Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Theology matters
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Theology matters

Where does systematic teaching happen in our churches?

Dear friends

I seem to be having trouble tracking Phillip down at the moment. As I write this, he’s travelling up to the UNSW Mid-Year Conference (I’ll be heading up there this week as well), so it’s me again in this week’s edition. 

And the subject of this week’s edition comes courtesy of an email from one of our subscribers. Craig from the US writes about two important and related issues he’d like us to address, and as I started to rough out some answers I realised that it was going to take a whole edition just to deal with the first of them. 

Both of Craig’s questions are about theology, but in different ways. The first is about theological understanding (or lack of it) among the members of his church. He writes: 

Our ministers’ preaching is, as far as I can tell, consistent with historical orthodoxy as contained in the creeds and the 39 articles. However, as you have pointed out, people do not always hear what the preacher says, and our church offers no theological training to lay leaders that I know of. I frequently encounter lay leaders in our church expressing heterodox views such as the incarnational sonship, denial of original sin, failure to understand there is one divine essence not three instances of the essence, salvation by faith plus works, experience as more important than scripture, absolute free will in the unregenerate, etc. I believe this has a secondary effect in the devotion of many Christians to culture wars to the neglect of the Gospel. Can you address how ministers can foster sound and coherent doctrine in their churches?

There’s much to discuss here! Let’s talk about it under two headings: the problem and some solutions.

The problem

The problem that Craig outlines has three facets to it. 

The first is simply the everyday reality that Christians do have all kinds of false or misguided or imbalanced doctrine lodged in their brains. I touched on this briefly in the edition before last—how in so many ways we fail to think and live consistently with our profession of Christ, and that we need to pray about this (“Grant unto all them that are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may eschew those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same”). 

The wrong or kooky ideas we have in our heads are of multiple kinds. Craig identifies some particular ones that he sees around him, but there are many others. It’s very common for Christians to be too-much influenced by the world in respect to current moral issues, and not to have a consistent biblical mind on these subjects—things such as how to think about homosexuality or feminism or environmentalism. 

The second aspect of the problem is implicit in Craig’s question—he has noticed that there is a problem, but has his pastor? 

Reading between the lines, it seems possible that he hasn’t, and this certainly wouldn’t be unusual. It sounds like he is preaching in a sound and orthodox way—but the thing is: people often have all manner of sub-Christian ideas floating around in their minds, and these doctrines don’t usually emerge in the quick word they may have with the pastor after church. It comes out in their daily decisions, in their conversation over dinner, in the way they run their families, in small Bible study groups, and so on. 

This was one of Richard Baxter’s key points in The Reformed Pastor. Sermons are important and vital, but people will sit in church with you for years, and yet still have a limited or false understanding of biblical doctrine. The only way for pastors and overseers to know the spiritual state of mind of their members, and to instruct and correct and disciple them accordingly, is to spend time with people personally. (And if there are too many people for you to spend time with personally, says Baxter, then you are either too busy with less important things, or else need to train more overseers/elders to assist in the task. There’s a challenge!)

The third facet of the problem is also one that Baxter wrote about with characteristic vigour—that the lack of doctrinal understanding among our members is a deadly serious issue that deserves our utmost attention. It will always have consequences. At best, bad doctrine stunts Christian growth and damages the church; at worst, it leads people to destruction. 

In particular, if people who are leading others have false or underdeveloped theological understanding, it only magnifies the consequences. The people Craig is particularly concerned about in his email are lay leaders in his church—that is, people who have some responsibility for others, and who teach and influence others through small groups or other ministries. If they have poor doctrinal understanding, it will sow confusion and harm among the groups they are leading. 

Solutions

What, then, of Craig’s actual question: “Can you address how ministers can foster sound and coherent doctrine in their churches?”

I’ve already written about this to some extent in the middle of last year in an episode called “The other kind of teaching” (when this newsletter was called ‘The Payneful Truth’), and I won’t repeat all of that here. Let me make a few general comments about the need for systematic teaching as well as expository teaching, before I get to the specifics of what to do about it. 

It’s absolutely right that the expository method should dominate our diet of sermons and small group studies, because when we preach or study expositorily we expose and unfold and explain how this particular part of the Bible is applying theological truth to a particular circumstance of issue or series of events. The Bible is not organized systematically by topic; God’s truth is revealed in applied form. His word is always doing something to achieve his purpose, and as we preach and study and learn and inwardly digest, we gain the wisdom that makes us wise for salvation, that equips us for every good work. 

Over time then, by preaching or studying faithfully and well, we do grow people’s theological wisdom—their understanding of how various theological truths should frame their thinking and action in various circumstances. This is why mature, well-taught Christians will often be able to vibe their way to the right answer or a godly course of action in a particular case, even without being able to explain exactly how they have come to that conclusion. Their mind has been schooled in a biblical way of thinking and approaching things; their theological instincts, if I can put it that way, have been shaped by constant exposure to the Bible’s instincts. 

However! This doesn’t cover every circumstance or every question. We also need to help people connect the dots—to fit together the various nuggets of theological truth that we have brought forth in multiple different sermons and Bible studies over time. We need to equip them with a framework for putting all the pieces together. 

For example, we certainly need to teach how 1 Corinthians 1 brings the word of the cross to bear on human pride and factionalism, but at some point and in some way we also need to give people an overall understanding of the cross in all its facets and all its glory, particularly so that they can spot false theologies of the cross and not be fooled by them. Or for that matter, we need to help understand the nature of human pride, not just from 1 Corinthians 1, but from all that the Bible teaches about it. 

This is really Craig’s question: how can this be done? How can we teach people systematically as well as expositorily? Each church and context is different, but the principles involved are the same. 

If we want to see people learn and grow theologically, then we need to re-purpose or adapt one of our existing ministry ‘trellises’, or create new ones. 

What I mean by ‘trellises’ (for those who haven’t read the book) are the various structures or programs or opportunities by which people prayerfully minister the word of God to other people. They come in three sizes: large, small and personal. 

Large trellises are gatherings like our Sunday congregational meeting, or a teaching night where we gather a large group of people, or a church weekend away. It’s worth utilising larger groups like this to teach the whole congregation a doctrinal or theological framework about particular issues. For example: 

  • You could set aside (say) six weeks per year in the regular preaching program to preach systematically about key doctrines (perhaps in two blocks of three). That would still leave 90% of the preaching program as expository, which is as it should be.

  • You could gather people for one-off or regular ‘stretch nights’, to dig into important doctrinal subjects in reasonable depth. These could work through the key elements of your doctrinal basis, or bounce off significant subjects that emerge during your expository week-by-week preaching. 

  • If you have a weekend away or some similar annual shindig, consider using it to address a key theological topic. Several talks over a weekend provides a unique opportunity to teach systematically. 

Small trellises are groups of (say) 20 or less, where discussion, interaction and exploration are key aspects of the learning process. The most common small trellises are the regular small groups that many churches run. Small trellises also provide good opportunities for doctrinal teaching. 

  • Within your existing small groups, try setting aside a block of time each year (again six or eight weeks) to do a systematic or topical set of Bible studies. These kinds of studies aren’t simple to write—and I know a certain ministry publisher that has put a lot of effort into producing many easy-to-run, effective topical studies. You might start with something foundational like The Blueprint or Learn the Gospel

  • You could also set up some special training or teaching groups that run alongside regular Bible study groups. Many US churches have this kind of trellis already in place (the adult Sunday School), but this is not the only way of doing it. There was once a time (now less so, sadly) when many churches set up special small groups to work through the Moore College PTC course (a correspondence course in basic theology).

  • All of this is especially true for leaders, which is the issue that Craig initially raised in his email. We want leaders (such as small group leaders) to have a solid grasp of the basic elements of Christian doctrine. If they don’t, it will lead to all kinds of problems. If they do, they can be invaluable partners and co-workers to any pastor or group of elders in teaching doctrine to each member of the congregation. 

However, if we’re to learn from the wisdom of Baxter, the personal level of ‘trellis’ is also vital. When we interact with someone personally, we can find out what they really think, and what their particular questions or hangups are. Like Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos, we can ‘explain the way of God more accurately’ to someone when we take time to talk with them personally (Acts 18:26).

Now if (as a pastor) we have the energy, commitment and particular circumstances of a Richard Baxter, we might do this by getting together with each family in the church once or twice a year for personal instruction. Or perhaps we will need (as Baxter did) to recruit others to help us in this work—other elders or overseers. In many churches today that don’t have a formal body of pastoral elders of this kind, mature and experienced Bible study leaders often fulfil this function. 

The point is: in whatever we find to do it, we need to keep putting more mature theological heads together with less mature ones, to give personal instruction and help in learning the important truths of theology. 

In all of this, I can’t resist the opportunity to point out—once again—the vital place of Christian books in this whole process. Whether in personal discussion, or in ad hoc book groups, or as a way to work through a subject together in a small group, good books are a wonderful resource for drawing together the Bible’s teaching on particular subjects. I’ve blathered on about this before (‘The path to Christian maturity is paved with books’), so I’ll leave you to read that post rather than repeating it here. 

Thanks again to Craig for raising this important question. He had another very fascinating issue to raise as well—about the use of sound and lighting and atmospherics in our church meetings—but that will have to wait for another time. 

PS

The King’s Birthday Conference is not far away. Join us on Monday June 12 for an afternoon of Bible teaching by Phillip and Peter Jensen on the subject: ‘Long live the king’. Go here for all the details. https://phillipjensen.com/events/kbc/


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