By Ryan Biese | February 2, 2022
This is the final installment of a three-part series on what I see as three great needs for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The PCA is at a crossroads. The question is, “how will we minister in the future?”
The first need we have is for elders (both Teaching and Ruling Elders) who are devoted to articulating the truth of the gospel without trying to soft-pedal the offense of the gospel. The second need we have is for elders who are devoted to leading the church in biblical worship rather than in worship that panders to culture or the preferences of target demographics.
The third great need for the PCA is simply to have elders who are devoted to biblical discipleship. All three of these great needs must be sought through prayer and undergirded with constant pleading before the throne of grace.
The Great Commission
Shortly before His ascent into heaven — and in light of His omnipotence and omnipresent Spirit (Matt 28:19-20, cf. Acts 1:8) — the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned His apostles to do one thing: make disciples. Our Lord then told His apostles how they are to make disciples: baptize and teach. Harry Reeder has recently reminded us (here) the dominant imperative in Matthew 28:19-20 is not “go” but “make disciples.”
In the Great Commission of Matthew 28, Christ our King articulated the mission of His church. It is a humble mission, and it is surely a difficult mission often without worldly accolades or esteem.
It is a mission that is so simple and yet utterly impossible apart from the corresponding promise of Christ’s permanent presence and empowerment to the end of the Age.
It is a mission with a singular focus that should consume the energies and passions of the Church: making disciples by baptizing and teaching them.
It is important to understand that the Great Commission is not “share the gospel,” it is “make disciples.” If you grew up or came to faith in an expression of American Evangelicalism broader than the PCA, you probably have heard many sermons on the Great Commission that exhorted you to share the gospel with someone you know. While it is good and appropriate to encourage Christians to share the gospel with their neighbors and friends, such a directive is not the Great Commission. Making disciples begins with sharing the gospel, but it is so much more!
Not Ashamed of the Gospel
While we often see people failing to appreciate the fullness of the discipleship emphasis in the Great Commission, there is an even more glaring challenge for the church: the reluctance to even begin discipleship, a lack of emphasis on the gospel, and a hesitancy of some within the church to proclaim with clarity the same faith and repentance Jesus demanded as the response to the good news (Mark 1:14).
There are churches so concerned with social reform, community transformation, and cultural engagement that they become identified with those ancillary foci rather than with an unwavering, unswerving, and unabashed proclamation of Christ.
Ministry that is focused on discipleship, on exalting Christ in preaching, teaching, Word, and sacrament may not win cultural acclaim or influence. Such ministry will not garner a nice write-up in the newspaper. In fact, such boldly counter-cultural ministry has historically rewarded faithful gospel ministers with social ostracization and scorn from cultural elites.
At some point in the reign of Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), the ruler expelled all the Hebrews from Rome because of their disputes regarding “a certain Chrestus,” which many scholars believe to be a reference to ongoing disputes within the Jewish people about the person and work of Jesus (Christ). What was it that was so repugnant and irritating to the Roman authorities about the Jews in Rome?
It was not that they were advocating for social reform or cultivating relationships with avant-garde painters, potters, and thespians. It was that some of them proclaimed the Kingship of Christ without ceasing, which caused other (unbelieving) Jews to react with hostility. The Church was contending for Christ and the world noticed.
It is not the mission of the Church to support artists or advocate for social reform. But how often are congregations known for those things rather than for Christ (e.g. “that is the church that has the wonderful outreach to the arts community” or “that is the church where the pastor speaks up at town council meetings”)? What good will it do for the cause of Christ if this becomes what the church is known for and with which she is identified?
Indeed, such things are often called “outreach” efforts, but are they really? Is the gospel ever presented? Are people ever called to turn away from sin and embrace Christ?
Christian outreach is not simply making friends and building community relationships. Outreach must press the claims of Christ; it must confront sin and error; it must show the ugliness of sin and the deadliness of sin along with the righteousness of Christ and beauty of Christ.
But sadly, efforts at cultural engagement all too often settle for the drama of culture rather than the drama of the gospel. We must not be ashamed of the gospel, but we must allow the gospel to shape and permeate all aspects of church life and to drive our discipleship efforts.
Teach them to Observe
The Church’s mission does not stop at outreach and sharing the gospel — that is simply where it starts. The PCA needs Elders who are willing to do the hard work of teaching lifelong Christians and new converts to observe Christ’s commands.
The PCA needs Elders who are willing to risk their relationships and their reputations for the sake of Christ and for the eternal good of their friends, family, and neighbors as they call people to repentance from every sin, every deviant lifestyle, every expression of rebellion against God.
The PCA needs Elders who believe the gospel is the power of God for salvation. When we believe the gospel is the power of God for salvation, we are then freed from thinking that it is our niceness, our involvement, our “wokeness” (i.e. social awareness and concern) that will get people into the Church.
In fact, our goal must not be to get people merely into the church. Our goal must be to see people express their union to Christ in every area of life, and that only happens with full-orbed discipleship.
What the PCA needs desperately is more elders who are willing to be the “aroma of Christ” to all people. To some we will be a repulsive stench of death as we are decried as being on the wrong side of history, etc. But for others, we will be a fragrance of “life to life” offering freedom from sin, and setting forth reconciliation with God through Christ (2 Cor 2:14ff).
Being the aroma of Christ is not an easy calling. It will lead to cultural marginalization. But, dear brother, are you willing to go to “Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured” (Hebrews 13:13) for the sake of the eternal good of your neighbor and, yes, even for the good and temporal welfare of the city of your exile (Jer. 29:7)?
We need Elders who are passionate about discipleship from start to finish, for the glory of Christ and the holiness and purity of His Church.
Ryan Biese is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fort Oglethorpe, GA.