Church: a hospital for sinners?

What is your experience of church?  Is it a place where you feel like you can be your sinful self?  Or rather a place where you have to keep up appearances like Mr and Mrs Jones in the pews next door?  A former seminary friend of mine (name dropping alert), Rev. Leon Brown, recently wrote this piece about his experiences at various churches during his Christian sojourn so far:

On numerous occasions I have been told that the church is like a hospital for the sick. The illness is sin; the remedy is Christ. We, therefore, attend church to receive our diagnosis and to gladly hear and embrace its remedy. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Over the years, however, through numerous conversations and limited pastoral experience, I have come to realize that the church – the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day – sometimes appears like a place for those in perfect health. Illness (i.e., sin) is not allowed.
Theologically we know that is inaccurate. That is why in many Presbyterian and Reformed churches we corporately confess our sins. We acknowledge our offense against a holy and righteous God. We know that our lives do not reflect the perfection that God demands. We, therefore, readily admit our brokenness, or do we really?
As a pastor, I have the privilege to interact with people, both inside my church and outside, about some of the harsh realities of how sin affects us. Lust, coveting, broken marriages, hatred, and dishonesty are all the result of acting on the desires of our sinful hearts. To some degree we all suffer from some of these things, but you can hardly tell that on Sunday mornings. Between 10:30am and noon, some people manage to put on the Christian veneer. The outside looks pearly white while the inside is suffering from a cancerous illness – sin.
Is that acceptable? Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality.
I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, “This is the place for those in perfect health.”
It troubles me to know this reality exists. This observation caused me to ask a question: “Why?” Why are things like this? I began to pursue my inquiry. Overwhelmingly, and this is not limited to my congregation, when I asked people why their actions depict their lives are in perfect order when I know things are a bit chaotic, the response I received was, “I don’t want to be judged.” They believed there was no room for reasonable transparency in the church. It was expected that one’s children be in perfect order, spouses on the same page, and singles portrayed as if they struggle very little with contentment.
Though I do not believe this is the cause, I wonder how much Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites contribute to this sad reality (i.e., in all things we must be relatively perfect). Most Facebook posts and Twitter feeds that I have read are largely positive. People gladly boast of their witnessing opportunities, the books they are reading, vacations taken, and family reunions. Most people confess very little of the difficulties through which they are going. I see the same thing in many churches.
This is not to suggest that we must air our dirty laundry to everyone in the church, and the world for that matter on Facebook and Twitter, but a certain level of transparency seems healthy. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, put it this way,
“I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin” (25).
I could not agree more. I often tell my congregation that is okay to hurt; it is okay to fail; and while it is not okay to sin, it is okay to be transparent about where you sin because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
If there is any merit in my observations, I also wonder how this affects the church’s witness. One of the constant accusations I hear from unbelievers is that the church is full of hypocrites. However we handle that accusation, I wonder if the point behind it is that sometimes people in the church present themselves as perfect. As soon as the Christian veneer is shattered, unbelievers’ image of how Christianity affects one’s life is ruined. They were under the impression that Christianity makes one perfect (not positionally perfect (i.e., righteous) but presently perfect in thought, word, and deed). Therefore, once they realize the untruth to that manifestation of Christianity and that Christians, too, often face the same problems they do, Christians are labeled as hypocrites. In unbelievers’ minds, the mask was removed.
Is there a solution? I am a rookie pastor. I do not have all the answers. I do not think I will have all the answers in the future either. However, I wonder if we need to more fully embrace the doctrine of sanctification? Unlike our justification – a once for all completed act – our sanctification is a process. Sometimes our sanctification may seem to be moving more slowly in our lives, or the lives of others, than we would like; nevertheless, God is at work. He guaranteed it! If we more fully embrace this, perhaps we will more readily understand that the church is like a hospital for the sick. Our illness is sin; Christ is our remedy. We, therefore, do not need to put on the Christian veneer.
We all suffer from the effects of sin. I pray that we, as the body of Christ, can more openly acknowledge our sins, mistakes, and express our sorrow without fear of judgment, without fear of a ruined reputation, without fear of our perfect family image being shattered. It will take time, prayer, a better understanding of grace, forgiveness, and sanctification, and the Spirit’s work. It is possible. I will pray to that end. Will you join me?
Posted February 10, 2014 @ 2:27 PM by Leon Brown

It is our hope and prayer that RCSS be a hospital for wretched sinners, where Christ crucified is truly that balm of everlasting comfort.  So come boldly to God’s throne of grace with us this coming Lord’s Day: come filthy; come failing; come depressed; come anxious; come angry; come hurt; come broken; come doubting; come addicts; come obsessed; come compulsive; come adulterers; come prostitutes; come tax collectors; come diseased; come introverted; come lonely; come divorced; come perverts; come thieves; come gossips; come liars… Come, repent and believe in Jesus – again, or for the first time – and be assured through the ministry of the Word that you stand forgiven and righteous before our heavenly Father.


  1. Just a thought in this regard: does the title “Reverend” not in the first place give the impression that Christians are a cut above or perhaps even far above ordinary people in their claim to be holy and therefore “worthy of reverence” by others?

  2. Author

    Thanks for your comment and question, Douglas. In short, I think that in accordance with passages like 1 Timothy 5:17, Scripture gives the office of minister unique respect. The ordained office of pastor is a gift from God to his people through which he mediates Christ and all his benefits for the building up of his church. The office of minister is a sacred calling and therefore holy. This does not devalue common vocations like bakers and attorneys, but such do not extend the official and public Word and sacraments ministry of the kingdom of Christ. Indeed, the likes of David, Peter and Paul did not often impress subjectively as persons holding office, but this does not take away from the objective gravitas and efficacy attached to their offices. Here is a helpful to further explanation on the subject.

    1. Thank you for the courtesy of your reply. If I may respond (with all due respect!), however, I think that the answer and that of the OPC website to which it refers do not take the problem seriously enough in a few regards:
      1. Ever since the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where Constantine treated with such unusual gravitas and honour the bishops who had previously suffered so much in persecution, many of whom had had to endure poverty and suffering, the Church’s clergy, being sinners like all of us, have characteristically loved or even lusted after prestige. This is an extremely dangerous spiritual temptation and should therefore not be encouraged *in any way*. But it is a fact of ecclesiastical life. Hence the yen to be “very Reverend” and “most Reverend” when other clergy are called “Reverend”, which happens not only in the RC Churches but also in Protestant Churches. Hence the practice of bishops in holding out their hands for ordinary lay Christians to kiss the episcopal ring. Just imagine how much the bishop is inwardly tempted to preen himself when that happens. Even Calvin expressed the feeling of not being accorded proper “reverence” when a Frenchman on the streets of Geneva addressed him as “Brother Calvin” (if I remember my history correctly) instead of “Monsignor Calvin”. In Paris during the 18th century (before the Revolution) a young nobleman was actually put to death at the wish of a clergyman (an abbot, if I remember correctly) for not greeting the abbot with what the abbot regarded as *sufficient* reverence.
      2. Scripture does honour the offices of the Church and in I Tim. 5:17 specifically the office of the preaching elder. But “Reverend” applies, and is customarily applied, to the clergyman or clergywoman, not their office. While one may talk of the sacred office of the ministry as being one “worthy of double honour”, the great danger is confusion between the office and the person holding it in this regard. This may seem a quibble, but it is one that Jesus himself makes very emphatically in his warning against titles.
      3. Jesus warned specifically against the lust for prestige and the titles of prestige that were used for the clergy in his day in Matthew 23. The titles in his day were those of “Rabbi”, “Father” and “Teacher/Master (Hebrew Moreh?)”. His awareness of the great danger of these things led him to express himself very sharply in warning and to stress: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted [by God].” His own disciples are *not* to follow the example of the Jewish rabbis in this regard. Would he then really think that “Reverend”, which a title that much more explicitly attributes prestige, does not fall under this judgement?
      4. “Reverend” means “worthy of reverence”. Who is worthy of reverence except God alone, according to Christian belief? Indeed is the title not then actually blasphemous?
      5. When we think about the actual practical effect of such titles, who can doubt that the average person in our society, secular as it may be, puts “Reverends” in a class apart. Introduce yourself to a group of people as “Rev. so and so”, and the conversation immediately stops, becomes awkward or changes–as though they feel ministers are out of place associating with ordinary sinful people. This is not just because of the office; it is mainly because of the aura the clergy have attached to themselves with the titles they use and the image that some of them project of themselves.The effect is that the whole incarnational dimension of the gospel is compromised: The call of the gospel to live *in* the world with other sinners without pretending in any way to be a cut above them (I Cor. 5:10) as Leon Brown pleads is radically kaiboshed.
      At least that is how I see it.
      Douglas Bax

  3. Author

    Hi again, Douglas,
    Thanks for your further thoughtful comments. I do appreciate your reflections on a serious subject. Now that I have a better sense of where you are coming from, please allow me to respond more fully, corresponding to your points:
    1. No doubt, pride – especially of the spiritual kind – is a great temptation and evil. But should we be doing away with all titles and the pecking order within society because they present occasions for preening? Are you against titles under all circumstances – Dr., Prof., judge, officer, boss etc? On the topic of bishops in the RC and EO traditions, it should be noted that their theology – in contradistinction to Protestantism – teaches an ontological hierarchy of holiness where clergy are the highest on the ladder leading to the beatific vision. Evangelicalism can be guilty of similar kind of moral self-righteousness among clergy and laity alike. However, the best of the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian traditions have affirmed forensic justification by faith alone, and such having logical priority to sanctification. Hence, our theology is an antidote and not an encouragement to the temptation to spiritual pride that you point out. Also, not knowing the context of Calvin’s remark, I cannot really comment. Perhaps he was reacting negatively to someone who was under discipline in his church? Perhaps he was dismayed by the correlation he saw between people’s impious attitudes in corporate worship and their disrespect toward those who administer the Word and Sacraments in the name of Christ in general?
    2. I am not sure I am getting your point here. Can you elaborate? If Paul says teaching elders are worthy of honor then why can’t they be distinguished by respected title? Where is Jesus taking issue with ecclesiastical titles beyond the reprobate scribes and Pharisees?
    3. My understanding of Matt. 23 is that Jesus was taking issue with the scribes and Pharisees for throwing their weight around, because their “authority” in the eyes of the masses was a barrier to people seeing Messiah. I don’t think he was taking issue with legitimate God-ordained titles and delegated authority in principle. Jesus gave his disciples (distinguished from the many) the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16). Upon his ascension, Christ gave gifts with corresponding titles to his church. All believers have the general office of prophet, priest and king. While, some are also called to the sacred and weighty office of ordained minister.
    4. I don’t agree with your reasoning here, if I understand your point. Civil magistrates require our respect and submission, but we don’t mistake their lordship for God in an idolatrous sense. Surely we must uphold the creator-creature distinction here? There are all sorts of human relationships where there is the dynamic of superior/inferior both in nature and function: parent/child, employer/employee, president/people etc. In these contexts, we don’t mistake the superior for God – though Scripture even calls civil magistrates ministers of God (Rom 13). How much more then, when we move from secular/common vocations to the holy calling of minister, whose entire life is dedicated to the service and stewardship of the mysteries of Christ in his name as God’s ambassador, should we give the man (we don’t ordain women) who holds this office respect and honor. We respect all people as image-bearers of God… Children give added respect to their elders… In terms of reverencing human beings, greatest respect is due the person who speaks and acts on behalf of Christ in his church. If we treat the ordained minister as ordinary – and by extension the official church as well – are we not guilty of disrespecting Christ, who chooses to mediate his grace through these broken earthen vessels?
    5. In churches where the minister imbibes and preaches a gospel of moralism, then I think the aura of self-righteousness is probably picked up by everyone in the room (see answer to point 1). With this said, a minister who understands grace and his office will hopefully engender respect and a level of approachability with outsiders and insiders. However, don’t you think the mention of being a Christian (let alone a minister) in any mixed social setting is going to generate some level of awkwardness? Does not the darkness hate the light? I am not sure what you mean by the “incarnational dimension” of the gospel. Perhaps you can elaborate?
    Please feel free to push back and I will respond as time permits. Grace and peace,

  4. Thank you for your friendly invitation to “push back”.
    1. We agree, I think, that pride is a, indeed the, great and dangerous temptation for all of us. What I would hope that we may find agreement that certain things like aspiring after titles of prestige and honour are a yielding to the temptation.
    2. In answer to your (rhetorical?) question whether I am against the use of all titles, or titles in general, the answer is No.
    3. Forgive me, but I think that to state that the RC and Eastern Orthodox Churches teach “an ontological hierarchy of holiness where clergy are the highest on the ladder leading to the beatific vision” is prejudiced and unfair. Neither Church has ever taught that its clergy are as such “highest on the ladder”.
    4. I think you would agree: though the doctrine of justification by grace is an antidote to pride, that in no way means that we who believe the doctrine are impervious to the temptation.
    5. The story about Calvin is as follows. A recent refugee from France in Geneva met Calvin on the street and greeted him as “Brother Calvin”. Calvin was annoyed and insisted on being called by the formal title “Monsieur Calvin”. Two points apply here:
    a) Calvin should not have taken umbrage;
    b) Nevertheless Calvin was insisting on no more than the ordinary form of address that was normal for any citizen of Geneva, not any title that set him up as specially to be revered or reverenced as a member of the clergy as a class apart. That he would have regarded as papist—and, of course, it is from the Catholics that we took over the title “Reverend”.
    6. In I Tim 5:15, “Let the Elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching,” the Greek word translated “honour” specifically refers to stipend. (See the next verse.) But I agree that it also means that the congregation should treat their clergy with respect.
    7. However, an exhortation to the *congregation* to respect its clergy is not the same thing as an encouragement to the *clergy* on their side to lust after or seek prestige, status and honour.
    8. This is made especially clear in Jesus’ warnings in Matt. 23. Jesus is not in fact addressing the scribes and Pharisees but using them as a negative example in addressing and warning his own disciples to beware of seeking the places and using the titles of status that the scribes and Pharisees in their spiritual pride loved so much.
    9. I agree that mentioning that one is a Christian in any mixed social setting is likely to generate a degree of awkwardness, but introducing oneself as “Rev so and so” raises that to a much higher level. The first may be merely a witness; the second inevitably tends to communicate the presumption that one claims to be worthy of reverence. And the world mocks such presumption.
    10. Let me cite a couple of examples.
    a) Some time ago a minister went to spend some days at the Carmel Conference Centre. The receptionist did not know he was a minister and wrote down his name on the board listing new guests without the title “Rev.” When the minister later saw this, he ranted at her for not giving him the title that was his due. His reaction was all about the spiritual pride he linked to the title he claimed.
    b) The second example comes from when I was privileged to visit Egypt with a group of Christians. We were granted an interview with the Coptic Pope. He expected to be addressed throughout with the prestigious title, “Your Holiness”. Was it wrong for me to gag at this?
    11. Jesus came among us not as one claiming, or insisting on, honour among human beings or titles of honour from those who addressed him, but as one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped at [or clung to], but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…and…humbled himself” (Phil. 2). *This*, says St Paul, is “the mind” or attitude we must have, a mind that we do have when we are genuinely “in Christ Jesus”. It is a mind in which we “in humility count others more significant than ourselves”. Is that not the contrary of thinking that because we are clergy we are a cut above those who are not or that we may therefore demand reverence or assume any title that shows that we expect such reverence?
    12. Finally let me quote Karl Barth on the proper attitude of ministers to the Word they have to proclaim and to the congregation to which they proclaim it:
    “Pastors are sinners. They are unprofitable servants with all their words, even though they do all that they are under obligation to do. Nevertheless, they are servants of the Most High. They speak in his name…. This does not mean that when pastors speak officially, they then with their words enjoy a sense of papal infallibility. On the contrary, they know fear and trembling whenever they mount the pulpit. *They are crushed by the feeling of being poor human beings who are probably more unworthy than all those who sit before them.* Nevertheless, precisely then it is still a matter of God’s Word. The Word of God that they have to proclaim is what judges *them*, but this does not alter the fact—indeed, it *means*—that they have to proclaim it.”

  5. Author

    Douglas, thank you for pushing back in gracious and yet thought-provoking way. Please allow me to make a few follow-up comments relative to you points above.
    #3. Please note that my comments here regarding the RC and EO churches have to do with the objective theological nature of their ecclesiology and soteriology, which I think must inform the minister’s subjective sense of holding ordained office. My understanding is that both communions believe that the gap between the laity and the risen Lord Jesus is bridged through an Episcopal hierarchy, where the Body of Christ comes into contact with its Head through infusions of grace through the public ministry of the church, especially the Eucharist (cf. Augustine’s notion of totus Christus) Contra Protestantism, here we find grace overcoming nature, where clergy are highest on the ontological ladder of being – i.e. closest to Christ the Head. To my mind, the mutually informing doctrines of salvation and church driving RC and EO encourages self-righteous preening among clergy like no other.
    #8. I have not preached through Matthew 23 yet, but I would read it in light of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus castigates the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. I understand that Jesus’ ongoing diatribe against the Jewish leaders is a message to the disciples and the masses not to imitate their self-righteousness (cf. Matt. 5:20). It is exactly the Pharisaic types that cannot engage in any acts of piety – like praying and giving alms – or discharge ecclesiastical office without thinking it is all about them and not about God. Jesus has no problem mentioning the titles of “prophets”, “wise men” and “scribes” in Matt. 23:34. Titles does not seem to be the issue, but rather those who assume them without true repentance and faith.
    #9. Just for clarification, I am not suggesting that a minister introduce himself as “Rev” in a mixed social setting. But if he is referred to as such, then I am OK with that. Though, in such a setting the minister is also neighbor, friend, family member and citizen, and such commonality with unbelievers provides plenty for conversation. Also, in keeping with the two kingdoms doctrine, the ordained minister should be careful of the limits of his authority once he ventures beyond the jurisdiction and workings of the institutional church. I think that the ordained minister does far more harm around the neighborhood braai when he conflates the gospel and social justice than owning the title of “Rev.”
    #11. Again, I agree that no Christian should consider himself a cut above anyone, but I don’t think this means dispensing with titles – especially when a title like “Rev” showcases the grace of Christ, his gospel and his church like no other office or title on earth.
    #12. I like the quote by Barth!

    1. Hi Simon
      Thank you for your gracious reply.
      1. I do not think that anyone in the RC and EO Churches would recognize their theologies in the way you have described them. Both emphasize that the clergy may be very unworthy of their office, even though that does not necessarily block the work of the Spirit, the Word and the sacraments through them. No RC or EO theologian would describe the clergy as such as “highest on the ontological ladder of being – i.e. closest to Christ the Head”. And they would speak of the Word and the sacraments as constituting the bridge, rather than the hierarchy of clergy as such, which is merely their instrument.
      2. Commonly Catholicism is characterized as teaching that grace supplements nature (cf. Aquinas) and Protestantism as teaching that grace transforms (overcomes?) nature. So when you characterize RC and EO theology as grace overcoming nature, how do you mean to characterize Protestantism by contrast?
      3. I do not remember that Augustine’s doctrine of the totus Christus singles out the clergy in any such way as you mention.
      4. I am also uneasy about pointing fingers so fiercely at the clergy of other denominations for preening when it happens in our own!
      5. The analogy of titles like “prophets”, “wise men” and “scribes” in Matt. 23:34 is not really relevant. As you say titles as such, or titles denoting function, is not the issue. What is is the kind of title that is claimed or used and the adopting of it for the sake of status. I see no problem with the title “pastor”, for instance, or even the abbreviation VDM. The problem with “Reverend” is that it means “worthy of reverence” and its use therefore immediately and necessarily constitutes a claim to spiritual and prestige in contrast to others. At least we agree that a minister should not introduce himself as “Rev.” But surely he should also *decline* the title when it is applied to him. Only in that way can he make clear that he is “neighbour, friend, family member and citizen” in “commonality” with believers and with unbelievers and not “a cut above anyone”, as you put it. As Denise Ackerman pointed out, it is a real indictment of the clergy when they all are robed in such splendour that one cannot imagine the man on the borrowed donkey among them. If that is true of their dress, is it not as or more true of their titles of status? I would refer again to Matt. 23!
      6. I just cannot understand the asseveration that “a title like ‘Rev’” showcases the grace of Christ, his gospel and his church like no other office or title on earth”!
      7. Perhaps your most interesting point is your statement: “in keeping with the two kingdoms doctrine, the ordained minister should be careful of the limits of his authority once he ventures beyond the jurisdiction and workings of the institutional church. I think that the ordained minister does far more harm around the neighborhood braai when he conflates the gospel and social justice than owning the title of ‘Rev.’” What does this imply about whether or not a minister should preach about the gospel’s demand for social justice in the face of social injustice, racial discrimination etc.?

      1. Author

        Hello again, Douglas. Thank you for your further comments. Please allow me to respond.
        1. My comments regarding RC and EO pertain to their historic theological positions bequeathed by the middle ages. No doubt, modern iterations of the same will reflect development. Nevertheless, I still understand that their ecclesiological positions are substantively what I have stated, with EO and RC having some differences.
        As to the ontological development of Augustine’s totus Christus, I quote Reformed theological Michael Horton from his new systematic theology where he deals with the shaping of medieval ecclesiology:

        Reflecting the superiority of the soul over the body and of grace over nature, the church was identified especially with the clergy: from its head (the pope) down to the magisterium, bishops, and the rest of the clergy (priests and monks). Nature’s inferior sphere was occupied by the laity, most of whom could not understand the words of the Latin Mass and none of whom could receive Communion except for the bread. The higher life (supernatural) was attained by keeping the “evangelical counsels” – requiring celibacy, contemplation, and monastic vows – while the ordinary (natural) life of lay Christians involved marriage, family, and secular vocations. The distinct grace infused through the sacrament of ordination was believed to communicate new ontological identity and status to priests, distinguishing them from the laity not only in office but in their elevated essence [here Horton cites the Catechism of the Christian Church.] (Horton, The Christian Faith, 739)

        It is with this kind of rendering of ecclesiology that RC sees the official church as filling the “gap” – ontologically, with the Pope as the visible head – that Christ has left. The RC mass says it all: the host is transubstantiated into the natural body of Christ (a conflation of soteriology and ecclesiology). To say that the “gap” is bridged by Word and sacraments, through the Spirit, is what I understand to be the Reformation position. In my estimation, RC is guilty of an over-realized eschatology that does not do justice to the theology of the cross.
        2. My understanding is that for RC the categories are nature and grace, while for the Protestant it is sin and grace. According to Horton, RC theology speaks of infused grace that divinizes individuals and elevates them into the divine order. The assumption here is that grace makes us something more than human. In contrast, Protestants have believed that grace liberates us for the full humanity for which we were created. (Horton, The Christian Faith, 607.)
        3. The medieval RC church developed Augustine’s Platonic impulse in this direction…
        4. I agree, but do you not think that theological error must be exposed so that sound theology drives our piety? If our theology is off base, how can our piety ever arrive?
        5. Again, I have to go back to Paul’s willingness to honor the ordained office of elder. It is the office that is worthy of reverence and not the person. It reminds me of the efficacy of the Word preached even if the minister is caught in sin or a reprobate. The problem with Rome and expressions of high Anglicanism is that their ministers don’t get the gospel right to begin with. In the case of RC, the disastrous error is to locate Apostolicity in historic Apostolic succession (i.e. church governance) and not in the gospel preached. This makes the pomp and ceremony all the more off-putting.
        6. It has to do with the efficacy of the means of grace, which are administered by God’s ordained minister.
        7. I believe that the ordained minister must preach the full counsel of God, including those parts on moral injustice. But the minister may not bind consciences where Scripture does not speak – such as the specifics of civil policy. Does this get at your concerns here?

  6. Hi Simon
    Thank you for your response. In reply I would say:
    1. Michael Horwood’s statement that “none of whom [i.e. of the laity] could receive Communion except for the bread” is a prejudiced way of putting it, because if you receive the bread you receive Communion (in both RC and Protestant doctrine). The laity were not denied the wine because they were “inferior” (as he suggests), but, as I understand it, for a purely practical reason: in the context of RC doctrine it was sacrilege to spill the wine on the floor and this measure was taken to prevent that. Besides, since Vatican II that stricture is out of date.
    2. The grace infused through the sacrament of ordination according to Catholic doctrine, and described by some as communicating a new ontological identity and status to priests, must not be confused with the grace of redemption or holiness (sanctification). This is a fundamental confusion of categories.
    3. RC doctrine understands the sacrament of marriage as likewise conveying a grace. In the same way that does not mean that it conveys an ontological status of salvation or sanctification.
    4. I do not know whether anyone has counted, but the RC Church has, I think, declared many more lay people than clergy canonized “saints”, which demonstrates my point.
    5. I agree with you that the RC Church has been guilty of an “over-realized” eschatology in some ways, but then many Protestants are guilty of an “over-realized eschatology”, for instance, in the way they speak of the Kingdom of God.
    6, I agree that the doctrine of transubstantiation goes beyond Scripture and, as Luther put it, involves a “superfluous miracle”. On the other hand the Catholic doctrine at least teaches the real presence of Christ in and through the sacrament in faithfulness to Scripture. The great majority of Protestants on the other hand have abandoned that biblical doctrine for a crass Zwinglianism. To take an extreme example, in the Common Ground Church the way the rite is celebrated is the following. The minister declares the service closed and then says that if anyone wants to break bread they are welcome to come up to the table and help themselves. A minority of members go up, take a bit of bread (matzos?) and grape juice, go and sit in their pews for a minute and then leave!
    7. “Sin and grace” are not alternative categories to “nature and grace”. The Reformers too speak of all 3 categories in relation to one another: nature, sin and grace.
    8. The doctrine of divinization that Horwood criticizes is more characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy than Catholicism. In any case it is based on II Pet. 1:4. To that extent it is biblical–as long, of course, as it is understood strictly in terms of its intention and in the biblical context. It is not quite fair to say that RC doctrine has taught that grace makes us “more than human” in any ontological sense.
    9. Of course I agree that ” theological error must be exposed so that sound theology drives our piety.”
    10. I still see Paul’s desire that a congregation honour the ordained office of elder as something quite different from a minister’s preening himself with the title “Reverend”–or any other title of prestige and status (Matt. 23). You yourself state: “It is the office that is worthy of reverence and not the person”–and, as I pointed out, I Tim. 5:17 is in any case primarily concerned with stipends, and Jesus specifically warns against this sort of thing.
    11. I think it goes much too far to allege that high Anglicans do not “get the gospel right to begin with”. Many do. Indeed many RC priests do too, despite whatever partial obscuring one may attribute to the official doctrine of the RC Church. Indeed, as Hans Kung pointed out in his histloric book on Justification (his doctoral thesis), the doctrine of justification of the Council of Trent can actually be reconciled with Reformed doctrine if understood strictly in accord with its own intentions in its historical context. One must also bear in mind the historic statement of agreement signed by the official representatives of the RC Church and those of the Lutheran World Ministries and published in 1985, which emphasizes the fundamental agreement between them that
    “Our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Christ Jesus and on the gospel whereby the good news of God’s merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God’s promise and saving work in Christ”
    –and went on to identify the difference between them as one in which the Lutheran doctrine emphasized that in justification we are declared righteous apart from works, while the Catholic doctrine emphasized that in declaring us righteous God also makes us righteous.
    12. Although I agree that the RC Church errs in locating apostolicity in an external apostolic succession of church governance, this should not be confused with whether or not those standing in that succession preach the gospel.
    13. I am most interested in hearing more from you in exposition of your statement that:
    “in keeping with the two kingdoms doctrine, the ordained minister should be careful of the limits of his authority once he ventures beyond the jurisdiction and workings of the institutional church. I think that the ordained minister does far more harm around the neighborhood braai when he conflates the gospel and social justice than owning the title of ‘Rev.’”
    You did reply that “I believe that the ordained minister must preach the full counsel of God, including those parts on moral injustice. But the minister may not bind consciences where Scripture does not speak – such as the specifics of civil policy.”
    But that does not clarify the distinction or boundary line for me. To be quite specific, should the Church not have preached against the specifics of the civil policy and practice of apartheid? Should it not now be making a protest about all the corruption in high places and the Government’s failure to pursue policies that will help to bridge the huge income gap between rich and poor in SA? Do these things not lie right outside the “jurisdiction and workings of the institutional church”, yet under the lordship of Jesus Christ? And how does your particular doctrine of the two kingdoms apply here?

    1. Author

      Hello Douglas, thanks again for being willing to engage in this “iron-sharpening-iron” dialog.
      In terms of the big picture, whether or not to address pastors as “Reverend” is not a hill I am going to die on. (In my brief tenure as pastor, I don’t recall anyone calling me such in person; and I would never insist on it.) What I do care deeply about is respect for the nature of the ordained office as it informs a broader appreciation for the importance of the official public ministry of the church.
      With this said, I still stand firm by my contention that RC ministers have the theological grounds for self-righteous preening, whether they buy the title of “Reverend” or not. So, staying on this topic of RC ecclesiology and their soteriology, which are inseparable, let me make some further comments corresponding to your points:
      1. To me, it is telling that – pre-Vatican II – spilling the wine is sacrilege. This is Platonic ontology, rather than Reformed union of sign and thing signified by the Spirit. For the RC Mass, grace overcomes or elevates nature, rather than sanctifies it;
      2-4. I think and hope these concerns are answered below;
      7. Fair enough re you latter point, but is sin an ontological or ethical problem for RC? I understand the former: grace is an infused substance that elevates human nature after losing the donum superadditum through the fall;
      8. My understanding is that RC teaches humanity pre-fall needed the grace of the donum to keep in check the inherent weakness of human nature. Post-fall, humanity needs the infusion of grace to commune with the divine: enter into the sphere of the supernatural. In this sense, salvation necessarily involves becoming more than human. In contrast, I believe that Protestantism affirms redemption as becoming more human, which is keeping with no deficiency in human nature pre-fall;
      11. I said that *some* Anglicans get the gospel wrong – in part due to high Anglican affinities with Rome. Regarding RC view of justification, I cannot agree with Kung’s thesis that invokes Barth as representative of the Reformed tradition. One can reconcile Trent with strands of Protestantism on justification if one jettisons imputation, which the Lutheran World Federation Declaration does. (No wonder the likes of Missouri Synod Lutherans never signed the document.) I am all for ecumenical dialog, but not when those in favour of unity play fast and loose with our confessional Reformed heritage on our central article of faith. The RC magisterium has never affirmed imputation and therein lies the crux of the matter wrt justification. And hence my ongoing contention that RC has the theological grounds for self-righteousness, and therefore far more susceptible to preening than Reformed Protestants who get justification right;
      13. These are very good questions on a highly sensitive subject. At the risk of sounding like I am punting, may I suggest that you take a look at the final chapter of my PHD dissertation here, which deals in detail with such matters. Perhaps then you can follow up thereafter?
      In short, I don’t believe the minister has authority to bind the conscience of the believer where Scripture does not. Working out the general moral principles of Scripture in civil policy requires Christian liberty and wisdom as believers seek to be good citizens in the civil kingdom. What worries me is that some churches concerned with social justice give the impression that Christianity is about politics and will use every opportunity to push a socio-political agenda. A plain reading of Scripture reveals that the church should chiefly be concerned with the salvation of sinners through Word and sacrament ministry. It is beyond her mandate to rectify broader social ills. This is the job of the state and other institutions, which should be thronging with Christians seeking to love their neighbors through a myriad of legitimate channels.
      If I may say, in my estimation apartheid took root because of a conflation of church and state, the former being one that condoned racial segregation at the Lord’s Table and gave theological legitimisation to such division across all spheres of life.
      Social injustice does not need to be diagnosed or remedied by special revelation. God’s natural law operating on the conscience of all does both; the practical effects of which are confined to this age only.

  7. Dear Simon
    To continue the dialogue….
    1. I think that at least concerning the use of “Rev.” greater clarity has perhaps shown that we are closer than may have appeared at first. My concern is not to detract from the office, but to question the use of the term “Rev.”, because it seems so much to contradict our Lord’s strictures against titles of status in Matt. 23.
    2. However much formulations of Catholic theology have been in danger of self-righteousness, that does not mean that we should be unconcerned with preening among our own clergy.
    3. Let me emphasize that I identify with Reformed theology, so that I do not defend Catholicism, except to the extent that I think it is only fair to try to understand it as Catholics would represent it today and not as we sometimes caricature it on the basis of its past expressions.
    4. A Catholic priest, asked about the withholding of the wine from the laity prior to Vatican II, gave the following reasons for why the practice arose in the Middle Ages:
    a) wine was expensive in some places;
    b) medieval wine was difficult to preserve;
    c) distribution from one cup took a long time in large congregations, in a time when lay people were not recruited to assist the priest;
    d) as only the priest was allowed to hold and tilt the cup and people received standing, there was a real danger of spilling it.
    5. Criticism of the RC doctrine of the Mass for Platonic ontology is problematic, because Aristotle’s ontology is different from Plato’s, and the doctrine of the Mass is formulated in the categories of Aristotelian ontology (Aquinas). But, again, with all the criticism that does apply to that doctrine, is the worse fault not the widespread devaluation of the sacrament to signa nuda with a doctrine at the other extreme? So many Protestants deny just what you yourself hold to: the union of the thing signified with the sign through the Spirit. (Matt. 7:3)
    6. To say that sin is an ontological and therefore not an ethical problem for RC theology is at least a false deduction. Moreover RC theology more characteristically speaks of grace as an infused “power”, not “substance”—and however different that is from Paul’s meaning, it roughly accords with Js. 4:6. Is the criticism that Catholics speak of grace as a substance not really a Protestant deduction from their use of language like “an infusion of grace”? Cer¬tainly Catholics would not accept that grace makes one more than human.
    7. The idea of an ontological change is paralleled at least by Paul’s assertion that through grace we become new creatures.
    8. The traditional Catholic opposition to “imputed righteousness” stems from the fact that until the late 20th century Catholics persisted in a misunderstanding of Lutheran doctrine as being uninterested in people being made righteous, i.e. in sanctification as connected in any way with justification. In the face of this they felt the need to maintain the Pauline principle that “not the hearers but the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). Indeed, to the extent that some Lutheran theologians after Luther did actually write as though sanctification was unimportant, one must make some allowance for the misunderstanding. (Even in 1937 Bonhoeffer felt the need to add his introductory chapter on costly grace especially for Lutherans when he published his lectures on discipleship.)
    9. Even the Vatican, in its comments on the joint Lutheran- Catholic 1985 statement on Justification by Faith, let the following statement stand unqualified:
    “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” Whatever the Missouri Synod’s reasoning, can we not at least welcome that as a big step forward?
    10. Is it the substance of the doctrine of salvation solo Christo, sola gratia, sola fide not more is important than the particular terminology after all? One finds the term “imputed righteous-ness” more often in Luther than in Calvin, for instance, and Bullinger did not even like the term.
    11. I am very interested to know: why do you think Barth’s doctrine of justification is not representative of Reformed doctrine.
    12. The assertion that “the church should chiefly be concerned with the salvation of sinners through Word and sacrament” and that “it is beyond her mandate to rectify broader social ills”, so that she should accept that that “is the job of the state and other institutions”, not the Church, seems to me to pose quite false and indeed disastrous alternatives. Who then is to speak out for God on social issues?
    13. The notion that the Church should not concern itself with speaking directly to issues of injustice (“speaking truth to power”)—as though it is no “legitimate channel” for that—but leave that to individual Christians in the State and other institutions seems very much a “spheres theology”. Are you meaning here to defend the Kuyperian tradition of theology with its doctrine of separate spheres that was ultimately Lutheran and Romantic or rather than Calvinistic and Reformed in origin? (PW Botha used to wag his finger at church representatives and tell them that State and Church were different spheres, so that the Church had no right to address the State on political issues of justice.) Where does “the plain reading of Scripture” limit the Word of the sovereign Christ that is committed to the Church like this?!
    14. Besides, what if the “Christians” in the State and other institutions are caught up in a nationalist or racist ideology of the State that drives them to perpetrate injustice? Must the Church not speak out against such an ideology? Does leaving all issues of political justice to the general citizenry’s sense of equity—or the “natural” sense of equity in Christian citizens—not assume a far too innocent understanding of human nature instead of recognizing its deep sinfulness and corruption also in the corporate sphere (Niebuhr)? To take an extreme example, was the Confessing Church in Germany wrong in speaking out against crimes of the Third Reich? Should it not in fact have done this much more and much more outspokenly and comprehensively than it did (easy though it is for us to say that)?
    15. How much “the salvation of sinners” and the issue of social justice are connected in effect is shown by how the Church’s failure to stand up against apartheid has resulted in so many whites leaving the NGK, for instance, in disillusionment now that they realize how the Church failed to oppose what was so wrong. It has also led to many blacks rejecting Christianity altogether or becoming Muslims because they see the Church as having collaborated with injustice and oppression either actively or by its silence. Contrast Korea, for instance, where the high proportion of the population that has become Christian has much to do with the Church’s stand for for justice and liberty under foreign occupation and oppression.
    16. Certainly one can say that apartheid took root because of a conflation of Church and State, in that the former condoned racial segregation at the Lord’s Table and gave theological legitimisation to such division across all spheres of life, as you say. The problem was not in principle that the state learned from the Church, however; it was that the Church taught the State to think about the politics it should pursue in a way that was explicitly not what the gospel taught but what natural law and theology taught and that this was interpreted in a way so directly contrary to Scripture!
    17. You state, “Social injustice does not need to be diagnosed or remedied by special revelation. God’s natural law operating on the conscience of all does both; the practical effects of which are confined to this age only.” This seems to be far too innocent. I do not deny that people in general have a sense of equity, to use Calvin’s term, but “God’s natural law operating on the conscience of all” did not in fact suffice. The problem is that our perception of social justice is itself distorted by sin (by our vested economic and political interests) and therefore urgently needs to be addressed by the gospel. Why did people read the natural law as teaching them that they should at all costs—even the cost of justice, domination and discrimination—keep their racial identity pure, unless it was because of sin that the gospel needs to confront?
    18. I have just worked out how to find your thesis on the website and downloaded it and will read it (or at least some of it) with interest. But that will take time, and the above response is in already very long, so I must reserve any possible comments on the thesis for another occasion (or place).

    1. Author

      Greetings once again Douglas,
      1. I won’t comment any further on what I believe are the Scriptural merits for using the title “Reverend.” Though, I have appreciate your thoughts here;
      2. Indeed, we should all be mortifying pride within us by the Spirit;
      3. I am interested to know: What do you think constitutes authoritative teaching for the RCC? I understand that the magisterium takes precedence over individual RCC theologians;
      4. My concern is with why it is sacrilegious for the wine to be spilled? Is it not because the RCC views the sacraments as working ex opere operato?
      5. My point is that RCC theology depicts salvation as grace overcoming an ontological deficiency in human nature. As far as I understand, both Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics inform this dualism between lower and higher planes of human existence;
      6. Here, I’d be interested to know according to whom? The magisterium or the opinions of individual theologians like Rahner? For clarification, I understand Trent teaches that the solution to the problem of sin is infused grace, which enables the sinner to co-operate with God towards the end of cultivating intrinsic righteousness that justifies. Hence, my claim that Rome sees sin as ontological/metaphyscial problem. In contrast, R&P traditions have historically affirmed sin as a covenantal/ethical problem that can only be overcome through Christ’s atoning blood and the imputation of his alien righteousness;
      7. We become new creatures in Christ, who is our covenantal head and extrinsic righteousness. Rome – per Trent – teaches intrinsic/ontological righteousness;
      8. But has the magisterium abandoned Trent on this?
      9. Among another things, “in faith” is not Protestant. We confess “by” faith as the lone instrument for our justification. With this statement, Rome can still find room to conflate justification with sanctification; the declarative with the transformative; the objective with the subjective;
      10. Yes, but in exegeting these categories one needs to employ the language of imputation, which Trent explicity rejects in Canon 11. The RCC does not hold to faith alone, because faith must be accompanied by other intrinsic virtues as the instrument of justification. And neither is it by Christ alone, because justification includes the declarative/objective/alien and the transformative/subjective/intrinsic righteousness, plus the teachings about Mary, the saints and purgatory…
      11. As far as I understand, Barth departs from the historic Reformed confessions when it comes to, among others, his repudiation of the historicity of Adam; his mono-covenantalism; his dialectical revisionism of total depravity and election… Why does Barth get to be the go to guy for the Reformed tradition? Why not our confessional standards? (This is not to say I don’t appreciate Barth in places…)
      12. The state and other common institutions and outfits: families, schools, universities, media, poets, novelists, NGO’s etc., which should include Christians, but don’t have to…
      13. If I may, I will let you read about Kuyper in my dissertation. Essentially, he held to a kind of two-kingdoms and natural law paradigm. Without knowing all the details surrounding Botha’s comment, I would tentatively agree with him. To shift contexts, I for the most part agree with the separation of church and state since the revolutionary war in the United States. I completely affirm the sovereignty of Christ in all spheres of life, but that he rules the church differently (read redemptively) compared to all other institutions (as creator and sustainer only);
      14. If Christians are publicly violating the moral law of God they are to be subject to church discipline (Matt. 18). As to natural law, Calvin affirmed it and Barth did not… This is a contested doctrine. I’ll answer your question on the Third Reich in private;
      15. As I have said before, and I think VanDrunen said is publicly as well, it seems that the NGK should have stamped out segregation at the Table from the outset. What a witness to a racist government/public! How does social justice reveal Christ as redeemer? I thought that law and gospel does? The world likes the former and counts as foolish the latter…
      16. I agree, the church gave theological legitimisation to an abhorrent state ideology. I disagree with your lumping natural law together with a neo-Kuyperian rendering of orders of creation that were believed to structure re-creation. A historic Reformed rendering of natural law sees it as operating as the moral standard for the civil kingdom, and in no way effects redemption. I would argue that Calvin’s notion of natural law – understood in the context of his doctrine of two kingdoms – is incompatible with the Afrikaaner neo-Calvinist idea of orders of creation;
      17. I understand (civil) social justice to be substantively a different ethic from the gospel – i.e. the Sermon on the Mount is meant for the church only. In my opinion, the NGK should have followed the gospel when it came to fencing the Table – eventually they did, after being disciplined by WARC. The truths of human dignity and equal rights are accessible by natural revelation, though due to sin are imperfectly received and implemented. This is the stubborn reality of living in a fallen world. But to give the church a voice where Scripture does not – even if pragmatically beneficial – is to at least go beyond the church’s biblical mandate and at worst to confuse the gospel with social and political emancipation. In fact, I would go as far as arguing that justification by faith alone is potentially endangered when the church holds itself out to be an agent for social and political transformation;
      18. Good! I look forward to further feedback.

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