lord’s Supper with these three men on Friday night at the NTP worship service, and then spend some time with them at the presbytery meeting on Saturday. It was a thrill for me to share these experiences with these brothers, and I look forward to co-laboring with them in the ministry of the gospel at PPC.

In Christ,
- Peter M. Dietsch

[----------End of Quote----------]

The Deceiving Heart

Dear Church Family,

This month we are praying for PCA missionaries Kris and Paula Lundgaard who are serving in Slovakia. I’ve mentioned before that I believe that Kris Lundgaard’s book The Enemy Within is one of the best studies and helps in battling sin in our lives toward sanctification. In that book, Kris describes how according to the Bible, the ‘heart’ is described as including much more than feelings. The heart comprises the mind (thoughts, plans, judgments), the will (choices and actions), affections (desires, feelings, revulsions), and the conscience (sense of right and wrong).

He also gives a helpful insight into our understanding (or rather, lack of understanding) of the heart: “We modestly admit we don’t know someone else’s heart, but the truth is we can’t even know our own. Do you always know why you choose chocolate over vanilla? Why one day your passions sizzle and another you’re a dead leaf in the wind? Can you number all the events and images that impress your heart and make it lean this way or that? Haven’t you been surprised by the insincerity and even intrigue you’ve found in your heart?” (pp 36-37)

The Pluck of Pluckers

This insight into the mystery of the inner-workings of the heart is evident in Scripture: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). I am reminded of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet where, in Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet’s two friends are trying to ‘help’ him. They really don’t know what’s going on and why Hamlet is so upset (Hamlet has learned that his uncle has murdered his father and married his mother!), but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think that they can provide good counsel nonetheless. In this way, these two men are not much unlike Job’s friends.

As Hamlet is trying to fend off their unwanted advice and counsel, finally Hamlet is exasperated. He picks up a recorder (a flute) and asks Guildenstern, “Will you play upon this pipe?” Guildenstern responds, “I have not the skill.” So, Hamlet lays into him,

“Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me. You would seem to know my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.”

Hamlet derides Guildenstern for thinking that he can understand another person’s heart. In other words, “You don’t have the skill to play this simple flute, but you actually think that you can understand and play my heart?!” And the truth of the matter is that Hamlet doesn’t even understand the courses and tributaries of his own heart!

This is a truth which all people – especially Christians – need to understand. Jeremiah says that the heart of man is not only desperately sick, but is more deceitful than all else. Our hearts deceive even us. Christians, even after they have been redeemed and given a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), continue to be deceived by their own hearts.

Semi-transcendence

To better deal with our hearts that often deceive us, it is helpful for believers to learn the discipline of some refer to as semi-transcendence. Semi-transcendence is the ability to be both inside or ourselves and to step outside of ourselves at the same time. If that sounds confusing, consider the words of the Apostle Paul as he speaks to this idea: “But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).

Paul says that it is a small thing to be examined or judged by other human beings. What’s more, Paul confesses that he can’t even examine or judge myself. Just because Paul finds himself innocent that doesn’t mean that he is. No, the one who examines or judges Paul is the Lord. That’s semi-transcendence. The discipline of learning to be self-aware enough to know that you cannot always trust your own heart; at the same time, learning to step outside of yourself to be able to view yourself (and your heart) with the objectivity of God’s examinations and judgments.

Conclusion

So, where do you learn about what God says about you? Where do you learn God’s examination and judgment of your heart? You learn God’s judgment and examinations in the Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12).

There is much more that could be said, but let this be an encouragement to you in your Bible reading and study. The Word of God tells us that it is able to judge the thought and intentions of the heart. The Word of God also self-attests to its usefulness in training the heart: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Even more foundational, however, the Word of God is that place where we find the declaration of God’s promises to those who trust in Christ. Our own hearts may alternately acquit and condemn us, but when we read the truths of God’s Word in what He says about us we will find true assurance. If you belong to Christ, God has called you (Romans 8:30), regenerated you (Ephesians 2:4-5), given you the gift of faith and justified you (Ephesians 2:8-9), adopted you as a son (Galatians 4:4-5), sealed and sanctified you through the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20), and will perfect His work of redemption in you on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

Though your hearts may deceive you and even condemn you, God promises to give you assurance by His Word and His Spirit. And, God is able to do this because He is “greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3:19-20).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch