It is sometimes alleged (or perhaps just assumed) that Reformed doctrine and practice can be rigid, intractable, and stubbornly inflexible—refusing to allow for any adaption to serve the needs of a context or mission field. It has been intimated (at least in my hearing) that some more conservative actors in the PCA would not allow for any adaptability when such is allowed and even commended by Scripture.
I am not sure how true or untrue that may be, and my goal here is not so much to answer those allegations as they may exist in our contemporary situation, but to demonstrate that, for at least one of our major Presbyterian forebears, such a mentality was not the case.
The name “John Knox” does not often connote “flexibility” or “adaptability” in the modern, popular imagination. But perhaps this brief observation and pastoral application will dispel some of those assumptions and provide some encouragement to those of us in the 21st-century PCA that there is a place for what we might call “biblical and prudent adaptability” and it is not without precedent in our tradition.
A few months ago, I was reading John Knox’s Letter of Wholesome Counsel, Addressed to His Brethren in Scotland.[i] In perusing his essay, it struck me that Knox provides grounded counsel as to how the church might carry on its operation in his absence—and not only his personal absence (as if the health and existence of the Christian church in Scotland were solely dependent on his personal presence), but also in the current absence of any duly ordained Protestant ministers. Knox is mindful of the fact that what he suggests is not a permanent solution and that the absence of a suitable Protestant minister is not an ideal situation, but it is the current reality facing these Proto-Protestants in Scotland.
Likening their situation to that of a hungry people needing food, he acknowledges that, like Israel of old eating manna day after day, subjecting oneself to the same predictable diet can become “tiresome and wearisome.” And while this is a temptation that God’s elect may endure for a time, Knox is confident that ultimately God’s people will be called away from such boredom. In other words, Knox is acknowledging that the sort of makeshift worship services and devotional habits that he is suggesting these house churches (“privy kirks”) implement (in the absence of an ordained ministry to structure regular public worship and administration of the sacraments) may seem predictable and tedious at times. Nevertheless, he trusts that by the grace of God his countrymen will find joy and sustenance in it, even as much as a hungry man will find joy and sustenance in the same predictable bread coming upon him day after day after day. Just as a man who is starving will soon come not to despise that monotonous bread supply, likewise God’s children will not long despise feeding their souls upon the Word of God when that is precisely what their soul needs.
And so, while the traditional structures of the Christian life in the gathering of the church for corporate worship and the administration of the sacraments is not presently an option, Knox urges them to take advantage of the resources that they do have: prayer, and especially the reading and exhortation from the Word of God. He reminds them that, while they may not have typical congregations and ministers, nevertheless they have wives and children and servants and family that are their “bishopric and charge” and that these Christian fathers and husbands should take due care to shepherd those under their charge in the Word.
Quite simply, he urges these Christians to follow the exhortation of the apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians insofar as is possible: that they would come together, at least once a week, and then they should begin by confessing their sins, and praying and invoking the Spirit of the Lord to assist them in their devotional exercises. They should read Scripture out loud and if any brother has an exhortation or a question to express that he should do so, expecting either to have his question answered and be edified, or that his words would serve to edify those gathered with him.
If some matter arises that they cannot agree upon or some question arises that cannot be answered, he encourages them to put the issue down in writing and to send the matter in a letter to a trusted pastor—whether himself or another—and that that pastor would communicate an answer back to them. He encourages them to read large portions of the scripture out loud, both Old and New Testament together—particularly from the four gospels and the epistles of Paul, as well as the major books of the Old Testament such as Genesis and Exodus. Knox tells them that these gatherings should include thanksgiving and prayer for the ruling magistrates, prayer for the furtherance of the gospel, and prayer for suffering and persecuted Christians in places such as France and England.
For Knox, it was via this regular devotional habit (a supplementary, Scripture-saturated, devotional service in lieu of a more typical public worship service) that these Proto-Protestants in Scotland might become more familiar with the Word of God. Moreover, he contends that as they do so, their souls will be further encouraged as they wait upon the Lord to hasten the day when He might further build his church in Scotland and allow for a time of greater gospel liberty.
In laying out these instructions, remarkably Knox has provided a very rudimentary worship service that is incredibly portable and replicable. It contains the basic elements of a worship service that will later be expanded when Knox is finally able to return, and the Scottish Reformation gain fuller traction.
Now, this is not to advocate for some sort of quasi-“house church” that substitutes gathering in one’s living room in place of gathering with the church corporately and publicly. But rather, this article is simply making the observation that, for Knox, Reformed theology and ordinary means of grace ministry provided the simple, accessible, and necessary elements for a temporary and less-than-ideal arrangement for God’s people in the interim, until the better and ideal arrangement of a rightly-ordered biblical church could be constituted in Knox’s homeland.
It strikes me that this “churchly” arrangement, while far from ideal, was sufficient for a time and that Knox was able to provide some structure by which the Word of God was kept central in the lives of spiritually-exiled people. In this, he was able to shepherd his countrymen from afar and implement rhythms and routines to cultivate the Scottish peoples’ piety—simple, straightforward, uncomplicated habits of Word-centered Christianity that served to bind God’s people in fellowship and sustain their souls in the interim while they were “in the wilderness” and waiting on the Lord’s provision.
There has been discussion recently of the spiritual “wastelands” in our own country, in terms of the relative paucity of a Reformed and Presbyterian presence in some regions. Might we then take a page out of the book of the Father of Presbyterianism and think through ways of putting similar not-ideal-but-sufficient-for-the-time-being Presbyterian measures in place? Who knows what shape that may take? Perhaps it looks like small “core group” gatherings in places where there is not yet a Reformed church, or yoked pastorates where several small congregations cannot afford a full-time minister by themselves, or interim evening-evangelistic worship services supplied by a (somewhat) proximate congregation that doesn’t itself have an evening service in place—surely the collective Presbyterian intellect can exert some confessional ingenuity!
Let it not be said that there is no room for biblically-appropriate creativity and let that certainly not be said of us in the PCA who love to shepherd God’s people in the “old paths and the good way” (Jeremiah 6:16). For John Knox at least, the notions of ardent Scriptural practice (on the one hand) and thoughtful mission-field approaches (on the other hand) were not enemies, but fraternal twins.
Rev. Sean Morris was educated at Grove City College, Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), and the University of Glasgow (Scotland). He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and serves as a minister at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He also serves as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sean lives in Oak Ridge with his wife, Sarah, along with their children and useless beagle.
[i] [i][i] John Knox “Letter of Wholesome Counsel, Addressed to His Brethren in Scotland,” David Laing, ed., The Works of John Knox, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015), 4:133-139.