One of the quirks of Christian unity is that I – an American, free church, premillennial, baptistic pastor – find remarkable affinity with the reflections of one Carl Trueman – a British, Presybterian (OPC!), amillennial, paedobaptist.
A few months ago, Trueman shared an interchange with Sean Lucas and Michael Haykin over the place of “spiritual formation” in theological seminaries. I’ll leave that immediate issue to those more qualified. But I was particularly grateful for Trueman’s final thoughts, where he observed the real difference between a biblical piety and a performance or program-based “spiritual formation.”
Here’s a snippet:
Take, for example, the notion of compulsory attendance at seminary chapel, fellowship groups or prayer meetings. Sounds like a plan, as they say in America. But imagine the student who works all night as a security guard and then comes straight from the night shift to an 8.30 am class. Should he be made to stay for chapel at 10.30? Would it not be better for him to go home, to rest up, to be with his wife and children? I would say that that would an act of biblical piety and represent precisely the kind of character trait which Paul sees as a sign of spiritual maturity and qualification for ministerial office in 1 Timothy, esp. chapters 3 and 4.
… Of course, I consider spiritual formation to be a good thing — self-evidently so, just like rugby union, fine cognac and all and every satirical parody written by Craig Brown. But I refuse to accept any necessary dichotomy between book learning and spirituality.
As Warfield did, so I too believe that study can and should be done with passionate spiritual devotion. Like Luther, I repudiate the medieval notion of a hierarchy of spiritual and unspiritual callings, even when refracted through the lens of Protestant evangelicalism.
And I see the first and most important way I help ‘spiritually form’ my students to be telling them that they need to study hard and be passionately committed to their local churches and, if they have them, to their wives and children.
And I also agree with Jesus: when confronted by the Pharisees, his answer to their defective piety was often not to tell them to attend more fellowship meetings but an urgent encouragement to them to study books not less but more: ‘Have you not read….?’
Read Trueman’s entire post. His observations on the “false dichotomies” that exist in the minds of many Christians, and even entire churches, as to what constitutes spiritual growth are worthy of reflection.
My suspicion is that we too often equate our growth in Christ with our participation in particular groups, programs, or activities – all the while missing the very elements that the Lord intends for us to cultivate our spiritual development in private, as well as our corporate exercises within the local church. I have met more than one Christian who frankly destroyed his family, along with his private prayers, simply by over-extending himself in activities billed as necessary to spiritual growth!
Practically-speaking, this is one reason I prefer an “uncluttered” week in the schedule of my own congregation. Admittedly, it may hurt our street cred. Every now and then, I’ll get comments like: “You guys don’t have [programmed activity]?! How are people supposed to grow?!”
Well, perhaps if they devote themselves to the Lord’s Day (Heb 10:24-25), to the Lord’s Word, and to the needs of the Lord’s people (e.g., 1 Thess 5:14-15), they may find the “spiritual formation” that the Lord has always intended. Of course, that very well may include Bible studies, fellowship groups, and other programmed activities. But lets not confuse any of those activities with a guaranteed process for Christian maturity.
In fact, some Christians may find that their growth in piety demands a little less extra-curricular activity with Christian people, so they can actually begin to minister as Christians… think on that one for a bit, it’s counter-intuitive in the current evangelical climate.
What Trueman was driving at and what I agree (differences over baptism notwithstanding!), is that spiritual growth cannot be plotted on a chart nor designed in a meeting. It is the work of God’s Spirit through His Word spoken by His people. Now that may not make for good advertising or slick-looking literature, but it is how the Church has always grown. Divinely-designed and beautifully disorganized… it’s a great way to grow.