Grumpy Old Men, “A Ministry Of Condemnation,” And The Church

In my years as a pastor, I have been shocked over how much antipathy there has been toward the visible church.

The sad reality is that many people have witnessed fighting, church splits, abuses, hatred, contentions, jealousies, all undergirded by a hard kind of legalism within the confines of a closed community that demonstrates little of the joy of Christ.  What are we to think of these things? Are there legitimate criticisms of Reformed theology, piety, and practice that we should evaluate?

 

Where are all the young people going?

Why do the visitors never seem to stick?

Why have there been so many fights in our church?

Why are there so many rules in the church that do not seem to come from Scripture?

Unfortunately, these are common questions in the church. In my years as a pastor, I have been shocked over how much antipathy there has been toward the visible church. It took me more than a few years to get a handle on why the reaction has been so strong.  The sad reality is that many people have witnessed fighting, church splits, abuses, hatred, contentions, jealousies, all undergirded by a hard kind of legalism within the confines of a closed community that demonstrates little of the joy of Christ.  What are we to think of these things? Are there legitimate criticisms of Reformed theology, piety, and practice that we should evaluate?

Two Kinds Of Ministries

The Bible contrasts two very different kinds of ministries.  In 2 Corinthians 3:6 the apostle Paul says that we are ministers of the New Covenant, of the Spirit and not of the letter.  The contrast the apostle is making is between the New Covenant as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, which he calls the “ministry of righteousness,” and the particular phenomenon of the giving of the law on Sinai to Moses—which he designates as the “ministry of condemnation.”  The contrast between them is important because each kind of ministry produces its own kind of fruit in its recipients.

Jesus’ conflict with the Sanhedrin clearly exposes the nature of the ministry of condemnation. This community was under the ministry of condemnation and the bad tree was bearing bad fruit.  The Pharisees had created a legalistic, self-righteous, exclusive club for those who conformed to their man-made, superimposed interpretations of the law and the “tradition of the elders” (Matt 15:2).  No one could enter the club until there was complete conformity and uniformity. 

Grumpy Manipulators

One of the marks of the “ministry of condemnation” is manipulation. Full of self-righteousness and pride, the Sanhedrin condemned everyone but themselves. The Pharisees would go so far as to condemn Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands properly before eating bread (Matt. 15:1ff). This ministry was practically killing the people. The Sanhedrin did nothing but fight over the most minute points of the law and their shepherding of the people proved to be nothing but a heavy-handed yoke of manipulation.

Paradoxically, they were not really ministers, i.e., servants of the law (which is God’s Word) but rather they used the law to empower themselves and to gain personal control over the flock. By contrast, Jesus used the law the way it is intended to be used: 1) to show sinners their need for a Savior; 2) to restrain evil in society; 3) as the rule for those whom God has graciously saved. The Sanhedrin used the law in none of these ways but rather like a weapon of personal control.

Another fruit of their ministry of condemnation is plain old grumpiness. The Sanhedrin was not marked by joy, confidence, hope, or freedom. Rather, the spiritual life of the scribes and Pharisees was marked by sorrow, guilt, fighting and division. These are the tragic consequences of a ministry that kills. How different this all was from the ministry of Christ whose goal was to loose people from bondage and secure a joy that was complete.

Jesus illustrated the difference between the true ministry of the Word and what Paul calls “the ministry of condemnation:”

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast (Mark 2:18–19; ESV)

Jesus is the bridegroom. He brought salvation and joy to those whom he delivered from bondage, sin, and death. Those whom he healed could not contain their astonishment and joy (Mark 7:31–37).

Recognizing The Ministry Of Condemnation

Sometimes this has been a serious problem in churches. Many of the divisions are driven by a pastor or authority who has steadily and consistently delivered the ministry of condemnation to the people.  This kind of ministry is concerned only to bring people into conformity to his additions to the law of God and to put people under a heavy yoke. In such a ministry, the grace of God revealed in Christ “who is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4) has been forgotten or is neglected.

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