“The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care” (1689 Baptist Confession, 3.7).
We started meditating together on Paul’s letter to Titus during last night’s Wednesday night Bible study at our church. The first words, “Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God” (1:1), led us fairly quickly into a discussion which dominated most of the 50 minutes we spent in active discussion.
“The chosen of God.”
This was a group of believers of varying degrees of maturity, age, and relatively small variation on the topic of predestination. As we considered the biblical data from various N.T. sources, I tried to be careful to keep the “cage fighter” in me subdued. This wasn’t a YouTube debate (I’ve actually never watched one and have no interest in doing so). This was a Bible study made up of people I love and respect. People I long to see firmly “established in the faith” (Romans 1:11; 16:25; 2 Corinthians 1:21; Colossians 1:23; 2:7; 1 Thessalonians 3:2,13).
This wasn’t a Sunday morning or evening service, where I speak from a text and don’t take questions during the service. This is Bible study, and there are often questions and discussion points suggested by members of the group. It always reminds me of Paul’s description of the gathering of the Church: “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:26-33). I used to not like meetings like this. I’ve come to delight in them and see them as a powerful place for the Spirit to work through His Word in and among His people.
As you have a discussion on a topic like election/predestination, it’s easy to ignore souls for the sake of establishing just how right you are. But this is the business of souls. And there is careful shepherding to be done in the gathering of souls, even in Bible study.
“The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in his churches, in the ministry of the word and prayer, with watching for their souls, as they that must give an account to Him” (1689 Baptist Confession, 26.10). I assume “watching for their souls” is a reference to Hebrews 13:17, where congregants are commanded, “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” I don’t understand the “work of pastors” described as “the ministry of the word and prayer” and “watching for their souls” to be separate items. The Holy Spirit regularly brings congregants to mind, prompting me, I believe, to pray for them (sometimes at 4 a.m. on Monday mornings). But “watching for their souls” can happen during “the ministry of the word,” even during a Wednesday night Bible study.
“Watching during their souls” during “the ministry of the word” requires that challenging and historically divisive doctrines not be avoided (they’re attested to throughout the Bible, after all), but “handled with special prudence and care.”
We speak the truth, but we do so in love: “…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him Who is the head, even Christ, from Whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:15,16). Notice the inter-connectedness: “…speaking the truth in love” leads to growth in Christ, which leads to a properly-functioning church (“the whole body”), which leads back to more “growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” It’s a circular growth to loving speech to growth to loving speech, etc., all in Christ and from Christ. How? Read 4:11-13. Christ-given “apostles, and…prophets, and…evangelists, and…pastors and teachers.”
Shepherding souls in the Bible study. It’s my fleshly pride that wants to conquer all intellects and show them the unparalleled superiority of my Reformed Baptist doctrine. It’s my calling from above, though, to lead them to the Scriptures, encourage their Spirit-given insights into the text, gently correct errors, prayerfully seek words of explanation of difficult ideas witnessed to in the Bible, and to guide the group meditation through a time of Christ-empowered growth and love. The latter is far more to be preferred. I want them to go away longing for more of the Word and having caught a glimpse of its power and beauty.
Shepherding souls in the Bible study. It drives me personally deeper into the Scripture and convicts me anew of the indispensability of prayer in this act of leading the Bible study.
Lord, help me handle the text and all the glorious doctrine that pours out of it “with special prudence and care,” mindful of the beautiful souls you have created and redeemed.