Some Misgivings about Andrew Heard’s Lifeboat Analogy

In a recent conversation about the latest Generate Conference, a friend shared his reservations about an analogy Andrew Heard deployed in almost every session. If you are unfamiliar with it, the idea is this: an unprecedented maritime disaster has struck and you are the captain of a rescue vessel sent to the affected area. The bottom line for measuring the lifeboat’s success is the number of people on-board, souls saved. As Heard repeatedly emphasised: you should never reach a point when you are satisfied with how many have been rescued. And if people are dying you cannot be too concerned about the comfort of those already in the lifeboat. Rather, each person brought up from the waters needs to join in the task of rescuing others.

Texas Sept 2013There are undoubtedly many positive uses of this analogy, and Heard utilises it fluidly, from challenging Christians in the church who grumble when evangelism is persistently urged, to pastors who have become heroically pessimistic and satisfied with underperformance, stagnant ministries whose battle hymn is: ‘We are being faithful.’ The analogy provides a much-needed reminder of what is at stake: those who have not come to Christ will die without him. We must be more concerned for those still in the water than those who have already been rescued. Perhaps its most valuable application is its stress on the activity, read ministry, of those on-board. We should not rely on an exhausted team of workers, inches from burning out, when we can join in the operation, making it further reaching and far more successful. But I worry that an overdependence on this analogy in articulating the identity and purpose of Christ’s church could be harmful.

My friend expressed hesitation toward the analogy on the basis that despite the litany of analogies found in the New Testament that describe the church – body, temple, household, and family, to name a few – we do not find one remotely similar to the lifeboat. Therefore, as a preliminary point, it cannot be our primary analogy for describing the church or understanding its mission. Yet, for Heard, the analogy seems to influence and express his thinking at a number of points. While everyone knows that metaphors are pliable, I think we would do better in understanding and employing the numerous biblical metaphors about the church. Metaphors are also admittedly imperfect, meaning their use can be unhelpful, even misleading. So below I want to highlight a few of my misgivings.

Rescued souls need care

As I argued in another post, Can Satan Grow the Church?, exploring Jesus’ analogy of the field and the weeds: the size of a church can be very misleading. A church can be bursting at the seams, yet full of those who do not actually belong to Christ. What Heard’s analogy subtly implies is that we simply need to get people on-board, into the church and committed to reaching others. Yet this overlooks the fact that many who have been brought in will be in desperate need of further resuscitation, attention and care. It is no use having a boat full of: spiritual corpses; barely living and bedraggled souls crawling back towards the waters of sin and death; and others whose only appearance of life is their zeal for those not yet in the boat. To add to the analogy, the deck needs to be packed full of paramedics checking the vitals of those rescued, issuing care, and strengthening them for the task.

Rashly appointing the ill-equipped

Building on my previous concern, fixing our focus on those not yet in the boat will mean viewing those in the boat as little more than tools for that task. But tools need to be fashioned, after they have been cared for. In fact, people are more than mere tools or pragmatic partners in reaching the dying. Though Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 3:6 against appointing new converts concerns elders, I believe that it can function as a more general caution against hastily placing people into ministry roles, since even those who are being assessed to serve as deacons must be tested (3:10). If we overemphasise the need for reaching outsiders we will fail to prepare our people for that task or – and this might be worse – we will cease seeing our people as partners and begin to treat them like tools.

Real danger of unbiblical measurements

This last point is one that I hope to develop at another time. Fruitfulness in the Christian life, from my reading of the New Testament, is rarely tied to conversions but is almost always about character and Christlikeness. My fear for the lifeboat analogy is the unbiblical evaluation of Christians: pragmatism over personal growth. If we believe that the church is first and foremost a means for saving souls then that will be how we evaluate souls on board, by their usefulness in the mission. While maturity results in making the gospel attractive, it cannot be reduced to service and must certainly not be restricted to a Christian’s evangelistic zeal or efforts. We should desire transformation, godliness, opposition to sin, and lives of worship.

Church underwaterThis post is written generally as a caution against making any metaphor a controlling one, especially when it is not explicitly found in Scripture. But, more specifically, I am writing this post as a call for discernment. Is the church primarily a lifeboat with the mission to rescue as many people from death as possible? I am not sure that it is. Especially not when the result is an emphasis on those outside of the boat at the expense of those within. I do not have an analogy to offer in place of the lifeboat, but we would do well to start with those provided for us in the New Testament. Nor do I think we need to throw this analogy overboard. It is useful, especially to illustrate some of those things mentioned at the opening of this post. But, in my opinion, it is not the best or most helpful analogy for understanding the identity and purpose of Christ’s church.

Praying for your Church with Joy

writingThe book of Philippians opens with a lovely greeting and prayer for the church, as we see in so many of Paul’s other letters. But there is one word which this letter particularly emphasises. Joy. It is subtly seen in this greeting, not demanding much attention but, considering the overall thrust of Philippians, not to be overlooked. As per usual, Paul’s greeting is filled with many encouraging words making it difficult to notice if there’s any particular point. Here’s the opening…

I [Paul] thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your [church] partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he [God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me [Paul] to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me [Paul & church] of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I [Paul] yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my [Paul] prayer that your [church] love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you [church] may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, [church] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

It’s a busy greeting, which well describes the busyness of church. Paul prays for the church with thanks and joy. The church is encouraged to grow in love. The church must be discerning and wise. Both Paul and the church are working and suffering for the gospel. Paul feels a deep affection and love for the church. Both Paul and the church need grace to face the trials that come with gospel work. Looking ahead they anticipate the day of Christ and so pursue their sanctification.

Reflecting on joy, John Piper writes, “One of the reasons I am the kind of Christian I am, with the theology that I have, is that I know the Bible requires of me things that I cannot myself immediately produce by my own power. I am fallen. I am sinful. And yet I know I should be feeling the emotions the Bible expects me to feel. I know myself guilty.”

The question is, how can we feel this joy? How can we pray with joy for a church so erratically engaged in ministry, meetings and, most volatile of all, people. We know we must pray, we know we must rejoice always. But how?

Here is the answer. It is that among all the happenings there is one most comforting assurance that we see in verse 6. It is God’s guaranteed work. “I am confident of this: That he who has begun a good work in you shall bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”. As with all matters pertaining to joy, it is and can only be found in Christ.

church2Although Paul & the church are striving for the gospel, thank God that the assurance of that work is God himself. What is progressing and growing, what emotions of affection you feel in your heart, what strivings of bitterness and hardship you endure and what prayers of joy you cherish, they are all the work that is being brought to completion in Christ Jesus. It is the erratic activities of the church functioning within the assured work of the divine.

Joy is such a deep seated emotion, rooted in something far more certain than our own feeble hearts. It is found in the soul, activated by the Spirit, and initiated by Christ and his work. The work that Paul so delights in is that, in the church itself, he can see a work being done for the gospel. But this is not just a church work, it is a Christ work which will continue to progress until completion. That is how we can share in this joy.

But the question that naturally follows is, do we? When we see the church engage in gospel work, do we feel joy? Do we pray for the church always with joy? We can often become over-critical of church, trying to find the perfect blend of fellowship, discipleship and evangelism based on our own meter that we overlook what work Christ is doing. May we never fall into such blindness that we see church as a group of people who do things for Jesus, but always see that Christ is the primary doer making the church joyously worth praying for.

Beware the Love of Missions

Walking away from churchLast month I wrote an article challenging the increasingly popular statement, ‘I identify as a Christian but not a churchgoer.’ Numerous reasons are given for that sentiment, with people claiming: ‘The church hurt me,’ ‘Most Christians are too judgmental,’ and ‘I don’t need the church to have a relationship with God.’ In my article I argued that such a view of the Christian life – regardless of your reasoning – is disobedience to Jesus and discordant with the gospel. Theologian Millard Erickson wrote, “Christianity is a corporate matter, and the Christian life can be fully realized only in relationship to others.” The Christian life is inseparable from and unsustainable without Christian community. In this short post my challenge is not directed at to those with an anaemic understanding of the local church but an ungodly attitude towards it, which is hidden behind the pious veil of a love for missionaries.

In my previous post I made the point – Paul’s from Ephesians 2 – that as we are brought to Christ we are inevitably joined to other believers, becoming mutually committed to one other’s faith and spiritual maturity. The decision to withdraw from the local church is therefore the decision to withhold my God-given gifts from other Christians. Obviously, you can still be a part of the local church and contribute nothing to the lives of others; one of the ways to do this, without losing face, is to express a passion for missions. It is after all much easier to love those who are far away, in word (and rarely in deed). You might even pray for missionaries, give financially to their organisations, and insist that the local church remembers those in the field – all worthy efforts – yet overlook the Christians right in front of you.

Please do not hear what I am not saying. The local church must zealously support the work of missionaries; as John Piper says, Christians can either send or go but they cannot be indifferent to missions. That means our churches must be committed to training and sending missionaries (and church planters) or continually giving towards mission. However, I agree with Mark Dever, in What is a Healthy Church?, when he says it is impossible for us to love the church universal without first loving the church local and visible. He writes this, “If your goal is to love all Christians, let me suggest working toward it by first committing to a concrete group of real Christians with all their foibles and follies. Commit to them through thick and thin for eighty years. Then come back and we’ll talk about your progress in loving all Christians everywhere.”

Old people in churchWhat prompted me to write this post was the confusing paradox I have witnessed in some Christians: apathy to the point of spiritual abandonment of the local church alongside a fervency for the missionaries supported by our local church. How can this be? One of the answers is, in my opinion: in practice it takes less effort and personal investment to be committed to the work of missionaries than working in the local church. I fear that some (definitely not all) who pour themselves out for missions might in fact use that as a smokescreen for their unwillingness to get into the trenches. After all, a passion for missions is admirable and desirable, not to mention desperately lacking in most local churches. Therefore we must gratefully receive those with a concern for missionaries, but not if their love of missions is not coupled with a commitment to the life of the local church.

Dever writes, quite probingly, ”Committing to a local body…confirms what Christ has done. If you have no interest in actually committing yourself to an actual [local church], you might question whether you belong to the body of Christ at all.” Though typically sensational, Dever makes a challenging point as we conclude. Jesus insisted on perceptible and palpable love amongst his disciples, calling us to imitate his selfless and self-giving love (John 13:34; 14:15; 15:12), by which the world will know we are his disciples (13:35). Surely such love must begin at the local church.

Can I be a Christian but not a Churchgoer?

Old empty churchI recently read an article by a Christian blogger, Wendy van Eyck, explaining why she identifies as a Christian but not a churchgoer. This is not the first time I have encountered this statement and others like it. Despite the linked author’s voiced anxieties over insensitive responses, I felt I had to write this post as more and more Christians are viewing the local church as an optional extra for the Christian life. I fear for Christians belonging to the subculture that self-labels itself ‘post-church’ and I believe that this shift reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and God’s purposes in the world today. The church is a display of God’s wisdom (Ephesians 3:10), to bring him glory (3:21), but this is only accomplished when people are united by the gospel and their pursuit of a mature faith. So in this post I will offer a few caveats, interacting with the linked post, before arguing that Christians must belong to a local body, for their own Christian walk and the health of the church.

A few caveats

Wendy writes, “Jesus is still the most dear and precious thing in my life.” This is a wonderful assertion, and all Christians should resolve to adore Jesus and consider him more valuable than anything we possess or desire. Unfortunately, while the author professes that Jesus is most dear to her, I think she has failed to recognise what is most dear to Jesus, namely, the church he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Wendy also writes “Jesus plus nothing is the only math I need.” This too is a delightful, if not a little misleading, statement. Tullian Tchividjian recently wrote Jesus + Nothing = Everything, picking up Paul’s mantle in Galatians to remind us that Christ’s work is sufficient for salvation. But I would like to point out another sum in Paul’s writing: the blood of Christ has brought those who were far off near and in the gospel God has made two into one (Ephesians 2:13-14). Towards the close of her article, Wendy writes, “I just want you to feel free to live in such a way that daily you find yourself being pulled into an embrace by God, that you find yourself so close to him surgeons would have a hard time cutting you apart.” Once again, the picture painted is evocative, a great thing to pray for others – indeed, Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1) – “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13), “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially those who are of the household of God” (6:10). It is a grave mistakes to detach individual salvation from God’s work in the world, reducing it to something private and unrelated to God’s people. And I hope to convince you of that below.

1. God saves us to belong to a local church

Agape feastPeter writes, in 1 Peter 2:4-5, ‘As we come to Christ we are built together as living stones into a spiritual house,’ with the language of priesthood (2:5, 9) being implicit of ministering to each other. Mark Dever, who has written extensively on the church, argues this point convincingly in What is a Healthy Church?, “Never does the New Testament conceive of the Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the church.” Dever adds, drawing on Ephesians 2:11-22, that being committed to a local body is the most natural outcome of being a Christian because it confirms what Christ has done. I would add that committing to the lives of other Christians is also indicative of how Christ has treated us. Dever claims, with even more force, that in respecting the New Testament it is impossible to answer the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ without ending up in a conversation about the church. The pattern reflected in Scripture is of God drawing people to himself and in doing so establishing new and unlooked for relationships amongst his people. This result is not arbitrary, but purposed by God so that we will minister to each other and receive the ministry of others. Without other Christians in your life, many whom who would not have chosen, but God has, you will bury the gifts (or “talents”, Matthew 25:28) that God has given you and cut yourself off from the abundant blessings of belonging to a local church.

2. Christians need the church

In his short, must read, The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller writes, “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” He admits that churches can be unpleasant – indeed essential to his work is the critique of judgmental, inhospitable, and self-righteous Christians, or “elder brothers” – but Keller firmly states, “There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place…Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.” Not only is the Christian life incomplete without the community of a local church, it is also dangerously lacking in accountability, loving correction, and challenging aspects of our faith raised by those who are different to us. I am sure that Gentile Christians were tempted to quit the predominantly Jewish churches of the 1st century, yet Paul wrote, ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, a holy temple’ (Ephesians 2:19-21). Whichever analogy from the New Testament you favour regarding the church – from body to family to building – God unequivocally states that we are joined together as local churches, and that our growth and faith will be stunted outside of the church.

3. The church needs Christians

CCUOne of the grey tops in my church recently said to me, ‘If everyone came forward with their gifts in local church we would have all we need.’ Now, you may partly disagree with that wise saint, and I am not sure the church will be fully functioning and healthy this side of heaven, but her point is worth considering. In Ephesians 4:11-12, we read that God gifts the local church with speaking and teaching offices so that the whole church is equipped for ministry, to serve each other. When I decide that I can no longer be part of a local church for fear of not fitting in or further hurt I make the conscious decision to withhold my gifts, ministry and service from other Christians; basically, I am putting my comfort ahead of others. This seems contrary to the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Commenting on both the Pauline epistles and Hebrews (see 3:12-15; 10:24-25), David Peterson writes in Engaging God, “There is an emphasis on gathering for the benefit of the believing community…The giving and receiving of exhortation is undoubtedly a key factor…of the Christian assembly.” He goes on to argue the obvious: we cannot forsake the local gathering of believers, as many professing Christians do. Christians exist for the benefit of other Christians and the growth of the local church. Peterson then concludes, “Christians ought to gather together regularly to give in ministry, and not simply to receive.” Those cruising as comfortable passengers within the church along with those who have already jumped ship need to be reminded that the church needs them and their service if it is to make headway.

Conclusion

Presbyterian pastor, Philip Ryken asks in The Church, “How could anyone be ambivalent about the church? Its sin notwithstanding, and in spite of all the people we find hard to love, the church is the holy people of God.” Surely there is nothing more important for us to give ourselves in service of, even in suffering for, than the church that Christ purchased with his own blood. Our decision to belong to a local church cannot be dependant on what it does for us and how safe we feel, rather we should model our lives on Christ who made himself nothing and became a servant (Philippians 2:6-8). Self-preservation over the wellbeing of the local church is not how Jesus lived, in fact the cross demonstrates the polar opposite, therefore it is not something I imagine he would endorse.

Three Ways to Encourage Prophecy in Church Gatherings

Passive worship

Two weeks ago I posted arguing that many Christians have lost the biblical and benefical role of prophecy in the life of the local church. In that post I did not set out to challenge the abuses of prophecy in Charismatic traditions but to address its absense in my own Anglican tradition, and no doubt in the broader Reformed church. It is ironic to belong to a tradition that firmly opposed Medieval Catholicism – with its over-distinction between lay people and church leaders, amongst other errors – unwittingly falls into similar traps today, restricting public speaking ministries to the theologically trained. I wonder if part of the reason for this is that our engagement with 1 Corinthians 14 does not go deeper than using it as a proof-text against the misuse of tongues and to highlight the importance of intelligible worship. Interestingly, Paul writes that prophecy is not only prefered to tongues (14:2-3, 19), but should be practised in the local church (14:5, 24), for it is a desirable gift (14:1).

A note on the word ‘prophecy’

Before getting onto our three points below, a brief discussion about the word ‘prophecy’ is necessary. Robert Doyle, one of my lecturers at college, described words as suitcases that can have their contents changed over time. Unfortunately, the word ‘prophecy’ has been crammed full of misplaced and misfitted clothing, or concepts. If you ask a non-Christian what it means to prophesy they will most probably answer, ‘Predicting the future.’ Many Christians will, I fear, give a similar answer. But that sort of prophecy is very infrequent in Scripture; in fact, most of the Old Testament prophets merely warned Israel about the outcomes of improper worship, hard-heartedness, and idolatry, which they were well aware of in the Pentateuch. This has led many, such as Tremper Longman III, to name Old Testament prophets “covenant enforcers” and resist the common misconception ‘fortune tellers.’ As I wrote in my previous post, when we arrive in the first century the authoritative prophetic office is replaced by the apostles appointed by Jesus (John 16:12-15); so our task requires us careful study of the New Testament’s teaching on prophetic ministry, which avoids both loading it with an unbiblical emphasis on supernatural foresight and tying it too closely to the Old Testament office and authority. Therefore, instead of shying away from the word ‘prophecy,’ we should repack it with its biblical content.

Three pointers for rediscovering and practising prophecy

1. Create the culture

FCA_Meeting_-_MainThis must be where we start for we have created a church culture, compounded by our Anglican tradition, that encourages “spectator worship” (Grudem) and limits congregational input to responses scripted by our liturgy. Few of us understand church gatherings as meetings where we can be actively involved in the edification and encouragement of others (1 Corinthians 14:3), even the conversion of non-believers (14:24-25). I quoted John Frame in my previous post, and it is worth highlighting his point again, “We should go to church to do something: to bring praise to God and to minister to one another.” In creating this culture, of active involvement in corporate worship, we must rid ourselves of the present culture that has an almost entirely passive attitude towards church gatherings. We must cultivate the understanding that we can contribute to one another in profound and Spirit empowered ways: speaking words of encouragement, issuing challenges, and applying the gospel to specific needs and circumstances. Sermons and the subsequent conversations about them will not suffice to mature believers and grow the body. We must create the culture where each person is ready to speak the truth in love and thus join and hold the body together, with each part working properly (Ephesians 4:15-16).

2. Plan “celebration slots”
One of the ways to create the above culture is to invite congregants to share prepared reflections and testimonies at designated times in your service. This will encourage people as they hear how God has been working in the lives of others. In my own church we do this – though infrequently – and have had people share their conversion story, how God has been convicting them through the preached word, something they have been reading that they would like to challenge the church with, an aspect of God’s goodness they are praising him for, or a major shift in their understanding that they want others to hear. In my previous post I suggested that our church gatherings should be slightly more ‘democratic’; planning celebration slots and calling God’s people to pray in response shows that churches are not run by a ‘dictator’ but are in fact a group of pilgrims making their way forward together. This will not only help create the culture of sharing, ministerial worship, and offering encouragement but forms an important step towards my final point.

3. Allow unplanned sharing

TestimonyUnfortunately called “us and us,” whatever that means, here I am not referring to three minutes in your service where you stand up and “greet each other in the name of the Lord,” prompting terrified visitors to break out in a cold sweat, shut their eyes, and (miraculously) pray that no one comes over. What I am calling for is an informal time allocated in church gatherings where people are invited to share spontaneously how God has been at work in their lives. To risk sounding harsh, I think that if you ask a Christian how God has been at work or what they are grateful for at that moment then they should have an answer ready. I say that because Jesus taught, ‘The branch attached to me will bear fruit’ (John 15:5). Christians understand themselves as those whom God has made alive, ‘springs of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Christians cannot be dried up branches or stagnant pools but should be pictures of abounding life, so that when asked how God is at work their minds will be aflood with causes for celebration. It is this spontaneous sharing that – in my mind – comes closest to what Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 14.

Conclusion and challenge

We have a challenge before us. The word ‘prophecy’ is embattled. Our church culture suppresses spontaneity and sharing. Platforms for congregants to publically celebrate God’s work are in short supply. We are fearful of opening up the floor and well aware of the abuses of prophecy. But we must begin, as I have set out, to address those challenges and concerns in our local church gatherings and rediscover a place for prophecy.

Reclaiming a Place for Prophecy in Church Gatherings

AnglicanI am an Anglican, mostly by theological training and partly by conviction. Thus I am convinced to varying degrees about issues such as local church government, paedobaptism, and denominational structure. I gladly, along with other denominations, see my Anglican roots in the Reformation historically. With much credit to Ashley Null, I am enamoured with the English Reformer, Thomas Cranmer and his legacy, our Anglican liturgy. However, this brings me to the Thirty-nine Articles and an aspect of my experience in the Anglican Church, which has left me dissatisfied, and that I am sure is shared by many: the lack of spontaneity and mutual encouragement in our corporate gatherings. Though there are no doubt many excellent reasons for formally structured services (though see Spurgeon’s warning against predictable services), I wonder if the 23rd article is not partially responsible for my frustration, ‘No man is permitted to take upon himself the office of public preaching before he has been appointed to fulfil his office. They must be selected and called.’ Obviously this is referring to the public ministry of preaching, but the article is titled, “Ministering in the congregation,” which in most Anglican churches is done by the trained few rather than the priesthood of all believers.

What brought this issue to a head in my own thinking was reading David Peterson, an Anglican of Anglicans. In his invaluable book, Engaging with God, he provides a biblical approach to worship, calling Christians everywhere to measure their view of worship alongside the touchstone of Scripture; worship, when understood correctly, is the meeting with God made possible through faith in the gospel, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. After establishing a biblically faithful definition of worship, Peterson unpacks its relevance for the corporate gatherings of local churches. One of the most challenging segues for me personally, and to my Anglican tradition, is his treatment of 1 Corinthians 14. We are familiar with this passage because it is where Paul criticises tongues, but how often do we reflect on what Paul favours in its place, namely, prophecy? In answering that below question I will rely heavily on David Peterson and 1 Corinthians 14, and lightly on John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth.

Prophesy in Public Church Gatherings

WorshipPeterson writes, “1 Corinthians 14 challenges the tendency of many Christian traditions to undervalue spontaneity and variety of input in the congregational gathering. Paul expected that members of the congregation to come with some contribution prepared for the occasion or that individuals might be prompted by the Spirit to offer prayer or praise or some other ministry on the spot.” We balk at that application, especially that last bit about the Spirit’s prompting, though it is hard to deny considering prophesy may disclose the secrets of a hearer’s heart (1 Corinthians 14:25). Peterson is not suggesting free for all corporate worship, after all that is what Paul was writing against, and he recalls the New Testament’s weighting and emphasis on pastor-teachers doing the primary work of equipping and leading (Ephesians 4:11-14). But, “There should be some public opportunity for spontaneous and informal ministries.” Peterson adds that other passages, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11, 14 and Ephesians 4:15, confirm the value unplanned verbal ministries of exhortation, comfort or admonition by the congregation. Reading the New Testament we are confronted at many points by what John Frame calls “participative worship” and I agree with Frame that this cannot be claimed to take place solely in the scripted and restricting liturgy of congregational prayers and responses. Careful thinking needs to be done in creating a place for encouraging prophecy in public church gatherings. But before that is done three important qualifications must be offered.

Three qualifications

(i) Intelligibility
Above I have, with the help of Peterson, identified what John Frame calls a relatively democratic structure for worship. Fundamental to Worship in Spirit and Truth is Scripture’s explicit emphasis on the intelligibility of corporate worship. It was the unintelligibility of worship at Corinth that Paul sternly addresses – “If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will you anyone know what is said?” (14:9), and, “In church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:19), “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account” (14:24). That last verse cited impresses on us that even non-Christians should find worship understandable and sensible. This must be kept in mind as we seek to incorporate prophecy into our gatherings. Hear Paul, as he moves towards concluding this section of his letter, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (14:33).

(ii) New Testament balance
New Testament balanceSecondly, we need to retain the balance of the New Testament, which I have already mentioned. Peterson rightly says that the natural environment for prophecy is in home groups, personal interaction after or before services and in meeting informally to pray or read together. But he then inquires, considering 1 Corinthians 14 and other passages cited, why we view the spontaneous prophecy for edification, encouragement and comfort with such suspicion when it comes to our public gatherings (14:3). Answering his own question Peterson says we cannot claim to hold to the New Testament’s balance without allowing at least some space for informal contributions to be made. How this is to be done is not developed in any sort of detail in the New Testament though Peterson suggests, “It may be a matter of finding appropriate spots in the regular pattern of Sunday services where contributions can be made…rearranging the furniture or encouraging people to gather together differently so that those who contribute can be more easily seen and heard.” However we do it, it should be done. And we must not forget that the public reading and teaching of Scripture remains the organising centre of corporate worship.

(iii) Prophets versus prophecy
Finally, Peterson calls for clear distinction between the prophets of the Old Testament and prophetic ministry carried out by certain Christians (see Romans 12:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22; 1 Peter 4:11). Unlike the former, prophetic ministry requires evaluation (1 Corinthians 14:29), indicating that it can be challenged and even rejected. Prophecy of the sort we are investigating does not share the apostolic commission given by Jesus to provide the church with authoritative revelation (John 16:12-15), which became our New Testament (John 17:20; 20:30-31). The prophetic ministry of the New Testament should not be confused with Old Testament prophets, who addressed Israel with Yahweh’s very words; instead it functions to strengthen, encourage and comfort those in the local church (1 Corinthians 14:3). Prophecy is also to be instructive, “that all may learn” (14:31). Thus prophetic ministry possesses a limited authority while pursuing the application of the gospel to the lives of other believers.

In encouraging our congregations to explore the gift of prophecy in the life of the local church we must insist on maintaining intelligibility, in order to keep us from becoming clanging symbols; retaining the biblical balance of preaching and the public reading of Scripture to lead local gatherings; and asserting the authority which God has preserved for us in both Testaments over any claim to speak on behalf of God today.

Conclusion

I started this post lamenting the Anglican tradition’s fear of involving the congregation in public worship. As I close let me say that I do not think our liturgy should bear the sole responsibility. Both Frame and Peterson identify a deeper problem than traditions and liturgy: the passive attitude most Christians adopt towards corporate gatherings. Frame believes this is a result of our entertainment driven culture. Peterson, on the other hand, suggests that too many Christians have the narrow understanding of church services as facilitating private communion with God. Both of these grossly inadequate approaches to church services express a failure to properly consider the horizontal dimension of worship. Frame reminds us, “We should go to church to do something: to bring praise to God and to minister to one another.” It is tragic misunderstanding of church to be most concerned with what I can get out rather than how I might contribute to others. I will allow David Peterson the last word, “Paul would urge us to meet in dependency on one another as vehicles of God’s grace and to view the well-being and strengthening of the whole church as the primary aim of the gathering. There ought to be a real engagement with other believers in the context of mutual ministry, shared prayer and praise, not simply a friendly chat over a cup of coffee after church!”