I have had a number of conversations with members from my church, other church pastors, and members of other churches. Everyday I’m on the phone with different members and/or ministers. Pastors are always making observations at how the church in general, responds to different events, tragedies, joys, celebrations, etc. I’m no different. I’m making observations constantly in my local congregation but mainly in myself.
I have stated many times that this period will be a time of testing for many. It will be a time of exposing and a time for growth. Some will find they are thriving in prayer, seeking community, and reading Scripture. But for some it will be catastrophic and they will find themselves like the prophet Jonah. He had a plant that was given by God until God sent a little worm to eat the plant and it was gone overnight. Jonah was exposed. Jonah then asked God to let him die. Sounds a little dramatic doesn’t it? It exposed his heart, it exposed what he thought others deserved and what he deserved.
This time of testing will have our false comforts exposed and we will see an opportunity to grow. Maybe those who miss worship will actually attend? Maybe this time will erase the dangerous clique? Maybe it will foster fellowship in the congregation?
In the exile, God’s people were taken, not willingly but by force, and they were brought into another period of testing. Some threw their hands up out of despair. They didn’t have the temple and figured they didn’t have God. But not everyone, Daniel was a man who prayed three times a day. And he was so regimented in his private worship and prayer life that this was used against him. The result? Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den.
J.I. Packer wrote an article many years ago that left an impression on me. In the article he speaks about the worship of the Puritans. The Puritans are an odd group to try to define, as even scholars can’t seem to agree, but I like to categorize them as those Reformed pastors during the scholastic era that embraced all of Scripture intentionally. One of the subjects that occupied pages of their books was the subject of worship. Packer mentions that the Puritans helpfully categorized worship into three spheres: public, home, and private. I found those categories helpful because it counts for the many teachings of worship from the Bible for us. Most of us will participate in public worship, few of us will participate in home and private worship. But we will never notice that deficiency in those other spheres because we only participated in public worship. And even worse, we may have only been taught to do public worship. Now that public worship has been removed as an option we are exposed. Here’s my point: the inability to have corporate worship will highlight our deficiency or strength in private and home worship. It sure did for me.
This includes how we view the sacraments. We need to avoid two ditches: sacerdotalism and anabaptist thinking. Sacerdotalism is a weak theology that limits God’s grace to activities of the clergy and views God’s Word as insufficient. And we have to avoid the anabaptist theology that finds God’s Word as irrelevant and the governing force and emphasis is the private individual and their relationship with God. The sacerdotal view is a medieval view that exalts the institution to a point it actually weakens the sacraments. They lack a proper understanding of the efficacy of their baptism and the Supper. While the Anabaptist have obliterated the institution all together and thrown the whole matter into subjectivity. Then what is the answer? It has to be grounded in the that which grounds not only the sacraments but the church: the Word.
Allow me to speak out of both sides of my mouth. The sacraments are critical for the life of the Christian. The Supper and Baptism are signs God has given to us, through which the Spirit nourishes us, because our faith is prone to be weak and wonder. Yet God’s Word is sufficient. God’s Word is just as real as the sacraments. There is no grace in the sacraments that is not found in the Word. The sacraments are always subservient to the Word and should be kept in their proper place. So while I will always argue the sacraments are necessary, they are not sufficient. God’s Word is sufficient.
Whatever this time of testing exposes, let us pray it exposes our desire to be grounded in God’s Word more deeply and that this would spur us on in our private and home worship till public worship resumes.