Week 48 in the year of our Lord 2021

Dealing with modern-day pharisees + worshiping without a church

16 minutes to read

It is a key milestone for a man, and a massive step forward, when he finds a wife.

She is the second rail, running parallel to fraternity, that supports him, carries him forward, and keeps his mission on track. However, since a wife is a complement to your mission, she cannot be the mission itself. It is good to be a husband. But it is good to be a man first.

The correct order is to get on mission, then find a woman to complement you; but popular culture teaches men exactly the opposite. This idea has wormed its way deep into the modern Church. It is not so much explicitly stated as implicitly taken for granted that “true love” eliminates all loneliness, and that to find one’s soulmate is to become complete. Connected with this, true love takes on divine power, replacing the marriage covenant as the sanctifier of sex. But God designed sex to image covenant love—not romantic love.

All this to say, if you don’t know what your mission is, you cannot really assess whether a particular woman will make a good helper for it. Do not be harnessed, pacified, or destroyed; rather, build yourself up, and start working to exercise dominion over yourself and your world. Everything else will follow from that.

—This is a chapter summary of It’s Good To Be A Man chapter 14, “The Excellence of Marriage.”

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Matthew 23:1–12 is a passage we need to give great attention to in an age of celebrity. In it, Jesus deals with the ministry of the scribes and Pharisees—and it’s highly relevant to “internet Christianity.”

Note two things:

  1. Jesus endorses their teaching, but not their practice: “…all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds” (v. 3).
  2. Jesus criticizes not only their hypocrisy, but also their motives: “…But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men…They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.”

There are three important takeaways for the internet age:

Firstly, ministers can have good doctrine while being immoral hypocrites. Their hypocrisy doesn’t make their teaching false. Therefore, receive their doctrine, but reject their example.

Secondly, the motives of a minister are fair grounds for criticism. Jesus has no problem doing what today would be labeled ad hominem. Moreover, the standard rejoinder (“yeah but you’re not Jesus”) won’t cut it. John does the same thing in his third epistle when he says, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say.” The problem with Diotrephes is his motives. He, like the Pharisees before him, likes being a man of influence and power. And Paul criticizes the motives of people in multiple places (e.g., Gal 6:12; Phil 1:15).

We should, however, be careful in making these applications. Jesus and the apostles never criticized ministers out of envy or mean-spiritedness. They knew to take the log out of their own eye. They criticized, rather, out of love for the sheep, as a warning to them—for bad ministers lead sheep astray.

They also did not criticize blindly—they knew of what they spoke. When they criticized, they criticized truly, rather than guessing at motives.

With these caveats in mind, we should be quicker to test the motives of ourselves, and ministers in our own churches, than to test those outside our circle. These sins are common sins. We must be on guard against them cropping up in our own hearts, and our own flocks, because they certainly will.

Thirdly, just as we should not immediately assume that good teachers are good men, we should also not immediately assume that bad men are bad teachers. Both impulses are wrong. We are responsible to receive instruction even when we don’t like its source. We cannot throw out good teaching just because it comes from a bad man.

We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum. —A.W. Tozer

Matthew 15:1–20 also models for us how to deal with challenges from a certain kind of religious authority we find everywhere today. The Pharisees have status as experts in the faith, and are regarded by the people as model saints. They are the leaders of Israel’s institutional religion—the modern equivalent of Big Eva personalities. They are accustomed to having a perceived authority and mana (as we say here in NZ) above other men.

Their presumptuous challenge to Jesus illustrates this: “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they may eat bread.”

These men expect the example they set to be followed, and demand to know from Jesus why his disciples are breaking their tradition. If you imagine Matt Chandler demanding to know why some SBC pastor hired an Anglo 8 instead of an African-American 7, perhaps this will give some idea of how they expect this challenge to go. (For those unfamiliar, see A House Divided Cannot Stand.)

But what is Jesus’ response?

Does he apologize? Does he defend his practice? No—in fact, he says nothing at all about it. Later, for his disciples and the crowds, he does explain the error of the Pharisees in thinking that what goes into a man makes him unclean. But for the Pharisees themselves, he has no explanation. He does not even attempt to cast these pearls before such swine. Instead he goes on the counterattack, using the occasion to turn the question around. He completely rejects their presupposition, and undermines their implied accusation, by demolishing their tradition from the ground up: “Why also do you transgress the command of God because of your tradition?”

Not only does he turn the question around, but explains in no uncertain terms exactly what they are doing wrong. He doesn’t leave it at the level of rhetoric; he follows up with logic, to show the wickedness of their position from simple scriptural principles.

Apparently the scribes and Pharisees were offended at this. “Then His disciples having come near, said to Him, ‘Have You known that the Pharisees, having heard the word, were stumbled?’” No doubt they went away clucking and talking about Jesus’ tone. “So unchristlike.” And the disciples, like so many Christians today, were taken in by their charade. So they appeal to Jesus. “Why did you have to say it like that? You could have made your point without being so mean. They were looking for a good-faith discussion and you just dumped on them. It came across as harsh and unloving just dismissing their concerns like that.”

Does Jesus second-guess himself? Does he qualify what he did?

No. He applies his parable of the wheat and the darnel (Mt 13:24–30), and tells them that the Pharisees are such darnel. “Leave them alone, they are blind guides.” And then, to add insult to injury, he makes a little joke about them. “If blind may guide blind, both will fall into a ditch.” Imagine it as a skit. Fill in the blanks to make it a story. It’s funny.

No hand-wringing. No nuancing.

Find yourself a pastor who responds to Big Eva like Jesus does.

Avoid pastors who exemplify the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees, and are stumbled by Jesus.

Membership in a local church, whether formally or materially, is not a matter of Christian liberty.

It is mandated in Scripture, as reflected in the confessions, and the overwhelming testimony of the Reformers.

That being said, salvation is possible outside of the visible church and, providentially, there are times where believers have no other choice than to worship privately.

What do we mean by private worship? Calvin dealt with this issue, and those related to it, at length in his “Anti-Nicodemite” sermons. His thinking is helpful in times like ours. He strongly maintains that it is by far best for a man to relocate to a place “where it would be permissible for him to profess his Christianity in the assembly of Christians, to be a partaker of the holy doctrine of the gospel, to enjoy the pure and entire use of the sacraments, and to share in the public prayers.” But he acknowledges that this is not always possible, and gives counsel on times such as these. Here are a few of his money quotes:

Some one will therefore ask me what counsel I would like to give to a believer who thus dwells in some Egypt or Babylon where he may not worship God purely, but is forced by the common practice to accommodate himself to bad things. The first advice would be to [relocate] if he could. For when all is well considered; happy is he who is far from such abominations, because it is very difficult to be so close to them with sullying oneself in them. So let him withdraw to a place where he would not be forced to get involved in such garbage, or to hear God’s name and word blasphemed, keeping silent and dissembling as if he were in agreement…

If someone has no way to depart, I would counsel him to consider whether it would be possible for him to abstain from all idolatry in order to preserve himself pure and spotless toward God in both body and soul. Then let him worship God in private, praying him to restore his poor church to its right estate.

Finally, let him do his duty by instructing and edifying the wretched ignorant souls as much as he can. If he replies that he cannot do that without the peril of death, I grant it. Yet the glory of God, which is involved here, should be much more precious to us than this perishable, fleeting life, which to tell the truth, is no more than a shadow.

Calvin saw private worship as a last resort—and one that should be temporary. The best thing to do is to find an assembly where the believer can openly profess his Christianity.

If such an assembly can’t be found, then the believer should move.

If that can’t happen, then the believer can worship at home. However, he goes on to say that the believer can’t simply worship at home. He has a duty to instruct the ignorant. Moreover, worshiping at home is not a replacement for church; it’s just a “better than nothing” alternative. Without the gathered assembling of the saints under lawfully ordained officers, you aren’t doing church in any sense recognized by Scripture. You are worshiping, but there are no sacraments, and you are not receiving the means of grace. It is qualitatively different.

There is a lot of hubbub in Reformed circles regarding family religion—or, as it is sometimes called, family worship or family devotions. This is the regular practice of worshiping as a family during the week—not a replacement for Lord’s day worship.

There has been a real effort to recover this practice of weekly worship among Christian families. And we have even seen some men post their “liturgy” for family worship.

Often these are…lengthy.

In The Puritan Family, Edmund Morgan writes:

Every morning immediately upon rising and every evening before retiring a good Puritan father led his household in prayer, in scriptural reading, and in singing of psalms. Whenever they sat down at table together, he offered thanks to the Lord.

Now, fathers, please note what Morgan reports next, because it is not what you probably expect from the Puritans:

None of these devotions was supposed to be long. Although the Puritans enjoyed two-hour sermons on the Sabbath, they tried to avoid prolixity in their family services. Cotton Mather says of John Cotton that he always read a chapter of Scripture to his family every morning and every evening, “with a little applicatory exposition, before and after which he made a prayer; but he was very short in all, accounting as Mr. Dod, Mr. Bains, and other great saints did before him, ‘That it was a thing inconvenient many ways to be tedious in family duties.’”

There is a tendency to either do nothing, or to be overzealous in what you do. Neither are good when it comes to family worship. As always, you need to keep it between the ditches.

John Cotton strikes us as a solid example of plodding consistency. The goal should be to make Scripture reading, prayer, and praise a normal part of your home. It is unwise to recreate something approximating an entire Sunday service. That is, as Dod and Bains indicated, a very tedious thing for all involved.

Our approaches differ slightly, but both are very simple:


I read a portion Scripture when my kids are half-way through their breakfast. I do this because I have some very small children. The light distraction of eating actually helps them pay attention when I talk. After I finish reading, I ask them a few questions about the passage, make a few applications, and close with prayer.

This takes 10–15 minutes.

I follow this pattern Monday through Friday. My kids also sing a hymn together with Emily as part of their home-school curriculum, but I am planning to add this to the devotional time soon. The main goal is consistency and participation.

An example might be helpful; here is a summary of what I did around the table recently:

The text was Psalm 100. I read it and asked, “What is this psalm about?”

My eldest son (12) said, “It is about God’s goodness and how we are to worship Him.” I replied, “Good. Anyone else?” No one spoke up. I pushed, “Caedmon, anything you’d like to add?” He had nothing. I always push for participation, but I don’t demand water from a stone. So I moved on.

I observed that Hudson was right. The passage is full of verbs like shout, serve, and come. However, the imperatives aren’t naked. They are accompanied by modifiers. We must shout joyfully, serve with gladness, and so forth. God isn’t interested in naked actions. They must be adorned with the right attitude.

I told them the passage gave us reasons why we should possess such attitudes. I asked them if they could point any of those reasons out. One of them pointed out that, “we are sheep of his pasture.” I agreed; that was a big reason. God takes care of us. He provides for us like a shepherd provides for his sheep.

My application was straightforward. We cultivate gladness and joy through meditating on how God has been good to us. I pointed out a few ways God had been kind to our family. Also, I exhorted my boys to sing with more zeal in the worship service, and to be more attentive during the sermon. I ended in prayer.

That was it. Sometimes it’s less and sometimes it’s more.


I tend not to keep it as short as Michael, at least for the older kids. I try to push them to have some stamina, because the teaching/exegesis part is incorporated into their homeschooling.

We start with a hymn. Each person has a day to choose a hymn (there are six of us). Then I pray, and the person who chooses the hymn prays afterward. Then we read a passage of Scripture. I try to keep it to a logical block. Sometimes that means several chapters, but usually it’s 10–20 verses. It just depends on the text.

After this, the little kids (6 and 3) can play quietly while the older kids do exegesis and application with me. Since this is part of their homeschooling, I treat it basically like a lesson, so it usually takes 20–30 minutes. What I cover depends largely on the text, but I try to find at least one important concept to refresh them on as well as figuring out the direct meaning. E.g., if the text has a relation to civics, we might refresh on the principle of subsidiarity. Or if the text is structured symmetrically we might refresh on what a chiasm is. That kind of thing.

Again, the goal for both Michael and me is consistency and participation.

  • Consistency: You need to find a time that consistently works for your family. Evenings don’t work for either of us. We tried to make it work, but were never able to get any real momentum.
  • Participation: You want your kids to interact with the text. Try to ask lots of simple questions. What is this passage about? What is it telling us to do or not do? Why is it telling us this? What sticks out to you? What doesn’t make sense to you? Etc.

The most important thing is not to try for some perfect family liturgy. The most important thing is to just do something. Find what works for your family. Keep it simple so you can make it into a habit. Because you can always build on a habit.

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The golden calf of Black Friday

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There’s no good lying down and crying, ‘God help us!’ God helps those who help themselves. When I see a man who declares that the times are bad and that he is always unlucky, I generally say to myself, “That old goose did not sit on the eggs till they were addled, and now Providence is to be blamed because they won’t hatch.” I never had any faith in luck at all, except that I believe good luck will carry a man over a ditch if he jumps well, and will put a bit of bacon in his pot if he looks after his garden and keeps a pig. Luck generally comes to those who look after it, and my notion is that it happens at least once in a lifetime at everybody’s door, but if industry does not open it, away it goes. Those who have lost the last coach, and let every opportunity slip by them, turn to abusing providence for setting everything against them. —C. H. Spurgeon

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Talk again next week,

Bnonn & Michael

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