Five questions about Christian fasting

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A friend recently asked me some questions about the spiritual discipline of fasting. I’m not an expert on fasting, but I tried to give some straightforward answers to her questions based on my understanding of the Scriptures from a reformed perspective.

I’ll share a modified version of my reply to her, with her permission.


Dear A,

Fasting is certainly a powerful spiritual discipline. Since God is inviting you, it seems, to practice regular fasting and prayer, it’s right that you should look into it.

The Christian tradition provides for varying reasons for fast: repentance for sin (personal or systemic), in order to deepen prayer or the experience of God, in order to intercede for something/someone, etc. Do you sense that this call is related to missions [she spoke about a concern for mission in her letter]? Is it related to something else?

Here are some specific responses to the questions you posed, I hope they’re helpful.

  • “Here’s some things I’m pondering: is there a certain day of the week that is supposed to be used for fasting?”

Traditionally fasts were observed on Fridays and not on Sundays because Friday recalls Good Friday and Christ’s sacrificial death and Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day when we celebrate His resurrection.

  • “Does it include not drinking water as well?”

As far as I know, fasting never includes abstaining from water. The body needs water more than it needs food and it can be dangerous to deprive yourself of it. Typically it is food (generally), or certain type of food like red meat.

  • Is there a certain way I should be praying throughout the day, like focus on just one thing?

My counsel is that on a regular basis you devote two periods of time to prayer—one in the morning; one in the evening. This was the practice of the English Puritans. Then, throughout the day cultivate the practice of praying as you encounter people/things/impressions. This way life can become a conversation with God. I always encourage believers to pray Scripture, especially the Psalms.

You can meditate during the day as well—typically by slowly reading/praying Holy Scripture (Psalms).

  • Is there any place in the Bible that talks about how to fast? 

To my recollection, the only passage that really speaks about fasting is the admonition to keep your fast a secret. Inherent in all spiritual practices is our propensity to begin to look at these practices as things that earn us favor with God or that make us better than other believers. Both of these impulses are a type of idolatry and are not good for the soul. See Mt 6:16-18.

  • Does it make the prayers more holy/ what is the significance?

Fasting doesn’t make your prayers more holy; rather, God can use the practice to make you more holy, which is infinitely more beneficial!

Grace and peace,

Jeff

Concerning the true church

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No visible Church has any right to say, “We are the only true Church. We are the men, and truth shall die with us.” No visible Church should ever dare to say, “We shall stand forever. The gates of hell will not overcome us.” This is that Church to which belong the Lord’s precious promises of preservation, continuance, protection, and final glory. “Whatever,” says Hooker, “we read in Scripture, concerning the endless love and saving mercy which God shows towards His Churches, the only proper subject is this Church, which we properly term the mystical body of Christ.” Small and despised as the true Church may be in this world, it is precious and honorable in the sight of God. The temple of Solomon in all its glory was nothing, in comparison with that Church which is built upon a rock.

J. C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches

My perspective on children and Holy Communion

One of the things I most enjoy about pastoring is leading the congregation to the Lord’s Table. Holy Communion is a vital part of the Christian life, given to us as spiritual food for the journey. Ideally, I’d like to celebrate Holy Communion weekly in at least one worship service.

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From time to time people ask me about children’s participation in the sacramental life of the church. Should children receive communion? If so, when? 

There are a variety of ways to answer this question. Some presbyterians do not allow children to receive the sacrament until they are in 9th grade and meet with the Session for confirmation. This is related to Paul’s warning to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 11–those receiving must be able, they suggest, to examine themselves. Others insist that children be admitted to the Table from their infancy since they are children of the covenant and heirs of the promises of the covenant. Our congregation has chosen–as a general rubric–that kids ordinarily begin receiving Holy Communion in second grade after our Bible brunch and communion lesson.

So, what’s the right answer? What we (that is, the Gissings) have chosen to do is wait until the kids ask to receive communion. If they never did, we would likely have waited till 2nd grade. Nathan, however, asked to begin receiving communion when he was six. We spent several times talking to him about the meaning and mode of Holy Communion so that he was able to explain why he wanted to receive it and something of the meaning of the sacrament. Eliza, who is five, recently asked and we’re in the process of working with her to prepare her to receive it.

In choosing this course, we have kept in mind several principles:

  1. Holy Communion is serious, but not somber. Tellingly, we celebrate the Eucharist. It is an encounter with the living Christ where we feed on him in our hearts by faith. As such it is both serious, but a joyful thing.  
  2. 2 Corinthians 11 may not be entirely normative. Some conservative Presbyterians (mis)read 2 Corinthians 11 to make it seem that God is waiting to smite those who do not worthily receive the body and blood of Christ. Paul warns that there is a wrong way to receive communion. Generally, however, I think most of the improper ways of receiving communion apply to adults more than to children who typically come to meet Jesus.
  3. Children should be instructed, but not intimidated. We explained to Nathan and Eliza what Communion means and why it’s important. We did our best to emphasize that it’s an important rite, but not something they should be scared of.
  4. Honor your congregation’s structure and practices. As important as it if for your child to receive the sacrament, it’s also important to honor the decisions and practices of your church body.
  5. Err in the direction of grace. With children, it’s safe to err in the direction of grace. In other words, it seems to me that God will not turn a little one away who comes to him in the simple, innocent manner of a child.

What do you think?

The five marks of an elder

The ministry of elders–both teaching and ruling elders–is crucial to maintaining a healthy congregation that follows the biblical pattern of leadership. We often take elders for granted and shape the office around secular leadership positions that we’re familiar with. Some see elders as board members and others see them as heads of a family. Neither is fully true to the New Testament’s description of elder, which has seven marks:

Source: http://daytonopenbible.blob.core.windows.net/fcob/2015/02/holding_open_bible_banner.jpg

1. Elders watch over the people as a shepherd watches over his sheep. The office is one of oversight designed to maintain the faithfulness of a congregations life and ministry in reliance on the Holy Spirit. See Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-4.

2. Elders lead by example. They should not be domineering but should be examples to the flock, people they can emulate. 1 Peter 5:3.

3. Elders must lead the congregation away from error and into truth. Eldership is spiritual leadership and those who entrusted with this sort of leadership must guide the congregation to right belief and practice that accords with the Bible rather than, “every wind of doctrine.” Ephesians 4:11. 

4. Some elders will teach. The New Testament assumed that some elders have a teaching function and others simply have a spiritual leadership or ruling function. In modern parlance we talk about teaching elders as “pastors” and ruling elders simply as “elders.” 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9.

5. Eldership is a heavy responsibility and it demans mature faith and character. The New Testament advises that we not cavalierly wish for spiritual leadership. Being placed in a position of spiritual leadership too early can be the undoing of a young believer. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.

For these reasons and more, every believer should make it a priority to pray for those in leadership of the congregation. When they make decisions, trust them. And always make sure to root your faith and participation in the life of the congregaiton in the Word of God.

Do you worship the Bible?

Precisely twice in my life a conversation partner has warned me lest I be guilty of worshipping the Bible. It’s an interesting warning and, depending upon the context, there could plausibly be some merit to it. By and large, however, it’s a red herring. In my case, there is rather more danger to be had from worshipping popular interpretations of the Bible than worshipping the Scriptures themselves.

Ours is an age not given to the discipline of reading. We are functionally literate. We can complete forms. We can read and respond to emails. We can read one to two verses from the Bile or a page from a classic. We can follow printed instructions to assemble a new stand for our flat screen television. Beyond this, however, our literacy is sadly lacking. We haven’t even the most rudimentary knowledge of the classics of Western Civilization, let alone other races and cultures. And the Bible? The Bible demands way too much from us in order to understand it. Better to simply follow the guidance of someone who will confirm your pre-existing bias.

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Source: http://franklinchurchofchrist.com/blog/

  
John Stackhouse makes precisely this point in his recent post at the blog of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The wave of evangelical defections to affirm and endorse GLBT+ as normative is based not a new and closer reading of the Scriptures. There is virtually nothing in any of the documented “conversions” that evince a careful study of the Bible. Rather, most come from a reorganizing of the Scriptural witness to place a higher and broader value on Biblical witnesses the affirm values consistent with those predominant in culture today: unconditional love, acceptance, inclusivity, etc. 

These verses and witnesses become the lens through which other, more specific witnesses are dismissed as somehow inconsistent with Jesus’ message of unconditional affirmation. To borrow the title of a book by J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus have I loved, but Paul…? 
Everyone loves Jesus; some get bent out of shape when the apostle applies Jesus message to the specifics of messy lives in the ancient church.
And once your favorite pastor has endorsed the GLBT+ message then those who follow him–who, incidentally, rely upon him for their knowledge of the Bible–immediately and easily turn the corner to believe as he does and in line with the culture. It’s as easy as stopping swimming against a current. Off you go; it feels so easy, so natural. And yet it is so wrong.

If we consider briefly what the Bible says of itself, we may set aside some of anxiety some have regarding our esteem for it.  The Bible’s purpose is to provide guidance in our belief and practice (2 Timothy 3:16). It is a rod that prompts us to remain faithful as we follow our risen Lord. This guidance isn’t arbitrary or entirely culturally bound. The Bible’s guidance flow from it’s source, which the Bible itself and the earliest church affirm is God himself. 

The Bible is a efensive weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Paul refers to the Scripture as “the sword of the Spirit.” It is the weapon the Spirit uses to do his convicting and sanctifying word. When wielded toward us this sword is and any wound is superficial and short-lived. Wielded against the world, the flesh, and the devil the blade cuts through to the heart of the matter delivering us the counsel of God and the grace to persevere.

The Christian who uses the Bible often and as the source of his beliefs shouldn’t be too concerned about the charge of worshipping it. It is, after all, the word of his master and his lord and should be esteemed as such.
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