Faith (and Flexibility) of Our Fathers

There has been discussion recently of the spiritual “wastelands” in our own country, in terms of the relative paucity of a Reformed and Presbyterian presence in some regions. Might we then take a page out of the book of the Father of Presbyterianism and think through ways of putting similar not-ideal-but-sufficient-for-the-time-being Presbyterian measures in place? Who knows what shape that may take? Perhaps it looks like small “core group” gatherings in places where there is not yet a Reformed church, or yoked pastorates where several small congregations cannot afford a full-time minister by themselves, or interim evening-evangelistic worship services supplied by a (somewhat) proximate congregation that doesn’t itself have an evening service in place—surely the collective Presbyterian intellect can exert some confessional ingenuity!

It is sometimes alleged (or perhaps just assumed) that Reformed doctrine and practice can be rigid, intractable, and stubbornly inflexible—refusing to allow for any adaption to serve the needs of a context or mission field. It has been intimated (at least in my hearing) that some more conservative actors in the PCA would not allow for any adaptability when such is allowed and even commended by Scripture.

I am not sure how true or untrue that may be, and my goal here is not so much to answer those allegations as they may exist in our contemporary situation, but to demonstrate that, for at least one of our major Presbyterian forebears, such a mentality was not the case.

The name “John Knox” does not often connote “flexibility” or “adaptability” in the modern, popular imagination. But perhaps this brief observation and pastoral application will dispel some of those assumptions and provide some encouragement to those of us in the 21st-century PCA that there is a place for what we might call “biblical and prudent adaptability” and it is not without precedent in our tradition.

A few months ago, I was reading John Knox’s Letter of Wholesome Counsel, Addressed to His Brethren in Scotland.[i] In perusing his essay, it struck me that Knox provides grounded counsel as to how the church might carry on its operation in his absence—and not only his personal absence (as if the health and existence of the Christian church in Scotland were solely dependent on his personal presence), but also in the current absence of any duly ordained Protestant ministers. Knox is mindful of the fact that what he suggests is not a permanent solution and that the absence of a suitable Protestant minister is not an ideal situation, but it is the current reality facing these Proto-Protestants in Scotland.

Likening their situation to that of a hungry people needing food, he acknowledges that, like Israel of old eating manna day after day, subjecting oneself to the same predictable diet can become “tiresome and wearisome.” And while this is a temptation that God’s elect may endure for a time, Knox is confident that ultimately God’s people will be called away from such boredom. In other words, Knox is acknowledging that the sort of makeshift worship services and devotional habits that he is suggesting these house churches (“privy kirks”) implement (in the absence of an ordained ministry to structure regular public worship and administration of the sacraments) may seem predictable and tedious at times. Nevertheless, he trusts that by the grace of God his countrymen will find joy and sustenance in it, even as much as a hungry man will find joy and sustenance in the same predictable bread coming upon him day after day after day. Just as a man who is starving will soon come not to despise that monotonous bread supply, likewise God’s children will not long despise feeding their souls upon the Word of God when that is precisely what their soul needs.

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