I am going to interrupt our letters on pastoral work for a while to turn to another subject which has recently come to my attention, and which is of sufficient importance to write to you about without delay. It is somewhat misplaced to write to you about this, because, with these letters, I really want to reach your congregation and the saints to whom you minister the word. But I am writing to you and not to your congregation in order that you may instruct the people of God under your care concerning this matter. I refer to the fact that it is becoming increasingly common among the saints to engage in carping criticism of their preacher and of the preaching in general, an evil in the church which will destroy the church if it continues. You and your colleagues are sometimes placed under intolerable pressures by such criticism and it will, sooner or later, have an effect upon your ministry.
I am not absolutely sure why there ought to be such a thing in the church. I suppose, in a certain sense, this is something always present, something with which the servants of the Lord have to deal as a part of their ministry. I am reminded, e.g., of the fact that, already in the Old Testament, the children of Israel were dissatisfied with the ministry of Moses and Aaron while they were in the wilderness. You recall how certain people arose in the congregation and brought the complaint: “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3). But it might be well to consider the fact that those who were such rebels were destroyed when the ground opened up and swallowed these people alive, and others were destroyed with a plague. You will recall too that the people of the Northern Kingdom could not bear the words of Amos and told him to go home and prophesy in the land of Judah because the land could not bear his preaching. But the Lord, while he told Amos to go back to Judah, promised that He would send a famine of the Word in the land which rejected the preaching of His servant.
But, while it is undoubtedly true that this is a cross which the minister of the Word has to bear, it is an evil in the church for all that.
Some of the reason for this evil which persists in the church is due to a growing spirit of independence which exists in the land and which creeps into the church. This spirit of independence has two sides to it. On the one hand, there are those who, independently of anyone else, set themselves up as authorities on all matters so that they feel free to challenge every remark which the minister makes. But, on the other hand, and, perhaps, more deeply, there is a refusal to bow before authority. The minister comes into the pulpit on the Lord’s day clothed with the authority of Christ. This authority rests not only in the office which he holds, but rests also in the Word which he brings; for the office which he holds he has received from Christ, and the Word which he brings is the very Word of the infallible Scriptures. In the wicked world there is a complete repudiation of authority in every form in which it manifests itself, and this refusal to bow before authority comes also into the church.
I think too, though, that, at least in part, the evil of which I speak is due to a lack of appreciation for the Biblical doctrine of the church. Our missionaries and others who have had opportunity to labor in church extension work will tell you that one of the great problems which they face on the mission field and among many with whom contact is made is the lack of understanding of the institute of the church. God has ordained that the church of Christ shall take on institutional form in this world. In short, that means that it is the will of God to make of His church an organization. It is true that this organization is unique among men—there is only one like it. But it is an organization nonetheless. It has officebearers who are appointed by Christ and who are entrusted with the work of the “organization.” It has rules of conduct, prescribed by Scripture, drawn up under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ, which rules prescribe the life and work of the officebearers and members in all their relationships to the church. And it is formed into an organization with all the members in order that the church of Christ may worship the Lord as the gathering of believers and their seed. Only as such an organization can the people of God engage in the work which Christ has given them to do: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.
But there is a lack of understanding of the institute in our day. This arises, in some measure, out of a certain suspicion of the institute in people’s minds—a suspicion which has risen because the church institute has led them astray and failed to fill their deepest spiritual needs. But the fact remains that this distrust of the institute has led to a spirit of criticism which, in the mind of the critic, gives every person the right to take pot shots at the preaching at will, and to subject the minister to scathing criticism and unchecked fault-finding. Every person assumes to himself the right to set himself up as a standard of right and wrong in all matters of doctrine and Scriptural exposition. And a spirit of dissatisfaction and unrest is unleashed within the congregation which makes the work of the ministry difficult at best. Every man considers himself a theologian and every individual thinks himself to be better informed on all matters of doctrine and Scriptural truth than God’s appointed servant. Also in matters of doctrine, it is every man for himself, and woe to the minister who dares to call such critical members to time. He is immediately branded as a know-it-all, a tyrant and dictator, a pastor who will not let each individual member function in his office of believer.
There is no question about it but that the members of the church of Jesus Christ function in the office of all believers. And it is also certainly true that each individual believer has the calling before God to “try the spirits, whether they be of God.”
We ought to notice this for a moment because it has bearing on this matter. God has entrusted the task of preaching the Word, administering the sacraments and exercising Christian discipline to His church. This surely means that, although the church performs her task through the special offices, the church has an active role to play in all this work. The church preaches—though it be through the office of minister. Thechurch rules—though it be through the office of elder. The church shows mercy to the poor—but it does this through the office of deacon. The church disciplines and excommunicates—though this work is performed through the elders.
The church is given this work because the members of the church all function in the office of all believers. All have the anointing of Christ. The saints need not that anyone should teach them, for they all know the Lord (Hebrews 8:11, I John 2:27). All the saints receive the promise of the Spirit (Acts 2:17-18).
And it is exactly this position which God’s people hold within the church which gives them the responsibility to try the spirits whether they .be of God. It is indeed a sad thing when the pulpit is filled with heresy, when the elders no longer exercise discipline against wicked members, when the poor are shoved off on the government to be cared for, when the sacraments are corrupted, and no one in the church dares to raise his voice. The people sit passively, allow the house of God to be desecrated and the name of God to be openly mocked, and things go on without one single murmur of complaint. This is sad and wrong and means the end of the church in that congregation.
I am not saying to you that the officebearers have the right to do as they please, to perform their work in direct opposition to the Scriptures, and that the people in the pew must keep silence while all this goes on and act as if nothing is happening. This is serious dereliction of duty which brings the wrath of God upon the church.
The believers must function consciously and responsibly in their office. They must object when the minister preaches heresy or fails to perform his work. They must protest when the elders no longer rule in the name of Christ. They must insist that the deacons labor faithfully in their office. They must do all in their power to keep the table of the Lord from being profaned. This is their solemn calling before God.
I am not saying either, you understand, that the minister, once he has attained to his office, has the right to do less than God calls him to do. Upon the minister rests the heavy responsibility to preach the Word, in season and out of season, to labor diligently in the cause of the gospel, to preach with all his might the truth which God has entrusted to him as an ambassador. Scripture has some frightening words to say about unfaithful ministers. I remind you of just one such passage, Ezekiel 34:2-10—a passage which you do well to read at least once a year. And Jeremiah has also such choice words to speak against those shepherds who are unfaithful (Jeremiah 23:1-4, e.g.). A minister must be so completely committed to his work and calling that he has no time for anything else but the work, and that he will lay down his life for his sheep if that is required of him. Anything else is terribly displeasing in the sight of God.
But there is another side to this question, and it is particularly this side with which I am concerned.
The people of God are repeatedly enjoined in the Scriptures to submit themselves to those within the church whom it pleases God to use to rule over them. I want to call your attention to several such texts in subsequent letters, but I remind you now of what our own Reformed confessions say about this matter. In Article XXXI of our Belgic Confession we read the striking words: “Moreover, that this holy ordinance of God may not be violated or slighted, we say that every one ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word, and the elders of the Church, very highly for their work’s sake, and be at peace with them without murmuring, strife or contention, as much as possible.”
This is surely the teaching of Scripture throughout.
Fraternally in Christ,