In an ideal church, there would be vibrant life and community in the “parish.” By this we mean that fellow church members would see each other during the week as they fulfill their vocations in life. Of course, the extent of this connectedness is somewhat tied to the size of your city, the distance members travel to the church building, and so on. But even in larger cities, strategies can be used to establish true parish life, such as intentional community or “parish” groups, shared Christian education, and so on.
Much of what goes on in the parish is not led or organized by church leadership. The pastor and elders are not to be making business decisions for the mechanic in their church or telling people where to shop. The church does have an indirect influence on parish life though, through Word and sacrament, teaching and discipleship. But parish life itself is an organic outworking of the church community, a community that is indeed tied together by Lord’s Day worship. As Pastor Douglas Wilson has written, “The church is not the parish, and the parish is not the church. At the same time, the church thrives at the center of the parish, informing and discipling those who live their lives in the parish…”
The keys of the kingdom have been entrusted by Christ to the elders of His church (Mt. 16:19). With these keys, the officers of the church have the power to retain or remit sins, to shut out the door to the kingdom or to open it up that any would enter (WCF 30.2). The first way of exercising this responsibility is through the preaching of the Word, which we have already considered. The second way is by practicing church discipline.
In Matthew 18, Christ lays out the ways in which the church should respond to obstinate sinners in its midst. If the man or woman does not respond to private admonition or confrontation with witnesses (18:15–16), then the matter is to be taken to the church (18:17a). And if the person refuses to listen to the church, they are to be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors—excommunicated from God’s people (18:17b). For “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18:18, see also Jn. 20:21–23). This entire process outlined here would apply to private sins—“if your brother sins against you” (18:15). Regarding public sins, St Paul instructs Timothy to rebuke the person in the presence of all, so that observers would fear (1 Tim. 5:20).
This practice of excommunication is sadly neglected in today’s church. And when spoken of, those unfamiliar with the practice tend to view it as “unloving” or cult-like. Therefore, it would do well to touch on this important role of discipline in pastoral ministry and why it is an important and actually loving practice.
An important aspect of pastoral ministry is the task of catechesis. The English word “catechesis” is derived from the Greek word used in the New Testament for instruction or teaching, katecheo. We see this in Luke 1:4, where St Luke says he is writing to Theophilus so that he “may know the certainty of those things in which [he was] instructed (catechized).” Catechesis can also refer to a specific kind of instruction, which consists of question and answer, which we will discuss below.
Pastoral ministry does not only consist of standing in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. If that is all a pastor did, he would be more akin to a performer on stage who does not know his audience and never really will. But pastors are called to shepherd, and the sheep have needs that cannot simply be met with sermons. As our Lord both preached in front of thousands and conversed privately with individuals concerning the kingdom of God and their souls, so too pastors are called to make themselves available for counsel to their congregation. This practice has often been referred to as the care of souls. Like a physician cares for the physical needs of his patients, a pastor is to care for the spiritual needs of his parishioner. And this cannot be done without knowing and meeting with those under care. In 1 Peter 5, St Peter commands elders to “shepherd the flock“—a command he himself received from Christ (Jn. 21:15–17). Peter specifically says to shepherd the flock “that is among you,” meaning that it is a flock that the shepherd knows, it is an identifiable flock with ’sheep’ that have names.
When a man or woman comes to Christ, they find their sins forgiven and they receive eternal life. But they are not transported to heaven to live out their days in bliss. They continue their lives in this broken world, falling into new sins that need to be repented of, experiencing loss and grief, and various trials. And the role of a shepherd is to care for the sheep, whether they need nourishment, direction, or to be pulled out of a ditch. St Peter tells suffering Christians to“entrust their souls” to God, and in turn, God ordains His ministers to be a means by which these souls are kept safe unto eternal life (Heb. 13:17). And in every situation, the need is to be pointed and brought to Christ, the true Shepherd of our souls, again and again (1 Pet. 2:25).
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While on his third missionary journey, St Paul found himself “constrained by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem, despite knowing that “imprisonments and afflictions” awaited him there (Acts 20:22–23). However, before reaching Jerusalem he desired to meet with the elders of the church in Ephesus one final time. These elders were not strangers to Paul, who had spent three years with them and their church, never ceasing day or night “to admonish everyone with tears” (20:31). Understanding this context, we can assume that Paul communicated that which he thought most important for the Ephesian elders, knowing that this was his final chance to exhort them in the work of the ministry. Therefore, when considering pastoral care and the duties of elders, it behooves us to give attention to Paul’s words here.
Throughout our worship services we sing songs to the Lord. Singing has always been a practice of God’s people, going back to when Israel sang a beautiful hymn of praise to God after being delivered from Egypt by passing through the Red Sea,
“I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise Him…” (Ex. 15:1–2).
We also have the example of King David, who composed over 70 psalms and appointed 4,000 musicians and 288 singers to “offer praises to the LORD” in the temple (1 Chron. 23:5, 25:7). Over and over again the psalms (which themselves are songs) tell God’s people to sing unto the Lord (Ps. 33:3, 98:4–6).
In the New Testament, we find Jesus and the disciples singing “a hymn” after the Last Supper (Mk. 14:26), which scholars believe to have most likely been the Hallel psalms (113–118) which were sung when celebrating Passover. In Acts 4:25 the believers “lifted their voices together to God” and quoted Psalm 2 and later on we read of St Paul and Silas singing hymns together while in prison (Acts 16:25). Throughout the Epistles we are instructed to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18, Col. 3:16) and to sing praise when cheerful (Jas. 5:13).
This practice of singing was described by John Calvin as a type of public prayer offered to the Lord. We do not sing during our worship services to sprinkle in some art or entertainment. Nor do we use song merely as a pedagogical tool to convey doctrine the way a sermon does. Instead, the church sings psalms and hymns to praise and glorify God our Lord, for “psalmody is not primarily thematic, decorative, or didactic, but doxological.
Much more controversial than the doctrine of paedobaptism today is the doctrine of paedocommunion, or child communion. While welcoming children to partake of the Lord’s Supper is a practice found in the ancient Church, today very few Presbyterian or Reformed churches allow it. However, there are good biblical reasons for allowing covenant children to join the rest of God’s people at His table. But because this practice was not re-established by the Reformers, is rejected in many Reformed denominations today, and would be out of line for someone who subscribes without exception to the Westminster Standards; we ought to be humble in our support of this practice and not schismatic. We must recognize that advocation for paedocommunion would be part of a commitment to semper reformanda, always reforming our life and doctrine. As Reformed Christians we do indeed believe that the work of the Reformation and the subsequent confessional doctrines are part of God’s work in maturing and refining His church. However, we do not believe that the Reformers had the opportunities or the need to address every doctrinal issue, nor were they infallible. Scripture alone must be our highest authority. So now let’s turn to four arguments for welcoming covenant children to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
Having considered the sacrament of baptism, now let’s turn to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As we have already noted, there are two parts of a sacrament: the outward and visible sign, and the inward and spiritual grace thereby signified (WLC 163). In the Lord’s Supper, the outward visible signs are bread and wine—consecrated, broken, poured, distributed, and received. The inward spiritual grace signified is Christ crucified for us and all of His benefits for us—including union with Him, the indwelling of the Spirit, adoption by the Father, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and future glorification.
The first sacrament to consider is baptism, for through baptism men, women, and children enter into the church. Baptism is not only what admits an individual into the church, but is also “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life” (WCF 28.1). In baptism, individuals are washed with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as was commanded and instituted by Christ in the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19).
Our Lord Jesus instituted two covenantal sacraments for the church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or the Eucharist). Sacraments are holy ordinances instituted by Christ for His church, which are made up of a signs and seals of the covenant of grace (WCF 27.1).