Feeding Through Covenantal Instruction

Editor: the following is chapter 6 of Pastoral Ministry from a Covenantal Perspective, by Dr. Maynard Koerner, 2014. Used with permission.
The central focus of the pastoral ministry is on preaching. We must guard against any movement away from that focus. This study has also noted the need for pastoral ministry in meeting the needs of individuals. It is important to understand that pastoral ministry involves a teaching aspect. In this study I have argued that preaching is not simply an academic exercise. Therefore, there is a need for instruction in a setting apart from worship. This calls for a type of teaching in which one can thoroughly present the doctrines revealed in Scripture in a detailed, point by point manner and which allows for very specific life application.

Basis for and Historic Practice of a Teaching Ministry

The Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to provide such teaching to his congregation: If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness . . . The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance . For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things (1 Tim. 4:6-7, 9-11).

Paul goes on to say in 2 Timothy 2:24-26: And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

In the early church, adult converts were considered to be catechumens and received extensive training, sometimes for as much as six years. The writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, referenced in this study, was intended to provide instruction for both youth and adults so that they would be knowledgeable about their faith. It is a strong tradition in the RCUS to have Sunday school classes for all ages, as well as a number of opportunities for Bible studies. So in addition to the catechization of the youth, there is a commitment to biblical and doctrinal teaching.

The Current Need for a Teaching Ministry

The need for instruction for God’s covenant people is greater than ever before. As American Christianity has moved toward an experience-oriented faith, the knowledge of Christian doctrine and of the Scriptures has deteriorated. The move away from the knowledge aspect of faith toward an experience aspect appears to be directly related to a Christian faith that knows less and less about the Scriptures.

[As David Wells observes,] “the largest factor in this internal change, I think, was that evangelicalism began to be infected by the culture in which it was living. And then Christianity became increasingly reduced simply to private, internal, therapeutic experience. Its doctrinal form atrophied and then crumbled.” Surveys have also given strong indication of Christians who are woefully lacking in Biblical knowledge: “The larger scandal is biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same. America’s Christians know less and less about the Bible.”

The bad news is that religious knowledge in general, including knowledge of one’s own religion, is abysmal. This includes ignorance of some very basic teachings, and, as such, it is obviously a major contributor to the decline of Christianity as the dominant or prevailing worldview that it once was in most Western countries.

This indicates that among other things, the church simply isn’t teaching its members basic knowledge about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Forget about complicated topics such as the Trinity as three hypostases, one ousia; most can’t even articulate very basic, different views of communion and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). The average churchgoer may well be completely ignorant of people like Job and even Abraham and Moses who should be Sunday School staples. This is more clear evidence that the entertainment-driven programs of many churches are clearly not producing people who can articulate even the most basic tenets of their faith, or who know the Bible.

It may be that churches that have historically been quite faithful in providing a strong Christian education program are not as bad as indicated above. However, we should not assume that members in Reformed churches are immune from this anti-intellectual trend. We also should not assume that, when we receive new members—whether they are new converts or coming from another church—they are well informed concerning Christian doctrine. I believe that in the context of church growth the Church has deliberately attempted to make joining the Church as easy as possible. We would do well to take a lesson from the Church of the first several centuries and require a much more rigorous training program for potential members.

A Model for a Teaching Ministry

So what should a healthy program of educating God’s covenant people look like? The Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, had a great concern for not only the preaching ministry but also the teaching ministry to the people of God. He believed that it was the duty of every pastor to know the people of his congregation personally and to not only preach in a way that truly challenged them in their lives and faith, but also to have a teaching ministry to each member on a personal level.

“In a word, we must teach our people as much as we can of the word and the works of God. What two volumes these become for a minister from which to preach! How great, how excellent, how wonderful, how mysterious! All Christians are disciples or scholars of Christ, and the Church is His School. We are His ushers. The Bible is His textbook. And this is what we should be daily teaching to those in our care.”

To achieve this, Baxter advocated what he referred to as “personal catechizing.” It might be impossible to accomplish the type of “personal catechizing” today which he was able to do in his ministry. But there is certainly a great deal to be learned from his understanding of educating God’s people. He saw great benefit in this ministry:

“1. Personal ministry is a vital advantage for the conversion of many souls. It is necessary that you do personal ministry on a systematic basis. Merely meeting to resolve some controversial issue, or meeting infrequently, would not have the same benefits.

Personal conversion involves two things: a well-informed judgment of basic issues, and the change of will that is brought about by this truth. Moreover, we have the best opportunity to imprint the truth upon the hearts of men when we can speak to each one’s personal needs. If you have the compassion of Christ, you will exercise this ministry. If you are co-workers with Christ, you will not neglect the souls for whom He died.

2. Personal ministry, when it is well managed, will also build up those being established in the faith. How can you build without laying a good foundation? How can people advance in the truth when they are not first taught the essentials? The fundamental we need to lead men to is further truth.”

A Specific Program for Christian Education in the Church

In spite of the dumbing down of Christianity referenced above, there is a lot of interest in studying the Bible today. One can find numerous different groups, for example medical doctors, or business men, who meet for Bible studies. There are numerous Bible study aids which can be purchased to assist groups who get together for this purpose. The difficulty is that these studies often purposefully attempt to be without doctrine, and are led by untrained men, or they have no leaders and everyone simply provides their opinion. One wonders if such studies are not more detrimental than helpful.

There is also a very popular movement of establishing small groups within the congregation for Bible study and fellowship. Again the problem is that they are led by untrained men, and are often not for establishing foundations as Baxter advocated but to provide some experience. It is somewhat ironic that while there appears to be a real interest in Bible studies, at the same time Christians are less and less truly informed about Biblical knowledge and doctrine.

I want to once again emphasize that the proposal for a strong teaching ministry should not be seen in any way as taking away from the centrality and importance of the preaching ministry. I am not advocating something shallow as a means of satisfying those who want to get away from sound preaching. But I am emphasizing the fact that pastoring from a covenantal perspective is more than preaching. I am also committed to the notion that sound preaching must be precept upon precept. Yet in maintaining the unique setting for preaching which is in the context of worshiping God, it seems to be good to have a proper place for both preaching and teaching.

I distinctly recall an occasion when a member of the congregation I was pastoring stated to me that he got more out of my Sunday School lessons than out of my sermons. At first I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, but it occurred to me that he was merely reflecting what I believe is the appropriate distinction between preaching and a teaching lesson. Let us remind ourselves of this distinction. Preaching has content which should be informative, but it is also important to remember that it is in the context of worship. The listener is brought directly before God and experiences meeting with Him. In contrast, a Bible study or Sunday School is by nature more of an academic exercise. In a Bible study one can make very precise points in dealing with a matter of doctrine. Certainly in preaching there is an informative word from God going to the listener. But I would not want to merely describe it as an academic exercise.

My exhortation for ministers is to work towards that which the Apostle Paul prayed for concerning the church at Ephesus:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come (Eph. 1:15-21).

In any program there is always the potential for misuse. There is no one way to carry out an educational program in the church. As mentioned above, in the RCUS there is a strong program of Sunday school for all ages as well as family Bible studies. These are based on the desire to educate the membership and to be faithful to the Word of God to teach His Word to His people. Each individual is responsible to know the Scriptures. Families ought to read the Bible and pray together. Yet there is a place for and a requirement that the Church through its ordained ministry lead the congregation and individuals in their growth in the Lord.

A good program of instruction in the Church can only be God honoring and useful when it is understood in the context of pastoral ministry. It provides for the proper motivation and approach in the care of the flock of Jesus Christ.

[As Baxter wrote,] “The ministerial work must be carried on prudently and orderly. Milk must go before strong meat; the foundation must be laid before we attempt to raise the superstructure. Children must not be dealt with as men of full stature. Men must be brought into a state of grace, before we can expect from them the works of grace. The work of conversion, and the repentance from dead works, and faith in Christ, must be first and frequently and thoroughly taught. We must not ordinarily go beyond the capacities of our people, nor teach them the perfection, that have not learned the first principles of religion.” (Baxter, 1656, p. 112).

The teaching aspect of ministry should reflect the pastoral nature of ministry. To truly care for the sheep is to feed them the food which will truly nourish. To force feed deep theology to a new or immature believer is not a ministry of caring because it will not result in growth. The same is true when shallow teaching is provided to mature believers. The goal is to provide that teaching which will provide for the needs of congregations that include members at various stages of Christian growth.

Dr. Maynard Koerner, Heidelberg Theological Seminary, Sioux Falls, SD

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