Christians and/or Hypocrites?

These are extracts from my sermon today on the Parable of the Wheat & the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 34-43).


I’m sure you’ve all heard this before: “I don’t like church because of all the hypocrites there.”

Story: A woman tells her Pastor she is going to leave his church because of all the hypocrites.  He tells her first to walk around the church three times holding a full glass of water, and if she doesn’t spill it, then she can leave.  She does so and reports back.  He asks if she noticed any of those people while she was carrying the water, she answered no.  He pointed out that she was concentrating on the water; similarly in worship she should be concentrating on the Lord, not the shortcomings of others.

This is an illustration of prioritizing our attention in church.  Yes there may be ‘problem people’ in the pews, but that’s no reason to leave, or even necessarily to kick them out.

Today’s parable shows us that hypocrites will always be found in the church.


Corporate Application

One of the difficult dynamics in church life is what you do with people who aren’t “getting with the program,” so to speak.  Sometimes you see people sitting in the pews and you can’t help but wonder if they even care about the Gospel, if they really love Jesus, if they really believe what the Bible says.  Sometimes you see people sitting in the pews whom you know they aren’t believers.  They’re there for the fellowship, or the worship experience (be it contemporary or traditional), or perhaps even a sense of duty drives them to church attendance.  What should we do about people like that, kick them out if they don’t believe?

According to our Articles of Religion, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (Article 19).  Some take this to mean that only the faithful belong in church, and the rest should be ostracized until they repent – there have been some Protestant traditions in which that happened.  But notice the Articles doesn’t say the visible church is exclusively faithful people; there is room for recognition of people who attend and participate but are not actually believing Christians.  Some of them will repent and believe later, some of them will not.  What the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds teaches us is that we should not kick those people out.  It can be discouraging, even frustrating, to have people sitting in the pews next to you who don’t believe the Gospel they’re hearing preached to them week after week.  But we must not chase them away.

We must not chase them away for two reasons.  First of all, we do not know if or when they will repent, turn to Christ, and be transformed from weeds into wheat.  If people instigate a purge and try to “purify” the congregation, potential new disciples could be lost forever.  If people want to come to a place where they will hear the Gospel, by no means should we stop them.  The other reason we shouldn’t root out the weed-members of a church is explained in the Parable itself: the good wheat could be uprooted and destroyed by accident.  Those unbelieving churchgoers might be friends or family members of others who do believe; if we kick them out, we risk kicking out the whole family or group of friends!  Even worse, such an act could be misinterpreted as a witch hunt, and the faith of other church members could be damaged simply by witnessing it.  No, as Jesus said, we must leave the weeds among the wheat, and let God’s angels sort out who’s who at the End of Time.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean the Church is powerless to deal with troublemakers.  Other passages of Scripture, such as in Matthew 18, explicitly deal with the godly process of helping impenitent sinners to reconcile with Christ and His Church.  There is, as a last resort of church discipline, an act called excommunication – a removal from Communion.  This is reserved for people who openly, publicly, and explicitly defy the Gospel of Christ, either by word or deed, and refuse all correction and godly counsel.  Only after due process is someone removed from the communion of the Church, meaning they cannot receive Holy Communion or any other sacramental rite or ministry except Pardon & Absolution once they repent.  Even at this extreme, though, the Church’s hope and goal is restoration: the apostate (person cast out) is only removed for the protection of those in the Church, and with the intention that they’ll see their removal from Christ and be moved to return to Him.

So when we look at the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, and note that the Weeds are supposed to remain, we find that speaks mainly to the “nominal” believers – people who blend in with Christians and cause little to no offense in the Church.  A helpful illustration for this clarification is found in some of the older translations of the Bible, in which the weeds are called “tares.”  Tares are a sort of weed that closely resembles wheat, especially when they’re small.  Only when they’re grown large is it clear that the tares are weeds, not wheat, and by then it’s too late to pull them out of the ground without uprooting the wheat.  Thus this Parable does not forbid all manner of Church discipline, but it does forbid witch hunts, persecutions, and, I might dare to say, other things like the Spanish Inquisition.

Individual Application

As for us, individually, what do we take home from this Parable?  Like the Parable of the Four Types of Soil that we heard last week, we can examine ourselves to evaluate if we’re living more wheat-like or weed-like.  Just as God can remove the rocky sinful heart and replace it with a heart of flesh (one that is truly alive), so too can God transform a weed into a wheat.  Instead of scrutinizing the hypocrisy and spiritual wastefulness of others, therefore, this Parable should move us to consider our own growth in God’s field.

The weeds, or tares if you like, resemble wheat, especially when they’re new.  We can’t just look on outward appearances; we have to look at the heart and mind inside.  Traditional catechesis, that is discipleship and training for believers, strives to pass the faith from three different angles: the faith believed, the faith expressed, and the faith enacted.  We ought to scrutinize ourselves in all three areas.

The faith believed: Do you affirm the teachings of the Church?  Do you check with the Bible to confirm the ideas about God that you think up, and the ideas about God that you hear from others?  Ponder the Creeds, read them and pray them often; let your knowledge of God be shaped by His Church rather than by the world that opposes Him.

The faith expressed: What does your worship life look like?  Do you pray both with the Church and on your own?  And how do those types of prayer inform each other?  Ponder the Lord’s Prayer, use it often; let your love for God mirror who he has revealed himself to be rather than simply what you want Him to be.

The faith enacted: Do you act like a Christian?  Do you strive to keep your words and your activities blameless before the Judge of All?  Ponder the Ten Commandments, examine yourself according to their summary of the Law; let your lifestyle be one fitting of a student and child of the King, rather than the sinful riffraff that He rescued you from.

As you undergo self-examination, scrutinizing your heart, heart, and hands, you will always find room for growth.  We will never see perfection in ourselves this side of Judgement Day.  But as long as we are growing closer to Christ, we know we aren’t growing away from Christ.  Focus on receiving Christ daily in every corner of your life, and eventually the fruit of the Spirit will begin to emerge.  Don’t be fooled by outward appearances; be honest and real with yourself before God, and let Jesus the Good Farmer (and his assistants) minister to you.

Let Psalm 86:11 be your prayer today: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear thy name.”

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What has God done for us? – summarizing Articles 15-18

In a culture that insists on highlighting the freedom and capability of humanity (be it the individual, the race as a whole, or a bit of both), an emphasis on the doctrine of salvation through Christ alone becomes all the more important bring to the fore.  This is what we find in Articles 15 through 18.  With the human condition clearly established as a hopeless position of death in all things spiritual in the previous set of Articles, it is also now pertinent to set forth what God has to resolve that situation.

Article 15 begins with the basic Christian dogma that Jesus, being God the Son, lived an entirely sinless life.  Of the Devil, Jesus was able to say “he has no claim on me” (John 14:30).  This one of the absolutely necessary cornerstones of Christian teaching on salvation, as it is Jesus’ perfect righteousness (intrinsic, not just earned) that is shared out to (and “covers”) those who are united with him.

The other major touchstone is described in Article 17: God’s peremptory, decisive, and intentional action to save sinners.  Again, if the human condition through sin is one of spiritual death, then it must be God who steps in to give new spiritual life before a person can be considered righteous, worthy in any way of God’s grace.  In a culture that loves to reward good effort and condemn inactivity, this doctrine of human helplessness and divine initiative is hard to swallow.

Articles 16 and 18 wrap up the package of God’s work of salvation briefly and succinctly, continuing the human reliance upon God all the way through the Christian life: there is never a point at which we gain mastery over sin ourselves.  We cannot look to ourselves for strength, we cannot “claim” victory through our own strength of faith.  Even corporately, the Church has not become the power source of salvation; only in the name of Jesus Christ are we saved.

The centrality of God, from beginning to end, is a key feature of the biblical faith.  Although there are many details and difficult questions that come up along the way wherein Christians honestly disagree and debate, we are united in the singular confession that Christ alone is the source of our salvation; we can turn ultimately to none other.

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What is the human condition? – summarizing Articles 9-14

These six Articles of faith set out the basic groundwork for a biblical theology of salvation.  Before getting to the question of what Christ has done for us, it first must be established what need there is for salvation, and why.  Article 9 gets the subject started by introducing the doctrine of original sin: we sin because we have naturally inherited a sinful nature.  This is played out further in Articles 10, 11, 12, and 13 as the fallenness of the human estate is such that neither our good works nor even our free will are capable of laying hold of Christ without him “preventing us” – that is, taking the first step of freeing us from sin’s hold over us.  Thus these Articles together teach of human sinfulness as a sort of spiritual death, in line with New Testament teachings such as in Romans 8:10 and Ephesians 2:1.

Article 14 takes this a step further, noting that we remain sinners even as redeemed Christians, and thus even then can never claim that our good works outweigh our sinfulness.  God’s grace is what gets us started in the life of faith, and God’s grace is what sees us through, every step of the way.

Overall, these teachings reflect the Protestant understanding of Scripture and the Early Church Fathers, in contrast to the rather more “optimistic” view held by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.  Both tend to teach a level of freedom of the human will even from sin such that the yet-unsaved soul can cry out to God for salvation.  Eastern Orthodoxy, further, holds to what we might consider a ‘softer’ version of the doctrine of original sin, seeing it more as an inheritance of Adam’s tendency to sin, rather than inheriting Adam’s spiritual death all-out.

Articles 9-14 may seem rather bleak subjects to study and discuss, but without these doctrines in place, the human need for the salvation offered by Christ is almost entirely negligible.  The “bad news” must be understood before the “good news” can be appreciated.

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Nurture the Seeded Word within You

This is an exposition of Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, my sermon today.

The heart of Matthew’s Gospel

Now that we’ve reached chapter 13, we are now in the heart of St. Matthew’s Gospel book.  Each of the four gospels are different, with their own perspective, emphases, and writing style.  Matthew’s book is a thoughtfully-arranged literary work, loosely forming a chiasm.  A chiasm is a pattern that could be visualized like a mountain: it starts at the bottom, works its way up to the top, and then proceeds back down in reverse order.  The beginning and end correspond to each other, the second section and the second-to-last sections correspond to each other, and so on all the way until you get to the center.  This is especially common in Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament, but sometimes, like in the Gospel of Matthew, it is a literary feature in prose writings.  The thing about chiasms in the Bible, though, is that sometimes authors use them for sake of elegance and beauty, and sometimes to highlight what’s in the center of the chiasm.  It’s not a guarantee that the center of the pattern is the most important part of the whole thing, so you have to study the text to make sure you’re not getting carried away with literary analysis.

In this case, though, there does seem to be a purposeful center to Matthew’s writing.  Throughout the book are alternating sections of Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ ministry, and right in the center of it all is chapter 13: a compilation of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God.  Throughout the book, the Kingdom of God is prominently featured in Jesus’ teachings and the author’s narration, so to find a compilation of seven parables in the very center of the structure of the book, we must take notice that we have reached the very heart of what Matthew wants us to know about Jesus.  Thankfully, our lectionary slows down again to make sure that we get all of the parables in chapter 13 over the course of three Sundays.

What is a Parable?

Today we have just one parable: that of the Sower and the Four Soils.  Most of you are familiar with parables, I expect, but let’s first refresh our memories: what is a parable?  The Hebrew word for parable is mashal, and it actually takes several different translations, revealing a somewhat broad definition.  I’ll give you six examples from the Old Testament of how mashal or parable is translated into English, and how it functions in the Bible.

  1. Psalm 78 is introduced as a parable, and then proceeds to recount historical events with a spiritual lesson attached to it.
  2. Ezekiel 24:2-5 is introduced as an allegory, using the description of the proper preparation of an animal for sacrifice as a picture of ritual cleanness in contrast to the sinfulness of God’s people at that time.
  3. Judges 9:7-15 contains a fable in which the trees try to choose a king for themselves, in mockery of what the Israelites were trying to do at that time.
  4. 1 Samuel 24:13 uses mashal as a proverb: “out of the wicked comes forth wickedness.”
  5. Isaiah 14:4-21 has a taunt song, using cosmic imagery to describe the fall of the wicked king of Babylon.
  6. And Ezekiel 17:2-8 is a riddle, using the image of eagles transplanting vines to point towards God’s work of recreating his people.

This all comes together in the idea that a mashal or parable is something with a double meaning which is memorable, but often hides its true meaning from the casual hearer.  The Orthodox Study Bible explains,

“The Scriptures, especially the Gospels, are filled with parables – images drawn from daily life in the world to represent and communicate the deep things of God.  Parables give us glimpses of him whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways (Is 55:8,9).  The truth communicated by Jesus’ parables, however, is not evident to all who hear them.  The listener must have spiritual ears to hear, and even then not all have the same degree of understanding.

“Thus, Jesus’ statement that “to those who are outside, all things come in parables,” may be translated “…all things come in riddles.”  [This] does not mean He used parables to blind the people or to lead them to punishment.  On the contrary, it demonstrates that the people are responsible for their own lack of receptivity: having grown dull and insensitive, they are unwilling to accept the message of the parables.  As the mission of Isaiah in the Old Testament was to open the eyes of Israel to see the acts of God, so the parables of Jesus are intended to open the eyes of his hearers to the truth and lead them to produce the fruit of righteousness.

“Parables challenge the hearer and call for faith to perceive the mysteries of the Kingdom.  Insight into God’s Kingdom does not come simply through an intellectual understanding of the parables.  Spiritual enlightenment is essentially a communication of faith in the Person, words, and deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So the goal of these parables isn’t give us an unnecessary hurdle on the way to understanding God’s Word, but to challenge us to wrestle with the faith and get to know Him who spoke them.  And then, once we begin to understand these parables, they become easy-to-remember pictures of deep spiritual teachings.  You are probably not able to memorize a whole sermon, but you can memorize a quick parable.  Study, learn, and understand them, and they will unfold entire sermons to you with moment’s thought!

The Sower & the Seed

So let us now turn to the parable itself.  It begins with a farmer sowing seeds.  We’ve heard from Isaiah already that God is sower and his Word is his seed.  This is a pertinent connection, and why the lectionary has paired Isaiah 55 with this parable: Jesus is the Great Sower, and his Word is the Seed.  Jesus traveled about teaching, and his disciples also traveled about teaching.  The analogy continues to this day: the Word of God taught and preached is like seed being scattered abroad in the hearts of all who hear.

Similarly, the idea of a teacher and his teaching being depicted as a sower with seed was also commonplace in Jewish writings.  In a book of visions attributed to Ezra, we read:

My mouth was opened, and I began to speak before the Most High, and said, [29] “O Lord, thou didst show thyself among us, to our fathers in the wilderness when they came out from Egypt and when they came into the untrodden and unfruitful wilderness; [30] and thou didst say, `Hear me, O Israel, and give heed to my words, O descendants of Jacob. [31] For behold, I sow my law in you, and it shall bring forth fruit in you and you shall be glorified through it for ever.’ [32] But though our fathers received the law, they did not keep it, and did not observe the statutes; yet the fruit of the law did not perish — for it could not, because it was thine. [33] Yet those who received it perished, because they did not keep what had been sown in them. [34] And behold, it is the rule that, when the ground has received seed, or the sea a ship, or any dish food or drink, and when it happens that what was sown or what was launched or what was put in is destroyed, [35] they are destroyed, but the things that held them remain; yet with us it has not been so. [36] For we who have received the law and sinned will perish, as well as our heart which received it; [37] the law, however, does not perish but remains in its glory (2 Esdras 9:28-37).

Note especially what was said in the middle of that quote: God sows his Law in his people, they didn’t keep that Law, yet the fruit of that Law didn’t perish.  This is like an echo of Isaiah’s words that God’s Word never returns empty, but always accomplishes its purpose.  This also prepares the way for Jesus’ parable which describes three different ways that the sown seed of God’s Word can apparently “fail” to transform the hearer.  In the previous vision attributed to Ezra, he observes this more clearly:

“For just as the farmer sows many seeds upon the ground and plants a multitude of seedlings, and yet not all that have been sown will come up in due season, and not all that were planted will take root; so also those who have been sown in the world will not all be saved” (2 Esdras 8:41).

These visions, being written before Christ as far as we know, primarily understand God’s Word as the Law of Moses. What we find in the preaching of Jesus, however, is much more than just a rehash of the Law, but its fulfilment: the Gospel, the good news of the final and perfect redemption of our sins!

The Four Soils

Now turn to the four soils themselves.  It should be noted at the outset that God has the power to change hearts.  So don’t fall into the trap of imagining that every person is one and only one type of soil in this parable: by God’s grace and his ministering through his Church peoples hearts can be cultivated and cured of its diseases and drawbacks.  When Jesus speaks of the final result of each of these four soils, he’s speaking of their final result – what happens on the Day of Harvest at the end of the age.  If you or someone you know has a heart in a bad place right now, that doesn’t mean they’re fated to that forever.  God can change hearts and minds, and we must both seek that daily for ourselves and others.  You could say that we are called to nurture the seeded Word within us, so it can grow and propagate.  So let’s keep that in mind as we examine these four types of soil that our Lord describes.

First, the Path is one who’s so set on evil that the Devil’s myriad distractions snatch the Word from his ears and mind.  Like the flattened ground, this person’s heart is intentionally solidified against the Gospel.  This is Saint Paul before his conversion, utterly convinced that Jesus was the enemy of God.  This is also a hearer who couldn’t care less – someone who attends church but lets the Word go in one ear and out the other.  We must overcome the Devil’s distractions by focusing our attention on Christ and his Word.

Second, the Rocky Soil is one who is superficially interested in the Word and flees at the first sign of trouble.  He receives the Gospel with real joy and enthusiasm at first, but his faith is shallow – joy and enthusiasm are all this person wants or expects from God.  When potential suffering for the faith comes up, he doesn’t just fall away, as the ESV translation puts it, but rather, he’s offended.  “How dare God do this to me!  This is not what I signed up for!  Jesus is supposed to be a religion of love!  I’m off.”  He blames the scorching sun for withering up his faith, but he forget that the sun is the normal light needed for growth; the real culprit is the shallow soil of his heart.  We must overcome this superficiality by learning that suffering yields growth, and by deepening our knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Third, the Thorny ground is one whose worldly commitments override (choke out) the Word.  The worries of this age (or life or world) become an idolatrous focus for this person.  This might not even be a bad thing in itself; inordinate love of luxury, or fellowship, or work, or a hobby can be an idol that eats up his time and money at the expense of his faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus singles out money as a usual culprit, and again this applies equally whether one is poor or rich.  We must overcome this by evaluating our real priorities in our lives.

Finally, the Good Soil is one who truly understands (or hears & receives) the Word.  Even here Jesus notes that there is a difference of yield – there is a range of fruitfulness among God’s people as we pass the Word to others: some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.  The good news is that despite the apparent losses of the other three types of soil, there remains an abundant harvest here.  The tough news is that a person’s conversion to Christ only counts when it’s confirmed by a life of discipleship.

Concluding Exhortations

To be good soil, you must hear, receive, and understand God’s Word!  Identify the distractions in your life; make the effort to go deeper in knowing and loving God; evaluate the priorities of where your time and energy go.  There is much evil in world and within ourselves that draws us away from Christ, and there is much good in the world and within ourselves that become idols when we focus on them above Christ.  To nurture the Word of God implanted in our hearts, we must be attentive to what else is in our hearts, and how we’re treating those things compared with how we treat our Lord who has redeemed us from the nethermost hell, and raised us up to the promise of eternal life with Him.  As we said earlier, in Psalm 65,

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who hear prayer, to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

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Article 24: Native Language

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 24 states:

XXIV. Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

This may be one of those points of faith that may seem like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you have a worship service in your own language? Having a language barrier would bar most of the congregation from understanding much of the liturgy (music, Scripture readings, prayers, etc.). How would they be edified without understanding? Why would anybody inflict that upon anyone? Since even the Roman Church no longer enforces a Latin-only liturgy, which was the very problem this Article addressed, this write-up will focus on how that situation arose, rather than defend a practice that we all now agree upon.

In the Early Church, virtually every Christian spoke Latin, Greek, or Aramaic. The language of worship was determined according to local region (or diocese) – Greek Christians worshiped in Greek, Jewish-descendant (especially Syrian) Christians worshiped in Aramaic, and Western (Roman) Christians worshiped in Latin. There were other languages spoken, but those were the main three at the beginning; even Aramaic soon became a tiny percentage. Eventually the faith spread beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. This resulted in the Bible and the liturgy being translated into some new languages, particularly in the East (Persia and India) and the South (Ethiopia). But some peoples who received the Gospel didn’t have their own written language; this was especially the case in Europe (like the Franks and the Slavs). As they received the Christian Gospel, many of them also took on aspects of the lifestyle and education of the Greco-Roman world. Converts learned the new languages (Latin or Greek), and thus worshiped in those languages. Especially in fractured Europe through the medieval age, the Latin-speaking Church was a unifying force like none other.

Eventually, after a few centuries, the spoken languages had evolved to a point where the preserved Church Latin was no longer the same language spoken in the street – Spanish, Italian, French, and Romanian had emerged, not to mention the non-Latin-based Germanic languages such as English and German and Norse. But for the sake of unity, and because everyone who was educated still learned Latin, the liturgy continued in Latin. The Bible (or parts of it) was occasionally translated into local languages. We have, for example, the Gospels and Psalms in Old English from the 900’s. But the desire for unity outweighed the desire for local idiom.

Finally, in the course of the Protestant Reformation, the need for local language worship was brought to the foreground. It is often over-exaggerated how little Latin people understood – everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer in Latin back then, and many other stock phrases were commonly known. And preaching was almost exclusively in the local language already. Thus, a Christian could have traveled all over Europe and still be able to experience the same liturgy everywhere! Nevertheless it became both a tool and a rule among the Reformers to utilize the local language for the entirety of the liturgy.

The Roman Church followed suit 500 years later. Some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches still utilize hundreds-of-years-old liturgies that are not readily understandable in the modern day.

This Article thus also speaks to our present day. The need to update liturgy and Bible translation periodically in order to keep it understandable to the common folk is a Reformation principle. Those who insist on the King James Bible only are very nearly violating this Article, for example. Some Anglicans, who insist on only traditional language liturgy, are also in danger of violating this Article. While traditional English is only a few centuries old, there are a number of grammatical and vocabulary changes since 1611 (KJV Bible) or 1662 (standard Prayer Book) that exclusive use of them begins to present an unnecessary burden to the modern hearer.

Thus we are experiencing afresh the challenge of the Reformers: how do we honor the beautiful and unifying tradition of the past while keeping the Gospel freshly spoken in our own day? It is a difficult line to walk, and is one that contemporary Anglicanism has yet to solve entirely.

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Patriotism and the Church’s Agenda

A thorny question that always pops up this time of year (and seems to get thornier with each passing year) is how and to what extent the churches should acknowledge Independence Day here in the USA.  A lot of Christians in this country perceive a special link between conservative politics and conservative theology.  To a superficial degree, that is true.  But the “agenda” of politics and the “agenda” of the Gospel are utterly different.  Yes, they can work together in certain areas of overlap, but their ultimate missions are different.

So what do we do on the Sunday nearest to the 4th of July?  I have heard of a pastor wanting to have a presentation of the national flag in the church building, followed by the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a worship director being fired for conscientiously objecting.  I have heard of churches singing patriotic songs like “God Bless America.”  How far do we go?  How much patriotism is appropriate, and where is the line of idolatry?

There are more questions than I can answer (or even tackle) in a single blog post.  For now, I’d like to highlight one of the few direct teachings in the Bible concerning how the churches are to approach the state: 1 Timothy 2:1-6.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.  This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.

This, I believe, captures eloquently the two different “agendas” of Church and State.  The government is charged with maintaining a state where a “quiet and peaceable life” may be lived by its citizens.  The Church, following God’s lead, however, is to “desire all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  It is interesting to see St. Paul putting these two agendas together.  He seems to imply that we are to pray for our government rulers, that they may enable a peaceful earthly life, so that the Church will be the least hindered in her mission to convert all to Christ.

Something I have observed among politically conservative Christians in America is an interest in the political well-being of our country for its own sake.  There appears to be more concern for what’s on the country’s lawbooks than for the state of its citizens’ eternal souls.  Perhaps their hearts are not as screwed up as they appear, but the very fact that many give this impression is, at least, a red flag for concern.  If the State is “peaceable” and “godly” but the Church is not bringing others “to the knowledge of the truth,” then the whole arrangement is meaningless.  Considering God’s greatest desire is to see “all men to be saved,” then clearly it is better to have a terrible government and a healthy church, than a “godly” government and a sterile church.

And so, in the spirit of keeping this right order of priorities in mind, I offer this rather epic hymn,  O God of Earth and Altar.

O God of earth and altar, Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee.

Remember the Tower of Babel: earthly peace and unity for its own sake ends up as opposition to God.  But, as St. Paul wrote to Timothy, earthly peace and unity as a means for the proclamation of the Gospel is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.

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Article 23: Valid Ministers

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 23 states:

XXIII. Of Ministering in the Congregation

It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.

And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

In the milieu of the 16th century, when these Articles were written, many people were preaching in public and holding Bible Studies in private, teaching various contradictory doctrines and competing with one another for converts and power.  This was threatening to destabilize the entire Church in England, and was causing a great deal of contention between various factions: traditionalists who favored Roman custom and doctrine, moderate reformers such as those loyal to the teachings of Luther or Bucer, more drastic reformers like Calvin, or even radicals such as the Anabaptists.  As a matter of good public order both in parish life and in secular life statements like Article 23 had to be made: nobody can make himself a teacher on his own authority.  I suppose this Article could have quoted the words of our Lord in John 5:30 – “I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

Throughout history, to this day, rules like this are found in virtually every denomination and tradition of Christianity.  Only the radical fringes, such as the Brethren, the Quakers, and the modern House Church Movement reject the biblical and apostolic practice of having ordained pastor-teachers to preach and minister the sacraments in the Congregation.  Thus, one might expect Article 23 to be a very “ecumenical” article of faith – one which Anglicans share with the rest of the Christian world.

However, where push comes to shove is the second half of this Article.  Valid ministers are recognized by having been ordained “by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers.”  Again, at first glance, this may seem like a point we have in common with all other Christian traditions.  But where this gets specifically Anglican is when we address the question of who has public authority to ordain ministers.  This question is answered in the Ordinal, the book that contains the liturgies for ordaining ministers, which is now normally printed as part of the Book of Common Prayer.

The answer is Bishops – they are the men who have sole authority to ordain Deacons and Presbyters (Priests) and Bishops.  Anglicans who take this seriously thus conclude that the rites of ordination as practiced by all other Protestants (a very few Lutherans excepted) is insufficient for apostolic ministry.  To this day, when ministers switch from another Protestant tradition into Anglicanism, they get ordained by an Anglican Bishop; and when ministers from the Roman or Eastern churches become Anglicans, they are not ordained, but their Roman or Orthodox ordination is received and affirmed as valid.

There is debate among Anglicans (usually along “high church” and “low church” lines) about whether having Bishops is essential for valid ministry or simply beneficial for valid ministry.  But however one deals with that question, the fact remains that we have Bishops, and we insist on their role of passing the ministry on to others.

A related (and perhaps less palatable) question is how we are to view the sacraments of churches without Bishops.  It is popular among Protestants today to practice “Open Communion” – sharing the Communion Table with all Baptized believers.  This affirms a common underlying faith in the Gospel, which is a good thing, but this also tacitly affirms the validity of one another’s Sacrament of Holy Communion.  If we were to take Article 23 strictly, and judge ordination without a Bishop to be invalid, then we must also conclude that the sacramental ministry carried out by such Protestant ministers also to be invalid, and therefore we could not allow ourselves to receive Communion from them!  This is the opinion of many Anglicans to this day, if no longer a majority view in this time and place.

Incidentally, this is part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox criticism of Anglicans and all Protestant churches – that our sacraments are not valid because our ministry orders are not valid.  Whether it’s a lack of fealty to Rome, or the practice of ordaining women, or the rejection of certain liturgical or doctrinal standards, they find fault with our Bishops and ordinations, and thus our sacramental ministry, and thus they forbid their people from receiving our sacraments.

It’s not a matter of being ornery and stuck-up, but of being faithful to what one believes, and is bound to believe.  There are times and places for friendliness and leniency, but we all have to be thoughtful about where we draw the lines between what we truly share and where we truly differ.

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