We are Grace Church Part 1 - The Pulpit
Three Essential Spheres of the Church - Part 1 "The Pulpit"
A couple weeks ago, I shared some thoughts on what it means to pursue normality as the church. In that post, I advocated that the “new” norm for the church in all times and spaces is “loving God, loving neighbor and making disciples.” It is vitally important in our day to clearly articulate what the church “is” and what the church “is not.” The challenges to normal life activity in 2020 have left the church in many places reeling and longing for a fresh reminder of what is central and what is not central to being the church.
Back in 2018, we preached a four week vision series called “We Are Grace Church.” In that series, we defined the essential spheres in which the church operates. We outlined three spheres of church life. These spheres are not new with me. Joe Thorn outlines them in his 3 part trilogy on the Church. Over the next 3 posts, I want to consider these three spheres in a fresh way. My hope is that by doing so, we can find hope in a season where “doing” church a little differently doesn’t mean the church is abnormal. My desire is to encourage church (Grace and beyond) to avoid reducing the church to a list of pet ministries and kumbaya moments. Rather I want encourage us to celebrate the beautiful mosaic of what it means to be God’s redeemed people.
The first sphere of our church life together is what we call the Pulpit. When we talk about the Pulpit, that is shorthand for the ordinary means of grace commanded in Scripture to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day for Word and Sacrament. When we are talking about the Lord’s Day, we have in mind the biblical teaching on the Ecclesia (gathered church). This means that the church is never less than a gathered people. Though we may rightly and providentially utilize the technological means to stay connected with the church during extraordinary times, these means should be understood as irregular as the church is clearly commanded to “keep the Sabbath” in Scripture as an ecclesia. If you are unfamiliar with the Biblical teaching, consider that the command to “keep the Sabbath” is grounded in the Decalogue (10 Commandments or Moral Law) and therefore not abrogated by Jesus. Additionally, the Sabbath was instituted in creation. The observance of the Lord’s Day in the early church is an extension of this Sabbath command. Perhaps we should consider the very nature of the ordinances given by Christ to his church as a celebration of the gathered church. The ordinances require a “togetherness” or a “gathered” communion of saints.
This observance can be clearly seen in church history. Let’s consider the witness of the church from the Protestant Reformation forward. The 2nd London Confession 1689 helps us in chapter 22 paragraph 1. “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself,2 and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” Clearly, God sets the rules on how he is to be worshipped. We don’t have have unlimited freedom worship God as we wish. The Reformed and many historic protestant churches have observed the Regulative Principle which simply states that only that which is clearly taught in Scripture should be included in the corporate worship of God’s people.
The confession outlines what is be included in worship paragraph 5, “The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord; as also the administration of baptism, and the Lord's supper, are all parts of religious worship of God, to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear; moreover, solemn humiliation, with fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner.” These “means of grace” are most solemnly conducted as the body gathers (ecclesia) together on the Lord’s Day. Yet, the wisdom of the authors of the 1689 confession as well other reformed confessions should not be ignored. They understood that circumstances may hinder these ideals from time to time. Paragraph 6 outlines that worship should and may continue irregularly ways under varying circumstances.” “Neither prayer nor any other part of religious worship, is now under the gospel, tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed; but God is to be worshipped everywhere in spirit and in truth; as in private families daily, and in secret each one by himself; so more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly nor wilfully to be neglected or forsaken, when God by his word or providence calls thereunto.”
The point of this paragraph is that though worship is most solemnly conducted as God’s people gather on the Lord’s Day with a proper focus on engaging in activities listed in Paragraph 5. Yet, there are circumstances that may impact “how” we do these things at times. Several examples come to mind. Perhaps a Christian is engaged in military service overseas and prevented from a viable gathering on the Lord’s Day. Consider life in London during WOrld War II where it was dangerous to meet in public as the Nazis bombed London mercilessly. Perhaps a seasoned believer has health issues that require constant care and shuts them in from gathering with God’s people. Additionally, Covid-19 and its rapid spread may present just such a providence for some persons or communities. In these cases, private and family worship should be attended to in the home or in small group gatherings until they are able to rejoin the public worship gathering of their local church.
Lastly, no restriction is expressly stated or commanded in the Scriptures forbidding the local church from meeting in smaller groupings of the local church such as multiple services or spaces as needed. Though the elders would prefer one service for gathering our people, we must be careful not to extrapolate extra biblical teaching that might be better placed in the category of wisdom rather than command in Scripture. In these days where it is wise to socially distance, this can and should be considered a reasonable, though not ideal, providence for the church.
Hopefully, you can see how this helps us in our current season. Wisdom leads us to conclude that there are providential seasons where God’s people must accommodate less than ideal realities. As one young member of Grace Church recently shared with me, “I want to do whatever it takes to keep our church meeting on Sunday morning. If not having Sunday School, splitting our congregation over two service locations or even wearing a mask helps us do that, I’m all in.” That’s the attitude I hope will permeate our church in these days, indeed it already has! Keeping the main thing the main thing is our goal! In my next post, I will explore the “togetherness” of the church beyond Corporate Worship. We call this sphere, “The Table”. Stay Tuned!