The church is the organic community of faith that was established by Jesus Christ through His Apostles, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them as they waited in Jerusalem following His Ascension on the first Whitsunday. It is entered by baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, united in its confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and as His body, continues His Incarnational presence and ministry on earth. When we have the entire church, throughout the whole world in mind, we call the church catholic. When we have the portion of the catholic church that gathers and meets in a specific location in mind, we call it by its particular name. The community of Christian faith, as the Book of Acts records, has been in the practice of regularly meeting together from the very beginning and is commanded by the author of the Book of Hebrews to maintain that practice. Indeed, the Greek word for church, ἐκκλησία, points to this practice for it means “assembly.”
What does the church do when it meets? The Book of Acts says that the first church in Jerusalem:
continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers (2:42)
We will consider these items in reverse order as it is the first mentioned that I wish to focus on. That prayers would be included in meetings of the community of Christian faith requires little in the way of commentary. The breaking of bread mentioned here, is the same breaking of bread spoken of by St. Paul in the tenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthian church:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (v. 16)
This is what is called Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist (1) – the mystery or sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ for the New Covenant at the last Passover supper that He shared with His disciples under the Old Covenant. It was the custom, at first, for the church to celebrate this sacrament daily, in the evening, at the end of a kind of potluck meal. It eventually became necessary, for reasons alluded to in the eleventh chapter of the last mentioned epistle, for St. Paul to separate the two and the larger meal became what was known as the “agape feast” in the early church.
Fellowship is the same word rendered communion in 1 Corinthians, but in our verse in Acts it may be a separate item – although the early Syrian and Latin translations join the two. Whether the verse is speaking of “fellowship in the breaking of bread” as the early translators thought or “fellowship and the breaking of bread” the meaning of κοινωνία, which is rather more than the “engaging in social interaction” that the word fellowship has often been reduced to today, is perfectly illustrated by St. Paul’s remarks about the “communion” of the Lord’s Supper in the verse in 1 Corinthians that follows the one already quoted:
For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
We turn now to our topic, the primitive church’s steadfast continuance “in the apostles’ doctrine.” Doctrine, here, is the Greek word διδαχή from which our English word “didactic” is derived. It means teaching, both in the sense of the material that is taught – which is what we usually think of when we hear the word doctrine – and in the sense of the act of instruction itself. It is in the latter sense that the word is being used here. The church in Jerusalem, which was growing rapidly – that first Pentecost of the New Covenant had seen three thousand converts – and these met daily to be taught the doctrines of Jesus Christ by His Apostles themselves.
The church’s teaching ministry did not end with the Apostles. As the church grew, and spread out through many cities, first in the Holy Land, then throughout the entire Roman Empire, the Apostles ordained others to be bishops (overseers) and priests (elders) (2) and entrusted them with the ministry of faithfully instructing the church in the doctrines of Christ, and guarding their flocks like shepherds against the wolves of heresy that even then were beginning to creep in. While there are several different forms of instruction that would fall under the general umbrella of the church’s teaching ministry, such as catechizing - the giving of beginner’s lessons in the basics of the faith to novices in preparation for baptism – the most direct descendent of the “apostles’ doctrine” of Acts 2 is the teaching element incorporated into the liturgy, or formal order of service, in connection with the reading of the Scriptures, that is traditionally known as a sermon or homily. (3)
As important and indispensable as this ministry is to the life of the church, it has suffered a great deal of abuse and corruption due to overemphasis in many evangelical churches. As with so many other of the religious problems (and political problems for that matter) that trouble us today, this can be traced back to John Calvin and especially to the English Calvinists who in the reign of Elizabeth I returned radicalized from their exile in continental Europe, to stir up dissent, sedition, rebellion, and revolution. Calvin, like Luther, sought to reform the practices of the church from the excesses of late Medievalism. Admirable and necessary as this was, Calvin took it to an extreme. He formulated what has since been dubbed the “regulative principle” of worship, which is the idea that the church’s traditional liturgy and worship needed to be stripped of everything that was not commanded and authorized by the Scriptures. To give one example, the Calvinists maintained that the Scriptures did not command the traditional practice of bowing at the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so, when Archbishop Laud reintroduced the practice during the reign of Charles I, the Puritans threw a hairy fit and gave Laud the same treatment – a corrupt trial and illegal execution – that He, at Whose name Laud saw fit to bow the head, received at the hands of the religious leaders of Israel.
The regulative principle completely violates the spirit of Christian liberty, with which spirit the normative principle, that everything in the church’s traditional worship that is not forbidden in Scriptures is permitted, is far more in keeping as Richard Hooker, the great apologist for classical Anglicanism argued in his Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. The Puritans were great fanatics for the regulative principle. They dubbed most of traditional liturgical worship “man-made tradition”, and in practice their application of the principle meant stripping the church of everything that was aesthetically pleasing, making an idol out of the idea of simplicity, and demanding that the faithful come to a plain building, for the purpose of listening, after a few plain prayers and maybe a plain psalm or two, (4) to a very long sermon. The influence of this thinking is physically visible in those Protestant church buildings where the pulpit stands in the focal point of the congregation’s gaze, right in the centre at the front of the church. This is traditionally where the altar (5) stood, and his having placed it back there where it belongs is yet another reason for the Puritans’ homicidal hatred of Archbishop Laud.
The result, of course, was that as much superstitious abuse, if not more, attached itself to the sermon in the Puritan tradition, as had attached itself to the Eucharist in Romanism. It is not uncommon to hear those under the influence of this kind of thinking refer to the sermon as the “preaching of the Word”, as if the sermon itself were the Word of God, rather than a man’s explanation of the Word of God. Traditionally, the sermon had always taken a subordinate place beneath the Word itself. Churches early on developed lectionaries which would schedule the Scripture readings for cycles, usually of one to three years. Sound reasoning lay behind this. Until the relatively recent invention of the printing press it was not practical for every believer to have his own Bible and even to the present day literacy is far from universal therefore the only practical access to the Scriptures for many believers was and is through the readings in church, making it imperative that these readings be chosen, not to suit the topical hobby-horse of the preacher, but the need for the congregation to hear the entire Word of God, give or take a genealogy here or there, read out to them. The church would set the Scriptural readings in its lectionaries, and the readings would govern the sermon, which would explain the read texts. While the best preachers in the Calvinist tradition have practiced expository preaching, the Calvinist emphasis on the sermon laid the foundation for the topical sermon that is the norm in evangelicalism today – the preacher decides what he wants to rant about, and selects the texts accordingly, thus in effect making the Word of God subordinate to the sermon.
It should be noted that properly and scripturally, there is a distinction between the teaching, preaching, and prophetic ministries of the church. The word “preach” in the English Bible, usually indicates the Greek word κηρύσσω which literally means to perform the role of a herald, i.e., to go somewhere and make an official announcement or proclamation. When the Gospels say that after Jesus’ baptism He began His ministry of preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” they mean that He was acting as a herald to national Israel, proclaiming to them the good news that the kingdom of God, promised in the prophets of their Scriptures, had finally arrived in the person of the King (Himself). When He charged His disciples, soon be His church, to go into all the world “and preach the gospel to every creature”, (Mk. 16:15) He meant that we are to act as His heralds to the whole world, bringing to them the good news that God had sent them a Redeemer, in Jesus Christ, Who had died for their sins to reconcile them to God and then rose again victorious over death, the grave, and hell. This is the preaching ministry of the church and, Katherine Hankey’s “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best, seem hungering and thirsting, to hear it like the rest” notwithstanding, it is clearly an outward directed ministry that is not to be equated with the inward directed teaching ministry of the church although the latter, obviously, ought to equip and instruct the church in the performance of the former. The prophetic ministry of the church is the ministry of reproving and rebuking sin. This is the essential role of the prophet, to which foretelling the future is merely accidental. This ministry of the church can be directed both outward and inward, and so overlaps both the teaching and the preaching ministries, but it ought not to overshadow either. Unfortunately, the giving of the sermon in church (the teaching ministry) is almost always described as preaching, whereas this word has developed, in the common lingo, the connotations of nagging people about their behaviour and harping on about their faults (a caricature of the prophetic ministry), confusing the vital distinction between these ministries, and presenting a distorted view of all three of them. While not all of the blame for this confusion can be placed on the Puritans, their overemphasis on the sermon, and their legalistic and moralistic approach to sermonizing, certainly contributed to and greatly exacerbated the problem.
All of this hardly improved the quality of the sermons. My favorite illustration of Puritan preaching at its worst comes from Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. Early in the novel the nominal narrator (the bulk of the story is actually narrated to the narrator by someone else) Mr. Lockwood, forced to spend the night at the house named in the book’s title, falls asleep and dreams a dream influenced by names that he has encountered in the literature he has been perusing in his temporary bedroom. He dreams that he goes to a Puritan chapel, where the Reverend Jabes Branderham is going to preach his famous sermon on the “Seventy Times Seven and the First of the Seventy-First”, i.e., all the sins you have to forgive your brother for, and the one on which you are released from this obligation. The sermon was “divided into four hundred and ninety parts, each fully equal to an ordinary address from the pulpit, and each discussing a separate sin!” Understandably, Lockwood fidgets and squirms through this interminable harangue until finally, as the Reverend is about to turn to the sin beyond forgiveness, he and the minister mutually denounce each other for committing it, each feeling that he has forgiven the other the maximum required times, the one for 490 counts of inattentiveness to his sermon, the other for 490 counts of having preached it in the first place!
The dream sermon depicted in Bronte’s novel may be a – slightly – exaggerated caricature, but here is Anthony M. Ludovici:
The first thing that the Puritan party conscientiously set about doing was to make the Englishman miserable…Not only was all amusement forbidden, but the Church services themselves were made so insufferably tedious and colourless, and sermons were made to last such a preposterous length of time, that Sunday became what it was required to be by these employers of slaves — the most dreaded day in the week… Puritan preachers vied with each other, as to who would preach the longest sermons and say the longest prayers, and if any of the less attentive among their congregations should fall asleep during the former orations, which sometimes lasted over two hours, they were suspected of the grossest impiety. (6)
Of the Puritans who crossed the ocean to North America he went on to add:
Short prayers and short sermons were considered irreligious in New England, and it was not unusual for these to last one hour and three hours respectively. A tithing-man bearing a sort of whisk, would keep an eye on the congregations during Sunday service, brusquely wake all those who fell asleep, and allow no deserters. (7)
For all their claim to get their doctrine and practice from the Bible alone, the Puritans clearly had not learned anything from the twentieth chapter of the book of Acts. In this chapter, St. Paul, St. Luke, and their entourage sail from Philippi to Troas and stay there a week. The seventh verse reads:
And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.
Let us note in passing, that a) the practice of the church meeting on Sundays (the weekly anniversary of the Resurrection) had already begun, and b) the purpose of the meeting was to take the sacrament of communion. Also note that in this verse and verse nine, the word translated “preach” is not κηρύσσω but διαλέγομαι, the verbal form of the word from which our English “dialogue” is derived. It means to have a discussion, conversation, (8) or even in some cases an argument. My point, however, is that on this instance, the Apostle was unusually long-winded, so much so that he put a young man named Eutychus to sleep, and he fell out a window and “was taken up dead.” Long sermons can be fatal! To be fair to the Puritans, however, even the Apostle Paul was not quick to learn from this experience. After reviving the young man, and celebrating the Eucharist, he resumed talking and kept on until the sun came up.
I will close this long essay on the evils of long sermons by making one final point. The Puritan influence was such that by the Victorian era, it was generally thought in non-conformist Protestant churches, that the minister’s job was to preach the sermon and that the point of going to church was to hear it. This generated an atmosphere that was in many ways unhealthy. In many cases, oratorical skill came to be a more important consideration in hiring a minister, than Creedal orthodoxy, which goes a long way towards explaining how the rank unbelief of liberalism crept into so many churches. Even apart from this, however, it was hardly conducive to the Christian humility, of either clergy or congregation, to think of the church as a kind of speech-giving club, in which every Sunday the minister would try his best to be the next Demosthenes or Cicero, and his congregation would listen to him in order to pass judgement on how well he had spoken.
The traditional model, in which the Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of the Sacrament are equals and the sermon takes a subordinate role to the Scripture readings within the former, is much healthier. The more the emphasis is placed on the pulpit, the more likely it is that the pulpit will become the place, where the reverse of the miracle of Numbers 22:28-30 will occur. (9)
(1) This term is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” or “gratitude.” The sacrament is also sometimes called a "Mass" although this term, used mostly by the Roman Catholic Church, more properly refers to the entire liturgical service in which the sacrament is celebrated, rather than to the sacrament itself.
(2) The English names of these ministerial offices are ultimately derived, through Latin, from the original Greek names of the same offices. The words in parentheses are the literal meanings of the Greek names. The third ministerial office, of deacon, is similarly called by a derivative of the original Greek name which if translated would be "servant" or "minister."
(3) In common usage these terms are interchangeable, although there is a technical distinction between the two in the official usage of many churches.
(4) The Calvinist application of the regulative principle to music varied from “no music allowed” to “music without instrumental accompaniment allowed” to “only the Psalms allowed.”
(5) For fifteen hundred years, the hearing and explaining of the Word had been the first stage of the liturgy, in preparation for the sacrament of the Eucharist, as it still is, not just in Roman Catholicism, but Eastern Orthodoxy, the ancient churches of the Near East, and most Anglican and Lutheran churches. Despite the fact that the Eucharist was instituted and established by Christ Himself, celebrated daily in the primitive church, and clearly central to Christian worship and fellowship (1 Corinthians 10-11), the Puritans used late Medieval superstitious abuses of the sacrament as an excuse for making it infrequent and, when celebrated at all, as a sort of post script to the service, where the focus was on the sermon.
(6) Anthony M. Ludovici, A Defence of Aristocracy: A Textbook For Tories, (London: Constable & Company Ltd., 1933) p. 189.
(7) Ibid. p. 190.
(8) The Latin word from which our “sermon” is derived has a similar meaning.
(9) This is the passage in which God opens the mouth of a jackass and it speaks like a man.
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