Protestants who reject the authority of the church are denying their own principles.
Two places where people are especially vulnerable to doing this is 1) in their attitude to church attendance and 2) their attitude towards ordained officebearers.
Church is the boring place where dramatic things happen. You can’t expect to hear anything new there, because the truths proclaimed are ancient. But the truths proclaimed are the environment where souls are born again by the Holy Spirit, which is miraculous, and where born again souls are sanctified, which is quite radical. Outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Inside the church there might be quirks and foibles and flaws and sins, but things don’t get any better if you step outside.
Church attendance is a fruit of salvation. People are saved individually, but they’re not saved into isolation. Each believer is a living stone built into a structure with other living stones. Each believer is transformed from a goat into a sheep and now belongs to the flock of the Lord. Each believer is called from a life of uselessness and unprofitability and installed as a useful member the body of Christ, like a hand or an eye.
It is part of the instinct of the new creation to congregate and communicate with the likeminded, and there’s nowhere more natural for the sheep to gather than the place where the shepherd feeds them. Do sheep drink milk? anyway, they go together to drink the sincere milk of the word, the word which by the gospel is preached unto them. Attending the corporate means of grace is not optional but necessary for their wellbeing.
The church which Christ instituted in this world is organised in terms of structure, regulations, and officebearers.
To focus on officebearers: these are either elders or deacons, and elders either rule or teach. Although there are no qualifications needed in order for a sinner to be saved, some daunting qualifications are specified which must be met in order for someone to be suitable for officebearing. Some of these are listed in 1 Timothy 3, which states quite straightforwardly that an elder must be:
- the husband of one wife
- of good behaviour
- given to hospitality
- apt to teach
- not given to wine
- no striker
- not greedy of filthy lucre
- not a brawler
- not covetous
- one that rules his own house well, having his children in subjection with all gravity (for if a man knows not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the house of God?)
- not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil
- having a good reputation of those who are outsiders.
Most of these are character traits, and discernible by anyone who looks. They’re not really a list of pass/fail targets to meet; compare, putting in so many solo flying hours, or producing so many educational qualifications to a particular level.
Nevertheless it is beneficial that teaching elders in particular should come up to certain pragmatically established standards before taking office in the church. If they are ‘sober,’ for example, and know the dangers of ‘being lifted up with pride,’ they will likely see the sense of that anyway. But in particular the qualification ‘they need to be able to teach’ by itself raises the possibility that a good candidate for the teaching-eldership can be made a better one through being trained for their work.
In a word, an educated ministry is both desirable and proper:
- because the main job of the teaching elder is to teach, but people need to learn before they can teach
- because the main means of convincing and converting sinners and building up the saints is by preaching the Word, but the Word needs to be studied and understood before it can be preached
- because the main danger to the church is false doctrine, but it takes discernment to identify error and heresy and skill to tackle them appropriately
- because, even though preachers don’t have to know Hebrew or Greek in order to know the revealed will of God, still it helps when they do, and it shows when they don’t
- because ignorance and wilful anti-intellectualism hinder the effects of the truth and do not promote godliness.
What teaching elders teach from the pulpit is meant to feed the flock, cement the bricks, and nourish the body. So whereas the unconverted sit under the preached word in the way that rebel fighters hear ambassadors broadcasting proposals of peace and reconciliation, the converted sit under the preached word in order to grow in grace and in the knowledge of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
They do this, not as a disparate collection of individual souls, but as a corporate entity. They rejoice together to go up to God’s house together. They listen together to the preaching of a sermon designed to benefit them together. As they love one another, they worship with one another. The fellowship they have with the saints takes place and is expressed most visibly and straightforwardly when they assemble together for worship. What, after all, unifies their diverse personal experiences but the fact that they all have the same Saviour, the one revealed in the Word which they read together and hear expounded together in God’s house week after week. The responsibility of a teaching elder in all of this is immense.
In one way, salvation is an intensely personal thing, a transaction between the soul alone and God himself. But salvation is more than that – it has a background and a community – the doctrines of the Word and the church shaped by the Word. Disinclination to associate corporately with the people who God has called into the visible church isn’t an option, and certainly disrespect towards the people God has called into office in his church is completely ruled out.