Archives For Carl Trueman

Denominational Structure

Greg Strand – June 24, 2012 Leave a comment

To the question about denominations changing, one could respond “much and in every way.” There is a decreasing denominational loyalty. There is an increasing post-denominationalism, probably related to our post-everything sort of impulse. There is a strong attraction based on affinity, e.g. theological affinity, church planting affinity, etc., more so than on denomination. This is not really news to anyone. All realize that denominations are changing and sentiments towards denominations are also changing.

This does not mean denominations are not important or that their usefulness is past. I know all would not agree with me. That will be a discussion at some future point. What is important in this discussion is to keep the main mission of denominations at the center, i.e. serving local churches, and then ask the question of how that can best be done. What is necessary is that a denomination does not simply do things because that is the way they were always done. That will not be helpful to serve churches.

One of the discussion questions is about geography. For us in the EFCA, the question about geography pertains to our district structure. To broaden this question, Christianity Today 56/6 (June 2012), 12, asked the following about denominational structure: “Should denominations be organized geographically?” A spectrum of responses is included between “yes” and “no.”  

Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), answers in the affirmative.

Geographical proximity allows for more spiritual, emotional, pastoral support. When you cannot coexist spiritually with another church in the same denomination, functionally you probably have two denominations and it might be better simply to separate.

Al Molher, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and ordained in the SBC, is in the middle.

Ideally, churches of one denomination would share so much theological commonality that it would be quite natural for them to group themselves geographically. With the theological diversity and tension in many denominations today, that’s just no longer possible.

Paul Detterman, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, responds in the negative.

As theological diversity broadens among many denominations, theological affinity trumps geographic proximity as a catalyst for vision and ministry. Structures need to conform to this reality. Geographical organization belongs to a bygone era. We need to let it go.

 Here are a few questions to ponder.

  1. Where would you fall in this spectrum? Why?
  2. What do you see as strengths and weaknesses of denominations today?
  3. What other questions would you raise about denominations?
  4. What is required for denominations to serve their local churches most effectively and fruitfully today?
  5. Are there ways denominations can/should partner with other denominations and/or affinity gatherings? How would this happen and what would be the intended outcome?
  6. What other questions need to be raised?

Carl Trueman recently met with J. I. Packer to present him with an honorary doctorate. As part of his time with Packer, he also conducted an interview with him that will be posted on the Westminster Theological Seminary website.

One of the questions focused on Martin Lloyd-Jones. Packer’s response was telling of the man’s spirituality: “He took more of God into the pulpit with him than any other preacher I have ever known.”

It may be that Packer remembers the past better than it was. That often happens as we age and the distance between the actual experience and the recollection of that experience can smooth the rough edges of what happened. But this does not always happen. Sometimes past experiences can become worse over time. In this instance, I have not known Packer to exaggerate or embellish or to diminish what happened, either in his writing or speaking. I am inclined to trust his assessment of Lloyd-Jones. What a wonderful commendation. It is reflective of God’s grace in his life.

Lloyd-Jones realized that preaching was about content and that content, the Bible, was focused on God in all His fullness, and His plan to redeem a people for Himself to the praise of His glorious grace (to steal from Article 1 in our Statement of Faith). But he also knew that it was about believing and living that content, of the reality of union with Christ, that made preaching what it was.

Read carefully what Lloyd-Jones says about preaching, as his intent in preaching achieved his desired/prayerful goal as evidenced in Packer’s words. This is how he speaks of preaching in the section “The Essence and Aim of Preaching,” Preaching & Preachers, 40th Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), pp. 110-111:

What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason!  Are these contradictions?  Of course they are not.  Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see it in the case of the Apostle Paul and others.  It is theology on fire.  And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective.  Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. I say again that a man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one.
What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence. As I have said already, during this past year I have been ill, and so have had the opportunity, and the privilege, of listening to others, instead of preaching myself. As I have listened in physical weakness this is the thing I have looked for and long for and desired. I can forgive a man for a bad sermon, I can forgive the preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is inadequate himself, he is handling something which is very great and very glorious, if he gives me some dim glimpse of the majesty and the glory of God, the love of Christ my Saviour, and the magnificence of the Gospel. If he does that I am his debtor, and I am profoundly grateful to him.

Trueman concludes with a commendation to Lloyd-Jones and a challenge to those of us who preach the Word of God today.

One can be nostalgic about the past, but I wonder how many of this generation’s archetypal, aspirational model preachers will have that said about them thirty years after their death?  They were funny; they had huge churches; they took more stand up comedy into the pulpit — or onto the stage — than anybody else; they looked cool; they were branded and puffed by the powerful evangelical patrons as role models for the rest of us; they had great hair-does; they were so hip and young, at least until it became painfully obvious that they had passed forty many years before.  I can imagine all these things being said.  But that they took so much of God into the pulpit?   That seems somehow less likely.

Those of us who preach need to reflect on Dr. Packer’s comment, repent daily of our pride and pray without ceasing that we take God, not ourselves, or Chris Rock, or our mastery of street talk or postmodernism, into the pulpit with us.   A preacher should be remembered not for the numbers he once attracted or for his slick engagement with the wider culture but for whether he spoke the words of God as a man of God.