In Jeremiah 26 the prophet preaches a public sermon telling the people of Jerusalem that disaster was coming to them from the hand of God if they did not turn from their evil ways. The response of the priests and other prophets was to seize him and call for his death (26:11). Fortunately for Jeremiah, the priests and prophets had to bring their case before a cross-section of other officials.
During the hearing, some elders stepped forward and pointed out that that earlier the prophet Micah had preached in the same way (cf. Micah 3:12) to the king Hezekiah and Hezekiah did not put him to death (recounted in Isaiah 37.) They argued from the Scripture that Jeremiah had done nothing wrong, and so the people set him free.
Derek Kidner says this incident is “a striking example of the fallibility of experts when their prejudices are aroused” and that it demonstrates the importance of having respected laymen who had made their own study of the Scriptures. Kidner adds: “Without this broad base of the well-taught in the word of God, a church is too much at the mercy of its professionals!” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Jeremiah, p. 97.)
This is one of the most basic messages that I, a minister, can convey to my congregation, but it will be more important than ever in this next stage of our journey together. The Presbyterian system of church government has long been based on the principle that a church should be neither exclusively in the hands of trained professionals nor of lay people. That is why we have on our Session—our board of elders—both “teaching elders” (ministers with graduate training in theology and ministry) and “ruling elders” who are laymen.
However, the principle goes farther than that. God does not want his people to be passive believers but active disciples. Jesus called his apostles to go into all the world, to evangelize and baptize, and the ultimate goal was to produce not merely converts but disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). The word “disciple” is packed with meaning, but it is clear from the New Testament that it meant, first and foremost, students of Jesus. They followed him and learned from him (Luke 10:38-42). Second, it meant putting allegiance to Jesus first in your life (Mark 1:16-20). Lastly, it meant to be a man or woman in mission, sent into the world to minister both in word (Luke 10:1-20) and in deed (Luke 10:25-37), both sharing your faith and loving your neighbor.
There are advantages as well as disadvantages to every church size. Very large churches provide benefits that small churches cannot, and vice versa. But one of the benefits of a small church is that it cannot function without the ministry of laypeople. There are few or no ministry “professionals” to rely on. It is laymen and women who must teach, evangelize, and disciple others. To do that, they must be well-versed in the Bible and theology, like the elders in Jeremiah 26.
As Redeemer moves forward into four congregations, we will be emphasizing more than ever the importance of members becoming trained in the Bible, theology, and skills for ministry. One thing that will unite the congregations is what will be called Redeemer’s “Pathway”—a series of materials and experiences that can bring a person from being a new believer, through many stages to spiritual maturity as a disciple. “The Gospel in Life” is a great example, but only one, of the kind of courses that will be made available.
Redeemer is blessed with a stellar staff, but “without a broad base of the well-taught in the Word of God” we can’t love and serve the city in the future as we must.