Session of Christ Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church (Originally published June 2017)
Beloved, over the past several weeks your Session has noted some internet communications, social-media in origin, that have been the ground of some conversation, perhaps even debate, between some of our members. Some of this conversation has centered upon the rights of individuals to discuss matters of theology privately, some has involved the role of authority, whether ecclesiastical or familial, and some has been gender-based, especially regarding what contexts into which it is proper for women to speak, etc. Session has a desire in this letter to be instructive and helpful to our membership as we all seek to obey the Lord as He speaks in His Word to these issues.
Before pressing forward into the issues, we want to address a very important matter that has to do with these kinds of electronic venues of discussion, and we have placed this at the front of this letter because of the importance we believe this point carries: Beloved, an internet discussion group is not the best, nor proper venue for these kinds of discussions, where detailed and finer understanding is necessary, and especially as a means of handling disagreements—period, full stop. The opportunity for misunderstanding, the “drive by” or auxiliary use of time, i.e., entering these discussions while busied about other things, and the semi-public nature of these conversations can never be a substitute for loving each other enough to set aside the time to meet, to look one another in the eyes, to speak and hear patiently, calmly, and to endeavor through these personal means to come to an agreement upon the Word of God. Your session would be delighted to hear of such conversations going on, and when agreement cannot be had by this method, yet love, patience, and peace will be preserved in the use of it, and we offer our assistance at any time for the resolution of cases of conscience. Please take this counsel seriously, and the way it is intended—for your souls’ good.
There is another caution concerning social media that we all must keep in mind. The Scriptures speak to all, men and women alike, about diligence in their own calling and responsibility, and this diligence is often commended. Its counterpart is condemned—idleness, which is different from sloth and represents a poor use of time, and neglect of duty, no matter how “busy”. There are many Scriptural warnings against being a busybody—that is, one who asserts himself, illegitimately, and is busy about the affairs of another. The potential for this behavior is greatly enhanced in our day by social media, and the Scriptures would have us diligent in our own affairs as a remedy. See the following Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 4.9-12; 2 Thessalonians 3.11, 1 Timothy 5.13; 1 Peter 4.15. Although in our culture’s history the term busy-body has applied more often to women, the Scripture makes no such distinction—women and men are warned against this practice. Note that in 1 Timothy 5.13 the “idleness” is a very busy one, “wandering from house to house”. Your Session would remind us all that in our age there are ways of neglecting our own responsibilities, and wandering from house to house, without ever leaving our homes bodily. Hear Calvin as he comments on 1 Thessalonians 4.11:
This is the purport of what he adds immediately afterwards—to do your own business: for we commonly see, that those who intrude themselves with forwardness into the affairs of others, make great disturbance, and give trouble to themselves and others. This, therefore, is the best means of a tranquil life, when every one, intent upon the duties of his own calling, discharges those duties which are enjoined upon him by the Lord, and devotes himself to these things: while the husbandman employs himself in rural labours, the workman carries on his occupation, and in this way every one keeps within his own limits. So soon as men turn aside from this, everything is thrown into confusion and disorder. He does not mean, however, that every one shall mind his own business in such a way as that each one should live apart, having no care for others, but has merely in view to correct an idle levity, which makes men noisy bustlers in public, who ought to lead a quiet life in their own houses.John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 278.
Seeing that many of the questions raised are about the propriety of women speaking to theological issues, and the relationship of that speaking to those authorities the Bible has provided for them, and the nature and propriety of women teaching, etc., we will begin here with the more general and descend to greater detail. It is not the intent of this letter to cover every situation, for that would be to extend far beyond the bounds of the patience of us all. General guidelines must suffice us, and from those to reason rightly in particular cases. As always, we stand ready to help sort out details (as stated above).
The Scriptures are clear regarding church office, regardless of the attacks upon sound doctrine that have risen up even from within Reformed Presbyterianism of late. Women are not to serve as Church officers. Biblically, the King of the Church has left no command, nor made provision for women to serve as Pastors, Teachers, Elders, or Deacons. In Ephesians 4.8-12 we see that the Head and King of the Church has, as part of His ascension gifts to His people, given the teaching office of the Church in five offices: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers. The Church knows of no others in the church that are authorized to teach, by her King. We understand that the first three offices mentioned are extraordinary, and the last two are ordinary offices in the Church, extending to the “end of the world” (Matthew 28.18-20). Pastors and teachers then continue in the Church as the gifts of Christ to His Church, so that she might be instructed from His Word, and come to her proper and Biblical unity, under the direction of these men. They are not to conduct themselves as lords, but as “under-shepherds” and servants of Christ, hence the term “minister”. See Luke 22.24-27; John 13.1-17; 1 Peter 5.1-6.
To this teaching ministry, the Lord has added two other offices, that of Elder or Governor, and Deacon. Of the Governing Elders it is not said specifically that they are teachers, but that they should be “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3.2) that is, that they should have a knowledge of the Scriptures sufficient to meet with others, along with a natural aptitude, to speak to the flock of Christ by way of Scriptural and authoritative instruction, from the Word. The people of God should seek the law of the Lord from the mouth of the Pastors and Teachers, and from their elders, in all things. See Malachi 2.7; 1 Thessalonians 5.12-13; 1 Timothy 5.17; 2 Timothy 2.24-25; Hebrews 13.7, 17. This teaching is coupled with the authority the Lord has given to these offices in His Church, in order to make it the more effectual, so that the Church may come to the unity prayed for by our Lord, and provided for in these offices. John 17.20-22; Ephesians 4.8-16. The office of Deacon is given to relieve the Elders of the Church from more mundane or common duties, so that the Elders may dedicate themselves to the Word of God, and to prayer (Acts 6.4).
To enforce this policy of male leadership in the Church, there are also injunctions given pertaining to women, and ecclesiastical teaching. These are found in 1 Corinthians 14.34-38; 1 Timothy 2.9-15. These passages are clear that there can be no such recognition in the Church of an ecclesiastical “woman-teacher”. These directions are given irrespective of perceived gifts, talents, or opportunities. There is no place, in the command of the inspired Apostles, for women to take the office of teacher in the Church. The passage in 1 Timothy 2, referenced above, is particularly important in this context, as it forbids women to be teachers because of the created order, and the fall of mankind—two historical circumstances that make changing this principle impossible. Note the word of the Apostle here:
- The woman is to adorn herself with good works. (v10)
- She is to learn in silence with all subjection. (v11)
- She is not permitted to teach. (v12)
- She is not permitted to exercise authority over a man (v12)
- The principle of silence is then reinforced. (v12)
- Verses 13-14 show the Apostle’s rationale, according to the order of creation, and the fall of mankind.
- Verse 15 shows the ordinary salutary service that the woman has to the Lord in her Church—having and raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This service is of inestimable value to Christ and His Church, requiring much expertise and effort, and ought never to be derogated by any Bible believer.
The way the Apostle frames the proscription of teaching, and exercising authority over a man with the commands to silence make it plain that the two proscriptions are separate. Some have asserted that this passage forbids women from teaching men, but not other women—this is an error. The silence pertains to her teaching, and separately to her usurping authority—she is not an ecclesiastical teacher, nor is she an ecclesiastical authority. In the context of the Church she is to be taught—she is not to teach. Note also that we have not just the “worship service” in view, but any ecclesiastical context, where the ministry of the Church is being carried out, to proclaim Christ, and to teach His people to follow Him. The direction comes after the Apostle has set the context of men praying “in every place”—that is, everywhere the Church is gathered.
The question is also raised concerning Titus 2, that if women are not to be teachers in the Church, how this passage relates to 1 Timothy 2.9-15. Some have suggested that Titus 2 allows for what 1 Timothy 2 does not—a woman ecclesiastical teacher. Our hermeneutic does not pit Scripture against Scripture, but seeks to bring together apparently disparate portions of the Bible according to our presupposition that the Divine Author of Scripture is not a God of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14.33). Several things are in order then as we look at Titus chapter 2:
The directions in Titus 2 are given to several kinds of people in the Church generally. Similarly, in 1 Timothy 5.1-2, Timothy is commanded to treat all within the Church gently: Old men, old women, young men, and young women. The instruction is to encourage, urge, etc. instead of to rebuke. We take this to mean that he is to have a gentle, not a censorious attitude toward the people under his charge.
What is of note is that none of the instruction to Titus here, when specified by the Apostle, speaks to the kind of ecclesiastical teaching so often assumed of this passage. Titus is instructed to speak of the things that set the stage for sound doctrine—things befitting, or proper to, sound doctrine, an adornment to it, and not particularly doctrine itself. When we look at the specification of the Apostle, there are great similarities to each of the kinds of people mentioned:
- Aged men: Sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. Note that these are primarily behavioral injunctions, with the potential exception of the characteristic of being “sound in faith”, which may allow for some didactic content.
- Young men: Sober-mindedness
- Aged women: Note that first he speaks to their demeanor. The attributes which follow are the outworking of this demeanor or lifestyle. This is important, because it is this godly demeanor, as an example, that leads the instruction, and forms the basis of their instruction to the younger women. Hear Calvin: “That they may be more attentive to duty, he shows that it is not enough if their own life be decent, if they do not also train young women, by their instructions, to a decent and chaste life. He therefore adds, that by their example they should train to temperance and gravity those younger women whom the warmth of youth might otherwise lead into imprudence.”John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 312.
We must not take the word “train” in the quotation above in the formal sense, as if this were an activity done by a “trainer”. What Calvin reminds us of here is that the example we set to others is quite instructive, primary, and often sets the stage for the verbal reinforcement of that example. The older women, by this Godly example, provide the instruction the younger mothers need in the pursuit of their calling and responsibility. This governing principle of example or behavior is consistent with the rest of the instruction given to the various kinds of persons addressed, and does not come into conflict with what we have seen before concerning the proscription of women teachers in our study in several respects:
- It is not an official position, given to one gifted older woman over another. All aged women are to be this kind of example to the younger women. It is unofficial, therefore it is governed by the honor given to the hoary head (Leviticus 19.32, Proverbs 16.31) but carries no official import, and has no preparation or examination which accompany the teaching offices. (See 2 Timothy 2.1-2 as an example of this kind of instruction to the teachers of the Church.) It is not a special office, but a function of the light of nature, that the older set the example to the younger. The qualification is that of age, and nothing else, which speaks not to special gifting and aptitude for teaching, but of experience.
- It is predominantly exercised by example, behavior, demeanor, and so, while not precluding verbal instruction, this arises out of the older woman’s holy carriage. The word translated as holiness in verse three denotes “priest-like” and in this context puts us in mind of those holy women of old who were married to the OT priests, and the holy comportment required of them for the sake of their husband’s office.
- It is unto respectability in their own (the young ladies’) demeanor: The translation of the Authorized Version, “teach to be sober” is really not teaching at all, but a single Greek word used three other times in this passage:
- In verse 2 it is translated “temperate” in its adjectival form.
- In verse 5 it is translated “discreet” again, in its adjectival form.
- In verse 6 it is translated “sober minded” once again, as an adjective.
- And in our verse (v4) the verbal form, might be rendered literally as “soberize” or to “impart sobriety”, again, primarily by their example of holiness. The word does not import an official teaching function.
- It is domestic, not ecclesiastical in nature:
- To love their husbands—that is, by their holy behavior and submission to them.
- To love their children—by caring for them, especially in light of 1 Timothy 2.15, and as an outworking of loving their husbands.
- Home workers—that is, domestically oriented. This does not preclude, nor enjoin having extra-domestic concerns. The woman in Proverbs 31 is commended for the inclusion of some extra-domestic things in her repertoire. But as it is sometimes overlooked in the exposition of this passage, let us note that the primary concern of that virtuous, priceless woman was her household; her servants, her children, and her husband’s good name. The extra-domestic duties she pursued were not separate, but supplemental to her domestic responsibilities.
- Returning to Titus 2, the goodness spoken of, in this domestic context, is household charity to those in need.
- Obedient to their own husbands.
In the exposition of this passage we see that the Apostle does not provide for an older woman setting up a class for the young women of the Church to attend in order to receive lessons on domestic living, but the holy example of an aged woman who has these principles, through many years of practice and example, worked out in her living. She is able to open her mouth in wisdom in those casual and private conversations not as a usurper of the honor this young mother owes to her husband as she honors his government over her, and as she receives instruction from him (1 Corinthians 14.34-35) but this older sister sets a good example to her of how she lives holily, in all these same ways, in her own home. This passage has sometimes been used in defense of older women “hanging out a shingle” or “setting up shop” as teachers of younger women. However, it is our view that this passage does not support that understanding. Rather, we see many things here that are in accordance with the light of nature in this example and instruction; things that arise through the normal course of diverse social settings, and here are brought specially under the governance of an exampled holiness, as those with more experience become examples, and can, rising from that example, offer guidance.
It is often when noting the Apostle Paul’s Epistles proscription of women ecclesiastical teachers that objections citing historical circumstances where women served in positions of leadership in the Church are asserted as a counter argument. Miriam, the sister of Moses, Deborah, the Prophetess in the time of the Judges of Israel, Huldah, the Prophetess in the time of Josiah, King of Israel, Anna, in the days of Christ’s birth, all served in the Church, in a prophetic capacity, as Prophetesses. See Exodus 15.20; Judges 4.4; 2 Kings 22.14; 2 Chronicles 34.22; Luke 2.36. There are also the four daughters of Phillip the Evangelist, who prophesied, (Acts 21.8) and the condition of women praying and prophesying without their veil, in 1 Corinthians 11.5. Negatively, there is the Prophetess Jezebel, most likely not her real name, who was given leave to teach by the Elders in Thyatira, described in Revelation 2.20-23.
In response to this objection several things are in order:
- The descriptive events of redemptive history cannot and do not counter the prescriptions set down by the Apostle. It is no injury to the principle laid down by the Apostle Paul that there existed, in times of an extraordinary nature, and other times of extraordinary judgment, Prophetesses in the Church. The piety of these women is not in question—they were indeed called of God to serve in their capacities. Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, (despite the later failing of Miriam recorded in the Scripture; see Numbers 12.1-16) were undoubtedly godly women who served in an extraordinary time in the history of redemption.
- We note also that in the cases of the condition in 1 Corinthians 11, and of the daughters of Phillip, that the word “prophetess” is not used, but only that these women “prophesy”. The only mention of a prophetess during the age of the New Testament Church is that of Jezebel, who is undoubtedly in that office by usurpation, illegitimately, which is implied in the words of Christ there recorded, “which calleth herself a prophetess” (Revelation 2.20). In the cases of 1 Corinthians 11 and Acts 21.8, we have reference to the singing of Psalms, which is indeed prophetic, as it is a proclamation of the Word of God, and that by which we teach and admonish one another. (Colossians 3.16) This is “prophetic” but does not equate to “office”.
From this brief survey it is clear that women, regardless of perceived talent, gifts, or opportunity, are not to enter into the teaching office of the Church. And, while men may enter into that office, not all do, and so the following comments concerning private, religious conversation apply to men who are not officers as well. We all, as members of the New Testament Church, are called to be those who operate in the realm of the Spirit, and not of the letter, when we apply ourselves to the prescriptions, statutes, and judgments of the Lord our God, and Christ as Head and King over His own house. (Psalm 2.6; 110.2; Colossians 1.18; Hebrews 3.6; See also 2 Corinthians 3.3) Hear the wise words of Dr. Patrick Fairbairn in this regard:
“Hence arose a contrariety between Rabbinism, the system of the scribes, and Christianity, but which might equally be designated a contrariety to the true scope and spirit of the old covenant itself: the aim of each was substantially one, namely, to secure a state of things conformable to the revealed will of God; but the modes taken to accomplish it were essentially different, according to the diversity in the respective modes of contemplation. Christianity demanded conversion, Rabbinism satisfied itself with instruction; Christianity insisted on a state of mind, Rabbinism on legality; Christianity expected from the communication of the Holy Spirit the necessary enlightenment, in order to discern in all things the will of God, Rabbinism thought it must go into the minutest prescriptions to spew what was agreeable to the law; Christianity expected from the gift of the Holy Spirit the necessary power to fulfil the Divine will, Rabbinism conceived this fulfilment might be secured through church discipline.”Patrick Fairbairn, The Revelation of Law in Scripture, Edinburgh; T&T Clark 1869, 369-370
What this means is that the inclinations of the people of God are toward obedience, and toward remaining clear of evil—the commission of evil, the temptations to evil, the occasions of evil, and the appearances of evil. The ever popular, but sinful phrase, “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than for permission” reveals an attitude that we ought not to have as Christians, for every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, and our desire to please our Father, and not to grieve Him, ought to outstrip any other desire we have. Accordingly, questions, actions, endeavors, and debates that “push the envelope” of Biblical propriety on this topic are not helpful, and are often generated from worldly, egalitarian influences popular in present culture, but not in keeping with Scripture. In the context of our discussion here, this means that those who are not officers in the Church should not desire to elevate themselves as unofficial teachers over others, where the responsibility of ecclesiastical teaching has been clearly manifested in Scripture as that which belongs to the Teachers and Elders of the Church. This desire has been, and continues to be, the source of much mischief in the Church. These “unofficial offices” —teacher, instructor, professor, counselor, trainer, etc. have obtruded themselves upon the “cure of souls” which is given by Christ to the teaching ministry of the Church. Well-meaning Christians have set themselves up as such leaders apart from, or often contrary to, the God-given structures of authority and responsibility in the Church and in the family. Beloved, this ought not to be, and it is an affront to the King of the Church, by implying that He has not laid down in His Word that which is necessary, and sufficient for her instruction, such that these other “unofficial offices” are necessary, or even desirable for His people. Your session understands, and affirms the rights of private judgment. However, there is no “right” publicly to espouse error.
There are structures of authority in Scripture, and those in the superior positions of that authority must give account to the Lord for those under their charge, and this only underscores what we have said above. As your session, we take your instruction in the Word of God very seriously, and desire that it be administered according to the commands and counsels of Christ. He has granted these lines of authority, this “chain of command” (but really, this is a misnomer—for truly it is an area of responsibility, as those in authority will “respond” to the summons of Christ to give answer for their administration) to include the instruction of those in our charge. We therefore, as those who will give account, desire jealously to guard your souls against poor or unbiblical instruction from creeping in on our watch, from fountains from which we ought not to drink.
As the question has arisen pertaining to wives, and their husbands’ instruction, the Apostle is clear that the husband is responsible for the religious instruction of his wife, see 1 Corinthians 14.34-35. This is a part of a husband’s love for his wife. As Christ washes His bride in the water of the Word, (Ephesians 5.25-28) so the husband will give account to Christ for his wife’s religious instruction (in the same way as well as they both will give account for the instruction of their children). See also Genesis 18.19; Joshua 24.15; Acts 16.32-34, and also think on the numerous passages that speak to fathers and mothers being responsible to the Lord for the religious instruction of their children: Deuteronomy 6.4-9; Proverbs 1.8; 6.20; and by implication, 2 Timothy 1.3-5. Some have interpreted the instruction of the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 to mean that she must ask her husband concerning things she hears in church, but outside that context she is free to hear whomsoever she will, or to solicit other counselors. To frame the comment in light of the husband’s responsibility, as one who will give account, shows the error of that interpretation. Would this also be promoted as the method for children, pertaining to their parents’ instruction? Is there not a responsibility given in the various spheres of authority regarding the Biblical instruction we give, and receive? Is not that authority to be adorned and promoted by all, and especially by those under that authority? To ask these questions is to answer them. Let us remember our standards here: (LC 127)
Q. 127. What is the honour that inferiors owe to their superiors?
A. The honour which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behaviour; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defence, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honour to them and to their government.Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), 281–283.
Your session doubts that seeking out other authorities, preferring them, and honoring them, to the neglect of those whom the Lord in His providence has given is consonant with “the maintenance of their persons and authority” and being “an honor to them and their government”. We believe that as the responsible party, the husband ought to be the confidant of his wife, especially regarding her Bible questions, as they apply to her daily endeavors to serve the Lord, and as he seeks to bring his household under service to Christ. Further, husbands ought to take this responsibility very seriously, and seek to instruct their wives, which includes answering their questions, including getting the help they need to do so, taking them to Church, conversing with them after Church, along with the children, to make use of what they have heard. The Directory for Family Worship has some very instructive points in this regard. This process should continue throughout the week in family worship. This seems so obvious to the Scriptural teaching, and to the light of nature, that this propriety ought to be seen by all. Who is better qualified to answer the question, and the “question behind the question” than one who lives within the bounds of domestic intimacy? Session of CCRPC seeks to do the same regarding those in our charge—to be of service to them in this ecclesiastical context to answer questions, press the use of the Scripture, etc. And, as it would be improper for a member of CCRPC to have a “go-to” Pastor or elders somewhere else, so would it be a parallel impropriety if a wife sought resolution of her own cases of conscience from another source, apart from affording to her husband the opportunity to perform his duty to her. Certainly, whether in the context of the home, or the Church, it is easy for someone seeking counsel to misrepresent, albeit innocently, the true nature of their own affairs. The Lord has wisely guarded against these mistakes in judgment by providing these lines of responsibility along the avenues of intimacy in these various social contexts. The husband is established as the wife’s first line of inquiry, and he should fit himself for that honor, and place the Lord has given him, as he is able. And, while it is conceivable that a wife would desire some counsel outside ordinary, God-given lines she would normally follow, let the husband and wife agree on that other line of inquiry together, so that the husband is not shut out of a process for which he must give answer. Your session stands ready to assist all heads of households, men or women, to help them with this responsibility, if there are perceived deficiencies, questions, advice, counsel, or other help, as we are able.
This brings us to the topic, raised by some in the online discussions referenced above, of private interaction and what form that ought to take. And here, your Session understands great Christian liberty, within the bounds of the guidelines enumerated above. This is a topic that the Scriptures often address, and so we are not lacking in Scriptural instruction here; see the following passages:
Malachi 3.16; Psalm 119.63; Proverbs 13.20; Daniel 2.17-18; Luke 24.14ff; Ephesians 4.11-16; 5.19; Colossians 3.16; 1 Thessalonians 5.11, 14; Hebrews 3.13; 10.24.
These are just a few of the Scriptures that we reference when we think on the mutual edification that is commanded to all the people of God. When we think on this, compare Scripture with Scripture, and when we look to our fathers in the faith as to what shape this mutual edification takes, it must first be said that this encouragement to private conversation and edification does not undo the rest of what we have already heard, such that in private conversation we ought to feel free to “teach” in the sense that the Lord has established in the offices of the Church. The Scripture has coupled authority and teaching together specifically, so that enforcement and requirement accompanies that teaching function, and responsibility, as seen above. As such then, in private conversation, we must retain a proper modesty, and knowledge of our station, so as to avoid becoming an unofficial officer, and speaking as if we had authority that does not pertain to us. A good illustration of this is how we would speak to our children, as opposed to how we might speak to another of equal station. These 5th commandment relations are quite clear in Scripture, and in our standards, so that there should be no question as to the propriety of this counsel. When we speak to one another privately, as equals, let us speak in a way that befits that station. In the case of our Pastor, think of the manner he might speak in a theological conversation with another Pastor, and compare that to the way he might preach his own understanding of a passage of Scripture in the context of a sermon, where the authority of the office is appropriately applied. Suppose that same Pastor is called before his Presbytery to give an answer for that view that he preached—we all acknowledge that his tone would be different as he gives an answer to those who are over him in authority. In this example, on the same Scripture teaching, he interacts with others as a superior, as an inferior, and as an equal. The differences and equality of station ought then to be evident in our conversations, whether online, in emails or other correspondence, and in our conversations in groups or one-on-one. Your Session desires, and is quite pleased to hear, that all kinds of our members are meeting together in such informal venues to encourage each other, and that you are also giving answers for the hope that lies within you as members one of another, (1 Peter 3.15) and at other times with those outside our ecclesiastical bounds. We encourage this kind of conversation within Scriptural guidelines.
Keeping these things in mind then, all sorts of the people of God should meet together, speak of the Scriptures together, encourage one another from the Word, and even warn one another of the evil which they have observed in one another. Is this not the first instruction in Matthew 18.15-20, especially as it speaks to personal offenses? Further, the people of God are said to be able to “admonish one another” (Romans 15.14). Although this sometimes has been construed as “competent to counsel” one another, and that in everything, truly, the word in the original speaks of warning, regarding a course intended, albeit evil, or perverse. In other words, this is that which speaks to the mutual love which extends to the ability to discern, and warn one another when we are moving toward that which endangers or weakens our souls. Should we then go to one another for advice? Certainly! But remember to keep such endeavors, whether seeking or receiving advice and counsel, within the other boundaries understood in the rest of Scripture. When pursuing a conversation on a public social media site, keep these things in mind, along with the other warnings given at the beginning of this letter. Speak modestly, in a conciliatory fashion, avoid pontification, and please remember the inherent difficulties of that venue, and the liability to be heard wrongly, or to hear wrongly. Do not use such venues as a pulpit for your own views, or a debate platform. One way to avoid this is to quote our standards, point to our Pastor’s sermons, other books, articles, writings, etc. that can be read apart from confrontation, considered, and pursued in more private discussion. Slow it down, consider your place, and the places of others in your conversations, and at all times, speaking as equals, remember that the folks you’re discussing these things with have Elders and Pastors, parents and husbands over them, and that they will give answer for those under their charge. Send them to their sessions for the resolutions of their cases of conscience or other questions. Do not be hesitant to ask a wife if she has spoken with her husband about this matter—you will be reminding her of her 5th commandment responsibility before the Lord, and helping her to uprightness in that responsibility.
Further, we all ought to remember the use of such private speech: It is to edify, to encourage, and never to discourage, or tempt to evil. As such, all our communication must be wholesome. Ephesians 4.29 tells us, under the pattern of “putting off the old man, and putting on the new man” to avoid corrupt speech, and to use speech that gives grace instead. The Apostle teaches that same principle in Colossians 3.8-17, where certain kinds of speech are forbidden, and others are commanded. And the Apostle James commands to us swiftness in hearing, and slowness in speech (James 1.19). See also Proverbs 10.19; 13.3; 15.2; 17.27; 18.13; 21.23; Ecclesiastes 5.2-3. This scriptural pattern ought to govern all our interaction as Christians, as we seek to edify one another, and glorify our Lord.
We would be remiss in this context if we did not mention the wise counsel of the Westminster Divines, pertaining to private religious gatherings, in the Directory for Family Worship. Although only a few quotations will be placed here, all are encouraged to read, or re-read this resource. First, the divines warned against private meetings that go beyond the bounds of propriety. Note:
Directory for Family Worship, Section 3:
As the charge and office of interpreting the holy scriptures, is a part of the ministerial calling, which none (however otherwise qualified) should take upon him in any place, but he that is duly called thereunto by God and his kirk; so in every family where there is any that can read, the holy scriptures should be read ordinarily to the family; and it is commendable, that thereafter they confer, and by way of conference make some good use of what hath been read and heard. As, for example, if any sin be reproved in the word read, use may be made thereof to make all the family circumspect and watchful against the same; or if any judgment be threatened, or mentioned to have been inflicted, in that portion of scripture which is read, use may be made to make all the family fear, lest the same or a worse judgment befall them, unless they beware of the sin that procured it: and, finally, if any duty be required, or comfort held forth in a promise, use may be made to stir up themselves to employ Christ for strength to enable them for doing the commanded duty, and to apply the offered comfort. In all which the master of the family is to have the chief hand; and any member of the family may propone a question or doubt for resolution.
Note here the wise direction which preserves intact the teaching office of the Church, and yet provides for some instruction from the Word, during family worship. It is important to point out that in this venue, where an authority figure is present, (the head of household) that this person does not possess the same authority as the minister, even though speaking to those under his or her authority. If this is the case where a superior/inferior relationship exists, so much the more we should be modest and circumspect in speaking to equals.
Now note this instruction concerning separate families meeting together for family worship:
Directory for Family Worship, Section 6, and 7:
VI. At family-worship, a special care is to be had that each family keep by themselves; neither requiring, inviting, nor admitting persons from divers families, unless it be those who are lodged with them, or at meals, or otherwise with them upon some lawful occasion.
VII. Whatsoever have been the effects and fruits of meetings of persons of divers families in the times of corruption or trouble, (in which cases many things are commendable, which otherwise are not tolerable,) yet, when God hath blessed us with peace and purity of the gospel, such meetings of persons of divers families (except in cases mentioned in these Directions) are to be disapproved, as tending to the hindrance of the religious exercise of each family by itself, to the prejudice of the public ministry, to the rending of the families of particular congregations, and (in progress of time) of the whole kirk. Besides many offences which may come thereby, to the hardening of the hearts of carnal men, and grief of the godly.
Note here that special care is to be taken that families do not regularly, or habitually gather with others for family worship so as to prejudice them against the proper ministry of the Church. The people of God are to keep things in their proper perspective regarding the teaching ministry of the Church, such that they do not allow their hearts to be drawn away from the God-given ministry, and authority present in their own particular Church. The language here is strong: Such regular meetings ought to be disapproved, except in the cases mentioned, that of a family lodging with another family, or the occasional hospitality extended in entertaining for a meal, etc., in other words, some occasional social gathering. It was important to the Westminster “Pastor-Theologians” that they protect the ordinary ministry from such things that might weaken it in the conception of the people of God. Now when we consider our own day, and the greater opportunity for such “social media gathering” this same potential for misuse is greatly enhanced, and with grief we say, often abused. Those with no authority in the Church often arrogate to themselves, before any who will hear, the office of “unofficial teacher”. It is at this point, beloved, that your Session counsels you to close the browser, or move it to something less injurious to your soul, and more profitable.
Directory for Family Worship, Section 5:
Let no idler who hath no particular calling, or vagrant person under pretense of a calling, be suffered to perform worship in families, to or for the same; seeing persons tainted with errors, or aiming at division, may be ready (after that manner) to creep into houses, and lead captive silly and unstable souls.
Let us be clear here: Many of these theological vagrants have already been let into our homes—not by opening the door, but through our LTE wireless systems, through our wired internet connections, and even over the television and radio. This is to place ourselves under the influence of teachers that have no authority—and to break the bond that the Lord has established between the two (teaching and authority). Again, if you ever have a question about a source for Bible teaching, your session stands ready to speak with you about this. Today we have an opportunity to listen to myriads of Preachers—some good, and some harmful. Your session is not threatened, but encouraged to hear that our folks have been listening to godly ministers. If you have a question regarding a suspect source, or what you hear from a reputable minister, we are ready to help.
In closing we desire to be “good ministers of Jesus Christ”. (1 Timothy 4.1-7) This means that we must not imbibe in the vain philosophies of the world, but must drink at the fountain of living waters, rather than the broken cisterns, the doctrines and commandments of men. We are fully aware that the views in this letter are the “minority report” among Presbyterians in the 20th, and 21st centuries. This however does not move us. If we will acquit ourselves as your Session properly before Christ, we must bow the knee to Him in all our leadership and instruction to you, so that we, as under-shepherds are “preaching Christ”. He has the right to govern His Church according to His commands and counsels. He is certainly capable of declaring His will in His Word, no matter what deficiencies fallen men believe they must supply from their own worldly wisdom and creativity.
So then we encourage you, from the Word of God, and from our responsibility as your Session:
- Honor the teaching office of the Church as Christ has presented it to you in Scripture. ( 4.11-16)
- Honor the familial relations and structures of authority presented to you in Scripture. (1 Cor. 14.34-35)
- Do nothing to undermine or diminish these roles, as those in, or under authority. (Exodus 5.12)
- Speak often to one another about the things of Christ and his Word (Malachi 3.16)
- Remember your place when speaking in various relations as superiors, inferiors, and equals, and use modesty, meekness, and wisdom in your conversations, refusing pontification and insistence upon your own way or view. (Romans 12.10; Philippians 2.3; James 3.13-18)
- Make use of the authoritative resources available to you to help with your conversations: Your Session, approved, Godly preachers, historic or present, or our Westminster Standards.
- In all seek to edify one another, and to contribute according to your station to the advancement of the Kingdom of Christ. (Matthew 16.18; Ephesians 4.11-16)
We love you all very much, and look forward to many years serving Christ together.
|John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 278.
|John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 312.
|Patrick Fairbairn, The Revelation of Law in Scripture, Edinburgh; T&T Clark 1869, 369-370
|Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), 281–283.