Thee, Thou, Thy: Preference or Principle?

Frontispiece to the King James Bible, 1611, sh...

Frontispiece of the 1611 King James Bible

The LORDE is my shepherde, I can wante nothinge. He fedeth me in a grene pasture, and ledeth me to a fresh water. He quickeneth my soule, & bringeth me forth in the waye of rightuousnes for his names sake. Though I shulde walk now in the valley of the shadowe of death, yet I feare no euell, for thou art with me; thy staffe & thy shepehoke comforte me. (Psalm 23:1-4, 1535 Coverdale Bible)

A year or so ago, I ran across an article by a gentleman who claimed that pronouns like “thee, thou, and thy” are more appropriate for Christian worship than the Modern English pronoun “you.” Reading it carried me back to an occasion almost twenty years ago when I sat in a meeting of our denomination’s Synod as a presbyter attempted to argue that it is more reverent and respectful for us to use Middle English pronouns when we address God in prayer and praise than to use Modern English words.  

Then, as now, my reaction was, where does this idea come from?  

Does it actually fit the available data to argue that thee, thou, thy, thine, etc. are pronouns that reflect greater respect for God than “you” does?  

Thee, Thou, etc. Are the Proper Pronouns to Use When Addressing Persons to Whom We Owe Honor and Respect; You is for Talking to Equals or Inferiors

The obvious place to go to test this idea is the King James Bible. The KJV (the Bible version of my youth) is probably the most influential literary work in English, closely followed in importance by the works of Shakespeare (who died only a few years after the publication of the KJV). Where better to look in order to sort out this thou/you question?  

Eschewing my Bible study software, I took out my low-tech paper copy of Strong’s Concordance to examine some evidence.  

Genesis 3:11-19 – And he [God] said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

This certainly doesn’t support our hypothesis: the Creator is addressing Adam, Eve, and the Serpent with “thou.” After scanning some other passages in Genesis and finding no support for it, I decided to jump to a Gospel.  

Matthew 26:33-35 – Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended. Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.

This too points in the opposite direction: Peter addresses Jesus with “thee,” and Jesus responds to his disciple in kind. Perhaps an epistle will save our hypothesis?  

2 Timothy 1:3-6 – I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day; Greatly desiring to see thee, being mindful of thy tears, that I may be filled with joy; When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also. Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands.

Paul addresses Timothy with pronouns that (according to our hypothesis) are supposed to be reserved for those to whom we owe respect – not our equals or our inferiors.  

Looking around the internet, I found this link from retired English instructor Michael Cummings, who claims that thee, thou, etc., were used to address one’s inferiors. Our hypothesis seems to be taking it on the chin.  

Still, one can find anything on the Internet — so I decided to hold out for a more authoritative information source. Remembering that I once received Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage as a gift, I turned there, hoping for an authoritative answer, and lo, there it was. The entry on “thou” reads, in part:  

“Thou was once the common form of the second person singular pronoun. In other words, it was once normal to address another person as “thou.” In the period of Middle English, however, thou (and the related forms thee, thy, and thine) was gradually replaced by the plural you (and your), first in addressing a person of high social rank (as in “your Majesty”) and later in addressing a social equal. Thou was used only in speaking to a person of inferior social position, such as a servant, and it was eventually superseded by you even in this use.”  

Apparently, the writers of the KJV did not think they were using special pronouns in addressing the Lord God – they were using pronouns of familiarity. Our hypothesis is backwards: if anything, the Elizabethan pronoun of respect was “you!”  

So Where Did We Get This Idea From, Anyway?

How have a not-inconsiderable number of 20th- (and now, 21st-) century Christians come to believe (and argue) that one shows the highest respect for God by addressing him with “thou?” Lacking time to research this peculiar error closely, I must offer what I hope is an educated guess.  

It seems likely that the King James Version, though it does not actually use “thou” in this way, must, by virtue of its great success, partly bear blame for this misconception. The beauty of the translation cannot be denied; the KJV managed to remain the de facto ecumenical translation of the Bible in English until (arguably) some time in the 20th century. The “thees” and “thous” of the King James (which go all the way back to the 14th-century Wycliffe version) influenced the set liturgies of many English-speaking churches. Many people came to associate the language of the KJV with the way one talks to God.  

So although I haven’t been a Methodist for decades, I can still remember: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed against thy Divine majesty. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us.” I haven’t used that liturgy in years, but there are still echoes of the King James in my head when I read modern Bible translations (this may explain why I like P.G. Wodehouse so much).  

Perhaps because of the influence of the KJV on Protestant liturgy and poesy, many Christians associate “thee” and “thou” with worship language, so much so that we have come to deceive ourselves into believing that they are the most respectful ways to say “you.”  

But surely not all the blame can fall on the KJV. After all, the goal of the translators of the KJV was to prepare a translation of the Holy Bible in the vernacular. They made this plain in their preface when they wrote,  

“Now what can be more available thereto, than to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they can understand?”  

The KJV, which we perhaps assume dropped into the scene out of nowhere, was really the seventh of a series of English translations done over less than a century, each of which had among its goals the improved availability of the Bible in the common tongue.  

It would be instructive to know why the translators of the KJV decided not to follow Coverdale’s rendering of Psalm 23, with which this post begins. When the KJV translators started their work, fewer than 70 years had passed since Coverdale, the first printed English Bible. My own hunch is this: they did not follow Coverdale closely here because English orthography had changed and because 17th –century English people did not know what a “shepehoke” was.  

A major emphasis of the Protestant Reformers was their commitment to having worship and the Scriptures in the “vulgar tongue.” God’s Word does not change, but language does. The translators of the KJV understood this, and although they were instructed to hew as closely as possible to the wording of previous English Bible translations, they sought to produce a Bible that did not use hopelessly archaic language.  

What we sometimes do with the language of the KJV makes it into something it was never intended to be: specialized, non-idiomatic language for talking to God.  

Thus, our hypothesis ignores the facts. There is no ground for arguing that these pronouns were used in the KJV because they denoted reverence for God. Somehow, in our collective imagination over the centuries, we fabricated that idea out of whole cloth. If anything, the use of “thee” and “thou” might even have reflected an implicit understanding of God’s great condescension in revealing Himself to us through his written Word and through the Living Word, Jesus Christ.  

We don’t use “thee” and “thou” to address others (not counting the Quakers), except in jest or in poetry, and we haven’t done so since before the American Revolution. On what ground should we be made to feel obliged to address God in that manner? Surely not on the basis of the KJV, which uses the familiar pronouns of the age in addressing God?  

Yet one still sometimes encounters the argument that these forms should be used in order to honor God. The great danger here, I think, is that of making a preference into a principle. If someone says, “I think the language of the KJV is majestic, and there is a specialness in the use of archaic pronouns,” that is a sentiment with which I am in substantial agreement. But to move from saying, “I love the sound of archaic language” to saying, “Christians who don’t address God with ancient pronouns are not paying him sufficient honor,” makes preference into principle, and this is dangerous: surely we should not give our preferences the kind of authority that belongs to God alone.  

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Redeem Me, That I May Keep Your Precepts

I have a regrettable habit of buying books that I don’t have time to read. Consequently, I often buy a book that lies unused for a long while before I get around to reading it.

It took me several years to begin reading Charles Bridges’ An Exposition of Psalm 119, but it was well worth doing. Despite the frequent challenges of interpreting early 18th-century idioms, it has been very profitable. Today I read his comments on Ps. 119:134 (“Deliver me from the oppression of man: so will I keep thy precepts”), which conclude with:

Fellow Christian! Have your circumstances of trial ever dictated this prayer? How then have you improved your liberty, when the answer has been vouchsafed? Has the “way of escape made” for you been kept in grateful remembrance (Comp. 2 Chronicles 32:22-25 with Ps. 9:13-14)? Has the effect of your deliverance been visible in an increasing love and devotedness to the Lord’s service? Oh! Let a special Ebenezer be set up to mark this special achievement of prayer (1 Sam. 7:12). Let the mercy be connected with the sympathy of our “faithful and merciful High-Priest, who being himself touched with the feeling of your infirmities,” has pleaded for your succor and release (Heb. 4:15, 2:17-18). And be encouraged henceforth to tread the ways of God with more firmness and sensible stay, “having your feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15).” But remember – the blessing of the cross is lost, if it does not issue in a song of praise – if we have not taken it up as a token of fatherly love. At all times the safest and shortest way to peace is to let God use his own methods with us; to live the present moment to him in the situation he has placed us; not dreaming of other circumstances more favourable to our spiritual prosperity; but leaving ourselves, our difficulties, our discouragements, in his hands, who makes no mistakes in any of his dispensations – but who orders them all, that they “may turn out to our salvation, through our prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:19).”

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On Not Being Conformed to This World

Somewhere in the distant past, I discovered the “Lake Wobegon” monologues of Garrison Keillor. Despite the fact that my personal background includes no connections to Norwegian bachelor farmers or lutefisk, over the years I’ve found resonance with some of Keillor’s tales of fictional Lake Wobegon.

Aside from the fact that Keillor is a gifted story-teller, the reason his autobiographical stories intrigue me is that he obviously knows American evangelicalism as an insider. Born into an exclusivist Brethren family, Keillor’s descriptions of his family and of Lake Wobegon’s Lutherans have a certain ring of truth for anyone who has spent time going around in evangelical circles.

In his book Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor recounts a time when his family decided to affiliate with another group of Brethren in St. Cloud, several miles from his home. His parents made the move out of fear that their children would marry outside the faith – the handful of Cox Brethren in his town were all relatives. Keillor relates his surprise on discovering that although the Cox Brethren of St. Cloud held to the same doctrines as his family, they were allowed to have television sets:

I ate a few Sunday dinners at their houses, and the first time I saw a television set in a Brethren house, I was dumbfounded. None of the Wobegonian Brethren had one; we were told that watching television was the same as going to the movies – no, in other words. I wondered why the St. Cloud people were unaware of the danger. You start getting entangled in things of the world, and one thing leads to another. First it’s television, then it’s worldly books, and the next thing you know, God’s people are sitting around drinking whisky sours in dim smoky bars with waitresses in skimpy black outfits….Dancing was out, even the Virginia reel: it led to carnal desires. Card-playing was out, which led to gambling, though we did have Rook and Flinch – why those and not pinochle? “Because. They’re different.” No novels, which tended to glamorize iniquity….Rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, swing, dance music, nightclub singing: all worldly. “How about Beethoven?” I asked, having heard something of his in school. “That depends,” [Mother] said. “Was he a Christian?” I wasn’t sure. I doubted he was.

Elsewhere in Lake Wobegone Days, he relates the laments of a frustrated Wobegonian Lutheran whose unpublished “95 Theses” included the complaint that:

Your theology wasn’t happy about the idea of mercy and forgiveness, which only gave comfort to enemies, and so, although you recited the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, you remembered your debtors and managed to not speak to certain people – a major feat when you live in a town so small and attend the same church as they; an act of true dedication.

Keillor’s subtext is clear: among Lake Wobegone evangelicals, television, dancing and cards were worldly; holding grudges against your neighbors was not.

Keillor’s comments on worldliness came to mind a while back, stirred to the fore by an occasion when I introduced a Christian friend of mine to a young woman from our church. In the course of conversation, the younger woman shared the fact that she had an interest in ballet dancing. My other friend replied, “That’s so wonderful. I think I would have enjoyed learning to dance, but I grew up in a very legalistic church where all forms of dancing were forbidden.” I remember feeling two emotions: first, a sense of loss for my friend who had been needlessly forbidden from dancing, and then, a wave of relief that the children of our church had not been similarly mis-taught about the nature of worldliness.

Canadian psychiatrist John White, in his book Flirting with the World, tells an interesting story of how he inadvertantly got into trouble in a church he and his wife wanted to join:

Years ago, after some months of attending a church in Winnipeg, Lorrie and I applied for membership. To our suprise and chagrin, we were informed that on the basis of our faulty doctrine we were being turned down….

The real issue (I am now convinced) had to do with worldliness rather than with Bible doctrine. Shortly before the storm erupted I had been asked to give a Sunday evening address (now long-forgotten, I am sure) on the subject. Something vague had been said to me about “our young people,” that is to say, the young people in our church. I had only been half listening at the time and had not grasped that the parents of teenagers in the church were worried about the behavior of their adolescent and young adult sons and daughters. So in my naivete I gave a heart-felt address on 1 John 2:15-17, “Do not love the world nor the things that are in the world….” I pointed out that worldliness, in John’s view, seems to go much deeper than contemporary evangelical views and to emphasize something different from worldliness as we commonly use the word. One can avoid the movies and beer parties and still harbor worldly bitterness and pride. We can be cigarette-free – but untruthful; total abstainers – but gossipers; modest in dress – but acquisitive.

While I had no intention of promoting dancing, drinking, lurid make-up, card-playing, gambling, smoking, or R-rated movie-going, I was careful to point out that the heart of worldliness has more to do with carnality, possessiveness, jealousy, pursuit of beautiful material objects, pride, and snobbery than with the more traditional evangelical taboos. But (and this is where I got myself into hot water) without my being aware of it, my words were seen as sword thrusts at the values of the middle-class parents rather than at the habits of their movie-going children. I doubt that the parents would now admit this, though I discovered (years later) that the address had aroused indignation and resentment in the very people who had asked me to give it, including church leaders, who from then on viewed me as dangerously unsound in my doctrine.

Jesus once warned about the Pharisees because they were “blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:16), pointing out that leader and follower alike would fall into the ditch. The moral blindness which afflicts the church today is in part the result of church leaders such as these who condemn sins their hearers never commit while ignoring other sins that they and their congregations alike are guilty of.

Although I believe Reformed churches do a better job than fundamentalist churches when it comes to steering clear of Pharisaic definitions of worldliness, once in a while I run across evidence that we’re not entirely immune to this malady.

A Reformed pastor once told me of a congregation he’d pastored in which, on several occasions, newcomers who seemed interested in the church would stop coming after a while. When he ‘d inquire why, a common reason emerged: they’d all felt a certain air of pharisaism that made them uncomfortable. In particular, new families discovered that there were a number of people in the church who held strongly dogmatic, arbitrary views on how Christians ought to educate their children; they seemed to judge anyone whose thinking differed from theirs to be spiritually inferior. Rather than live and worship in such an environment, the newcomers moved on.

Another friend once told me years ago of her time in a Reformed congregation where there was an almost-oppressive belief among many of the women that a good Christian mother should never have a baby by any means other than natural childbirth. Young women who didn’t share this view were made to feel uncomfortable there.

There is a natural human tendency to define worldliness in terms of what one already does (or perhaps more precisely: what other people do that I don’t do).

The Pharisees were masters at looking down on anyone whose outward behavior did not meet their meticulously-crafted standards. But Christ taught that worldliness is about what is inside the heart (Mark 7:1-23). Ironically, it seems that when we make arbitrary spiritual rules that God has not commanded, we’re actually being worldly.

Many years ago, a dear older saint told me about a church she visited while on vacation. She noticed that in the church’s vestibule there was a prominent chalk line marked on the inner door, about nine inches above the floor. After worship, she struck up a conversation with the woman next to her and eventually inquired about the mark. She was told that the line was put there as a convenience for women: ladies whose hemlines were at least as low as the chalk mark could be confident that they were modestly dressed.

My friend told this story in the context of a discussion about legalism in fundamentalist churches, of which that church was an example. But the story comes to mind when I hear of Reformed people maintaining arbitrary rules for life and godliness.

It makes me wonder: are there “chalk lines” in our churches – ones that we’ve perhaps grown blind to, but that others can still notice?

Even if we don’t forbid the Virginia reel or movie-going, are we careful not to apply our own arbitrary rules to other people’s behavior? If even the apostles needed to be warned to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (Mark 8:15), then surely we are not above such an admonition.

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On Avoiding Scylla and Charybdis

In reflecting on my life as an elder, I’ve decided that there are two kinds of mistakes that I wander into on occasion. Curiously, the two are almost opposites.

On one hand, I tend to want to make everyone happy. On the other, I’m tempted to make decisions that reflect my own preferences, rather than the needs of the people under my care.

Trying to keep everyone happy

Although this an error toward which I easily gravitate, it took a long time for me to recognize it as an error. It’s natural for an elder to want everyone in his church to be content, just as it’s natural for a father to want a happy family. No father would want to sit at dinner surrounded by sour faces. So if someone in the church isn’t happy, there is something in me that instinctively says, “what can I do to fix this?”

Yet this instinct can be misleading.

My point is not that an elder ought to be indifferent to whether the people under his care are happy. On the contrary, he should know and be concerned if people are unhappy. But he needs to understand the unhappiness and its source. Is someone unhappy because the elder has been negligent or overbearing? Has he done a poor job of communicating? If unhappiness is the result of my failure, I have a responsibility to apologize and try to sort things out.

But what if someone’s unhappiness turns out not to be my responsibilty? In that case, trying to “fix things” may not be the right response for at least three reasons:

It’s sometimes impossible to make everyone happy simultaneously

Imagine that you’re part of a family that has gone on vacation at a large amusement park. It’s 5 PM now and the park closes at 7. Billy wants to ride the giant roller coaster, but Sally (who gets sick on roller coasters) wants to ride the elaborate merry-go-round. Andy wants to take the water slide, but Susie doesn’t want to get her clothes wet and has her heart set on riding in a bumper car. Dad, who forgot his hat, is getting a sunburn on his scalp and would really like nothing better than to go back to the hotel room and lie down. Mom’s only desire is to be able to have dinner at a place where she can actually sit down and eat real food. Did I mention that all the rides and restaurants have long lines, and that each child needs to be accompanied by an adult? If each family member can only be happy if he gets his way, someone is headed for disappointment.

There can be quite a breadth of needs, desires, and opinions in a church. At times, the breadth will be such that it may be impossible to avoid disappointing someone. Huge churches have the resources to create worship services and ministries to satisfy a multitude of needs and preferences – but even megachurches have a steady trickle of people who leave because they’re not happy about something. If an enormous church can’t satisfy every appetite, what chance does a smaller one have of doing so?

To make matters worse, sometimes people don’t really know what will make them happy. On a few occasions, I’ve seen situations in which someone expressed a strong desire for something – something they really believed would make them happy. Then, when the desire was granted – they were still unhappy! Obviously, giving such a person what he wants in the hope of producing happiness will not work.

As much as I’d like to believe that there is a Solomonic answer to every problem, sometimes there isn’t. If an elder sets keeping everyone happy as his chief goal, he will live a frustrated life. Often, the best solution that a session can provide will make no one completely happy, but will allow everyone to be moderately comfortable. I’m thankful that the people under my care have been willing to live, when necessary, with such “imperfect” solutions.

Trying to keep everyone happy can subtly encourage spiritual immaturity

Imagine a church in which the elders ignore every request and concern that is brought before them. Superficially, that would make their jobs easy, but it would also be unspeakably irresponsible. Now imagine the opposite – a church in which every desire and preference expressed is acted on by the leaders in a frantic effort to ensure that everyone is kept happy. What do you think such a church would be like after a year?

Have you ever seen a family in which the parents think their purpose in life is to keep their children happy? At best, such children grow up aimless and dependent, assuming that every problem in life will be fixed for them with no effort on their part. At worst, they grow up spoiled and insufferable.

If my labors as an elder were concentrated on trying to keep everyone happy, the people under my care would likely become self-centered and grow oblivious to the needs of others, rather than looking for opportunities to practice humility and Christlike self-sacrifice. Surely this is not the intended outcome of the under-shepherds’ labors.

The job is not to keep the sheep happy; rather, it’s to make the Chief Shepherd happy

This, by far, is the most important reason that an elder’s chief goal cannot be keeping everyone happy.

When I’m called to give an account for how I did my work as an elder (Hebrews 13:17), I have no reason to expect that the Lord will ask, “did you keep everybody happy?” But I do have reason to believe that he will want to know that his sheep were faithfully fed (John 21), encouraged to grow in their love for Christ, gently admonished, and even chastened when absolutely necessary.

Personally, I don’t like not being able to keep everyone happy. But if the job of an undershepherd is to keep the flock’s eyes on Christ, surely he must do the same thing himself, trusting that everything else will fall into place.

Making Self-Serving Decisions

Ruling in the household of faith presents another temptation for me. It’s easy to become careless and to make decisions that are desirable or attractive for me personally but that may not be beneficial for others.

I began to recognize this first when I was still single. Times and circumstances of worship that were convenient for me were not always convenient for households with small children or others in situations different from my own. Having a plurality of elders is helpful in this regard – while I might overlook something, the presence of other elders means that one of them will probably recognize a concern that I might miss.

Because so many decisions involve questions of judgment (rather than questions of right vs. wrong), my personal preferences can easily dictate the direction of decisions made that affect the whole church. The tendency can crop up almost anywhere. For example, I’ve always enjoyed church history. It would be attractive for me to teach an interminable number of Sabbath School classes on various aspects of church history. But while some exposure to church history might be helpful, people have other needs for instruction that would be neglected if I simply indulged my own interests.

More generally, sometimes I might be asked to give approval to a church activity or program that might not fit my own personal preferences. If the idea in view is generally beneficial and no principle is violated by doing it, it would be rather selfish for me to veto it merely on the basis of my own likes or dislikes. Yet it’s easy to do without thinking.

Ultimately, the model for my work as an overseer is Christ himself. Caring for the Lord’s people must involve discernment as well as sacrifice.

Recently I read an extremely helpful book on the ministry of church leaders: The Shepherd Leader, by Timothy Z. Witmer. In a thoughtful review of the book, Nathan Pitchford has observed,

“Christ himself is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10); and in the Old Testament prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, God had promised to send, not just this Chief Shepherd, but other shepherds as well, after his own heart, to feed his sheep with knowledge and understanding. If, then, the shepherds who neglect their task receive the fierce condemnation expressed, for instance, in Ezekiel 34; and if the standard for fulfilling the task is to be after God’s own heart; then how earnestly ought all elders to seek the heart of God in the scriptures for the shepherding of his flock, and labor intensely, ardently, and practically to follow his example!”

It’s easier for me to drift toward extremes than to maintain a balanced approach to my work as an elder. Steering clear of these pitfalls doesn’t guarantee that I won’t make other mistakes, but it does make it a little easier for me to stay focused on seeking to follow the Good Shepherd.

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Our Best Things Are Yet to Come

For many years my wife and I have been using J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels in our family worship. We were reading through the section on Matthew 14:1-12 a few days ago and I was particularly struck and refreshed by Ryle’s remarks on the death of John the Baptist:

Let us learn…that God’s children must not look for their reward in this world. If ever there was a case of godliness unrewarded in this life, it was that of John the Baptist. Think for a moment what a man he was during his short career, and then think to what an end he came. Behold him, that was the Prophet of the Highest, and greater than any born of woman, imprisoned like a malefactor! Behold him cut off by a violent death, before the age of thirty-four–the burning light quenched–the faithful preacher murdered for doing his duty–and this to gratify the hatred of an adulterous woman, and at the command of a capricious tyrant! Truly there was an event here, if there ever was one in the world, which might make an ignorant man say, “What profit is it to serve God?”

But these are the sort of things which show us that there will one day be a judgment. The God of the spirits of all flesh shall at last set up an assize, and reward every one according to his works. The blood of John the Baptist, and James the apostle, and Stephen–the blood of Polycarp, and Huss, and Ridley, and Latimer, shall yet be required. It is all written in God’s book. “The earth shall disclose her blood, and no more cover her slain.” (Isaiah 26:21.) The world shall yet know, that there is a God who judges the earth. “If you see the oppression of the poor, and violent taking away of justice and righteousness in a district, don’t marvel at the matter–for one official is eyed by a higher one, and there are officials over them.” (Eccles. 5:8.)

Let all true Christians remember that their best things are yet to come. Let us count it no strange thing if we have sufferings in this present time. It is a season of probation. We are yet at school. We are learning patience, gentleness, and meekness, which we could hardly learn if we had our good things now. But there is an eternal holiday yet to begin. For this let us wait quietly. It will make amends for all. “Our light affliction which is for the moment, works for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17.)

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A Real New Testament Church

Imagine that you are the husband in the following scenario:

You, your wife, and your two small children have just moved to a new city. On the first Lord’s Day after you arrive, you set out to worship in a nearby church. You know that its founder was a well-known evangelist and preacher, so your expectations are high. The people seem pretty friendly, and you resolve to return.

The next week, things go fairly well, but your wife is of the opinion that something is not quite right at this church. She can’t articulate why, but she feels that there’s a peculiar vibe among the people that she can’t put her finger on. Some of them seem a bit odd to you, too; you have a conversation with a guy who has some strange ideas about the resurrection. You hope he’s just a visitor.

By the third week, you’re both observing some really weird stuff. The fellow sitting next to you in worship (who was previously introduced to you as a deacon) has alcohol on his breath, and his speech seems slurred. While at the market on Saturday, your wife heard that this same man is in the process of suing another church member. That just doesn’t seem right to either of you.

After you get home and put the kids down for naps, you and your wife discuss the church. She’s observed several cliques among the people there, and some of the members actually seem to deliberately avoid each other. You tell her that one point during the sermon, you noticed a woman a couple of rows in front of you – an elder’s wife – giving another woman across the aisle a look that could peel paint.

You’re both coming to the same conclusion – these people give you the creeps, and you don’t want your kids growing up in this church. You agree that you’ll have to find another church next week.

There’s just one problem: it’s 54 A.D., and your new home is called Corinth. There is no “other” church.

Your wife asks, “Could we walk five miles to Cenchreae every Lord’s Day?”

For years, when reading Paul’s epistles to the Corinthian church, I’ve tended to focus on the various exegetical puzzles they present. More recently, I’ve started to think about what it would have felt like to be a member of the congregation to whom Paul wrote.

My sense is that I would have been pretty miserable in Corinth. I can imagine showing up for Sabbath School every Lord’s Day morning hoping that the Apollos-party folks might actually be civil to the Cephas-party folks for a change, that the tongues-speakers won’t make me feel so inferior for once, and that the elders might finally do something about that guy who shows up every week fondling his mother-in-law. The drunkenness at the Lord’s Table, the tedious pettiness of supposed brethren in Christ, the immorality – who could bear it? Not only would I probably long to leave such a church, I’d feel pretty justified in doing so.

Yet as I read Paul’s letters, they present me with a problem: he gives no such counsel. He doesn’t advise the handful of people who haven’t been indulging in gross pride or sexual immorality to leave and organize a pure congregation. Oddly, he writes a letter addressing the church affectionately, calling them “saints.” He does insist that they start dealing with their sinful attitudes and behavior; he tells them what they must do to put things in order, and he warns that he is willing to come back and give them a good thrashing (1 Cor. 4:21) if they do not demonstrate a real change of heart. But one gets no sense that he regards Corinth as a “synagogue of Satan,” which is the phrase that might float into my mind if I found myself stranded in the midst of such a church.

So what does this imply about how bad things have to be before a person should leave a church? I don’t wish to press this to nonsensical extremes; I believe there can be circumstances under which one may have good reasons to leave a church. But reflecting on the Corinthian epistles does give me a feeling that we American evangelical and Reformed folk are often too ready to bolt for the door if we find something not to our liking at church.

When I was in college, I had a conversation with a fellow student who seemed to wander from one church to another, as evangelicals of my generation are wont to do. “What are you looking for?,” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I just want to find a real New Testament church.”

No one has said that to me in the years since, but if I were having that conversation today, I think I might be perverse enough to reply, “So, you’re holding out for one like Corinth or Galatia?”

Christians have a natural tendency to believe that if we could just find the “right” church, the challenges we experience in our own spiritual lives would melt away in the warm glow that we’d discover there. But given that every church on earth is filled with (at best) partially-sanctified people, in this life we can only expect to find churches that are “more or less pure.” The general thrust of the New Testament seems to be that we ought to spend much less energy in criticizing what we don’t like about church and a good deal more energy seeking to become the kind of people we think others ought to be.

While drafting this post, I discovered Michael Ives’ fascinating blog, The West Port Experiment, and found that a few months ago he quoted a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters that seemed to offer a fitting close for where my own thoughts on this topic were going. As you may know, Lewis’ Screwtape is a senior demon whose letters provide advice to his nephew Wormwood on the most effective ways to tempt his human “patient:”


You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil. What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. (You see how grovelling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar He is!) This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper. So pray bestir yourself and send this fool the round of the neighbouring churches as soon as possible. Your record up to date has not given us much satisfaction. . . .

Your affectionate uncle

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Lessons Learned

A couple of years ago, I marked a twenty-fifth anniversary of sorts. It would be inaccurate to say that I “celebrated” it, but I did pause to note its arrival.

In August of 1983, while away on vacation, I was notified that the Reformed Baptist congregation in which I was a deacon had split into two churches. Although a split had been brewing for months, the news still came as a shock to me.

The circumstances leading up to the split were complex. Many of them were made known in public meetings, and others I experienced firsthand. As I’ve reflected on the events, some of the things that took place still bewilder and grieve me.

The formal cause for the split was a doctrinal dispute that began in Reformed Baptist circles in the late 1970s and produced divisions in various RB churches in the 80’s and 90’s. A key issue was the relevance of the Old Testament to New Testament believers.

Two of the congregation’s three teaching elders (for simplicity, I’ll call them Elders A and B) were attracted to the idea that classic Covenant Theology is wrong and that the moral law is not binding for the NT Christian. Elder C, the third teaching elder, was adamantly opposed to this error. On my return to Massachusetts after the split, I returned to the part of the church that had remained orthodox in its views.

I must explain that I refer to this doctrinal issue as the “formal” cause for the split because it was really only one of several matters that led to the split. It’s apparent to me that a number of issues — most having to do with personal conflicts — were more important to many in the church than the theological issues. In fact, my recollection is that although some of the discussions among the church’s leaders (the deacons and elders held their meetings together) focused on the doctrinal questions, as the debate progressed into the rest of the congregation, doctrine quickly took a back seat to personal conflicts.

Division among the teaching elders led to a flurry of congregational meetings. Somewhere — I have no desire to find it — I have a thick set of minutes detailing the bickering that took place during a succession of painful meetings.

As the anniversary approached, after years of deliberately not thinking about this experience, I started wondering what benefit I had gained from living through it. What had I learned?

There’s a reason we are not to let the sun go down on our anger
One of the things that struck me was the great extent to which old grudges surfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, as the conflict developed.

In one public meeting, Elder A asked one of the men of the congregation, “what do you have against me?” Apparently he had always sensed an aloofness in the man’s manner toward him. The man explained that two or three years earlier, when they first met, Elder A did not greet him as politely as he thought he should have been greeted. He’d never liked Elder A from that day forward. I’ve long wondered how this man was able to sit at the Lord’s Table month after month with Elder A, all the time silently nursing a grudge against him.

At least one of the women of the congregation was openly contemptuous of Elder A once conflict broke into the open; she seemed to view him as a nuisance to be disposed of. At one point she told another woman, “if we can get rid of Elder A, we can handle Elder B.” Her main complaint, as nearly as I could tell, was that Elder A was rather blunt and good at defending his opinions, and he made her “feel small” when he disagreed with her.

Bible translations were at the heart of another conflict. A couple of years before the split, the elders had decided to put a modern-language Bible translation (the NIV) into the pews instead of the KJV. Elder C preferred the KJV, but went along with the idea somewhat reluctantly. Given that this was the mid-1980s it was hardly a radical action, but some in the church suspected that the change reflected a willingness on the part of Elders A&B to corrupt the Word of God. After the split, the orthodox faction gave all the new Bibles to the group that had departed so that the KJV could be restored.

“Concerned discussion” easily turns into gossip
Months before the split, I was present for several private conversations in which doubts were raised about Elders A and B. I remember being mildly uncomfortable and wondering why the questions were not being directed to the men themselves. Some of what was said probably qualified as idle talk rather than as appropriate conversation.

In any case, after the split the tales I heard from the “orthodox” left little doubt that much of the talk going on was sinful. For example, there were “orthodox” members who repeatedly eavesdropped on the conversations of “non-orthodox” former members and shared what they had heard with others. A good deal of mischief came of the idle talk indulged in by the “orthodox.”

If the shepherds are divided, the sheep are easy prey
As differences began to emerge, some of the members began persuading Elder C that the other two men were his enemies and could not be trusted. They drove such a wedge between them that their relationships rapidly became irreparably damaged. People began taking sides, to some extent, on the basis of their feelings of sympathy for the various parties. Thus the breach between the elders spread rapidly into the rest of the congregation.

Now that I am an elder, I’m thankful that the men with whom I serve are committed to laboring together without becoming divided. I’m certain that this commitment has helped protect the church from harm over the years.

Presbyterian government may be slow, but it beats the alternatives
I’m a presbyterian because I’m convinced that it is Biblical, but I also believe that it works better than congregationalism. This experience demonstrates the practical limits of congregational church government. There was never any real chance of restoring peace or settling the doctrinal issues once the leaders became divided. With no one outside the congregation capable of helping to settle disputes and restore peace, a split was inevitable.

Deep wounds heal slowly
I eventually moved on from that congregation, though not just because of the split. I’m very thankful that by God’s grace I was able to find a congregation that was not characterized by grudges, gossip, or grumbling, and I have remained there ever since. But for several years after the split, I found myself over-reacting to minor conflicts that arose in my new church home. Eventually I realized that every disagreement, no matter how small, was reminding me of the strife in my former church.

Living through the split has given me empathy for other Christians who have been through “church troubles.” They often don’t recognize when they are responding instinctively to situations that remind them of old wounds, even when the circumstances are quite different.

Believing sound doctrine is not enough
I think what was most disturbing for me in this experience was the behavior of many of the folks who were doctrinally in the right.

Toward the end of my time in the “orthodox” congregation, I asked Elder C whether he thought there were matters of discipline that still needed to be addressed in the church. He replied, rather sadly, that if discipline were properly applied, we would probably have to discipline almost everyone left in the congregation. I found that a very telling remark.

I learned that the Evil One is quite capable of inducing people to sin even as they are standing on the side of orthodoxy. I suspect that this is the most important lesson of all.

Most of all, this experience made me more aware of just how important prayer and patient shepherding are in order to maintain a spirit of unity in a church. Any congregation, no matter how healthy, must remain on guard against the tricks and strategies of the Evil One.

Recently I listened to an excellent sermon by Rev. Edward Donnelly with the title, “Called by Grace.” At one point in it he asks, “Are our church fellowships places of grace? Is grace the spirit in which we live and believe? Why are Christians so cruel to each other?… Have we a forgiving and merciful spirit?”


Have we?

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What? Another Reformed Blog?

Today I’m initiating another blog, fully expecting that my writing here will be infrequent.

I hope to blog about some of the things I’ve pondered over on a variety of topics.  Most posts will be related in some way to my life as a Reformed Christian and ruling elder and my observations of a wide variety of churches (Methodist/Southern Baptist/Reformed Baptist/Reformed Presbyterian).   I may recycle (or revisit) some pieces I’ve published elsewhere.

The title, “Reformed Ruminations,” expresses my sense that the posts here will be the outcome of “chewing the cud” – but figuratively, of course!  My original vision for the header photo was of a field containing a couple of dairy cows sporting those magisterial Reformer hats that one sees in portraits of John Calvin. So far, for some reason, I’ve been unable to find such a picture anywhere.  If you run across one, please do let me know.

In the meantime, an image of Kinbane Castle, which I visited by accident almost twenty years ago, will do.  (Many thanks to Shaun Dunphy for giving me permission to modify his excellent photo!)

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