"And others heard the whisper pass, but could not understand
The magic of the breeze’s breath that set their hearts aglow,
Nor how the roving wind could bring across the Overland
A sound of voices silent now and songs of long ago."
From “The Winds Message” ~ Banjo Patterson
Bookshelves lined three of the walls from floor to ceiling, and as Pastor Turnbull took the seat opposite her Jemimah glanced over the mix of modern paperbacks and bound commentary sets of a dozen volumes and more. On a shelf just behind Pastor Turnbull, sat a brass-framed photograph of his three children at what was obviously Michael’s graduation. Wearing the graduate’s black academic gown and cap, and with his arms around his two sisters, Michael looked so very beautiful that she felt a knot in her throat.
“They scrub up alright, don’t they?” Pastor Turnbull had followed her gaze to the photo, and chuckled “Dressed up like that and behaving themselves for once, they do look almost angelic.”
Angelic. The word triggered the realisation that Michael, Gabrielle and Angela were all names related to biblical angels, but she didn’t have the confidence to mention her observation to Pastor Turnbull.
She said instead, “They’ve all been so very kind to me.”
“That’s nice to hear. So you’re settling in okay so far?”
Jemimah nodded, anxious for him to come to the point. She’d felt nervous like this when she’d been interviewed for church membership by the elders of her own church a few years ago, even though she’d been confident of the outcome of the meeting. This would surely be no different.
Pastor Turnbull settled back into his leather chair. “I think you’re aware that your pastor wrote requesting that your church membership be transferred here?” She nodded again, and he continued with a confiding smile. “As you are probably starting to find out with life in general, even in this, nothing is as straight forward as it might first appear.”
Jemimah kept the smile fixed to her lips as she waited.
“We’re very pleased to have here with us, and certainly look forward to fellowshipping with you - but I don’t think there is anything to be gained by jumping into membership here without first taking some time to ensure that you truly can be in unity with the brethren here, and we with you.”
Pastor Turnbull looked as though that was the most reasonable approach in the world, but Jemimah felt his words like a blow. Why wouldn’t they want her? Nevertheless, she nodded as though in agreement with his words.
“You weren’t expecting that, were you?” he asked kindly, as though he’d heard her thoughts. “Let me see if I can explain. Although we’re the same denomination as your church back home, given a little time with us you’ll discover there are a few distinctive differences in our practices and beliefs. The easiest way to explain that would be in saying that we are a Confessional church - are you familiar with that term?”
The only images that the word “confessional” brought to Jemimah’s mind were scenes from the old Saturday matinee movies on TV, with a woman in a headscarf entering into a small box in a cathedral, and whispering through a lattice screen, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned …”. She quickly dismissed that as being not at all what was meant, and shook her head.
“In the context of the local church, or even a denomination, the term ‘Confessional’ is a way of stating that we adhere to a particular Confession of Faith. We believe that for the sake of unity and as a safeguard against error, it is vitally important to have a clear statement of what we believe the Bible teaches; a summary of the doctrines we believe are essential.” He reached over to take a small book from the shelf behind him and handed it to Jemimah.
“This is a copy of the London Baptist 1689 Confession of Faith, which, with only a couple of small alterations, our church holds to as our statement of faith. It sets out what we understand the Bible teaches about the most important doctrines, and has a great deal in common with the other historical confessions that were written around the same time, like the Westminster Confession of Faith that the Presbyterians adopted a little earlier, and the Anglican’s 39 Articles of the Anglican Prayer Book.”
Jemimah let out her breath slowly and opened the booklet, running her eyes down the list of contents. The Holy Scriptures, God and The Holy Trinity, God’s Decree, Creation … they were all terms she was familiar with, yet the whole concept of having to agree with a book separate from the Bible felt very uncomfortable. She was a Christian because she’d believed in Jesus for salvation, and believed what the Bible taught - surely nothing more than that was necessary?
Pastor Turnbull was watching her patiently, but she couldn’t look up. Hopefully he’d let her take the book with her and she could go home …. it mightn’t feel so threatening when she’d had a chance to let it settle in.
“Are you going to ask me the questions that are on your mind, Jemimah, or shall I just start trying to guess? I could take a stab at explaining what I think you might be wondering about, but it’s probably a lot easier if you just tell me.”
Heat flamed in her cheeks, but when Jemimah looked up at Pastor Turnbull the gentleness in his eyes eased her discomfort almost immediately.
“It’s obviously new to you, and that makes you wary of it - which is a not a bad approach,” he continued, “and that’s the very reason I suggested taking your time getting to know our church here. But why not tell me what your main concerns are, and I’ll see if I can clear anything up for you? I’m not going to eat you because you’ve got questions or disagreements about anything.”
Jemimah bit her lip and nodded. It was silly to feel so frightened by something new. It had caught her off guard, but this was the same Pastor Turnbull who she’d felt so comfortable with over lunch, and who’d preached that morning in a way that had opened up the Bible passage and lifted her heart to God.
“I just don’t see …” she began awkwardly, “I mean, why do you need to add anything to the Bible? Isn’t it enough to believe in the Bible, why do you need a statement of faith as well?”
Pastor Turnbull rubbed at one of the chicken pox spots that still marked his temple. “That’s a very good question. Especially when one of the most important doctrines we hold to is the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture.” He reached across the table to the book in her hands, and turned over a few pages. “Here, in the very first article: Scripture. The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience etcetera, etcetera.”
He straightened up and smiled at her. “So at the very outset even the writers of this confession were at pains to make it clear that while the Confession of Faith is extremely important and helpful it is only a book written by men, and is not inspired by God like the Scripture was when he gave the very words to those who wrote it down, nor is it infallible or without any error like the Word of God, and neither does it have authority to set rules over us of how we should live, like the Bible does.”
The interest in his expression gave her the confidence to ask the question that seemed almost too obvious. “Then why have it, if the Bible is enough?”
“I’ll see if I can answer your question with a couple of my own.” Pastor Turnbull leant back in his chair and laced his fingers together. “Just say that you’re meeting me for the first time today,” here he gave her a friendly wink, and put on a passable Scottish accent to indicate he was playing a part, “and you don’t know anything of me or what I believe. What kind of question might you ask to find out if I’m a fellow believer?”
Jemimah thought for a moment. “The easiest would be to start with simply ‘Are you a Christian?’ ”
“Oh, yes. I’m a Christian - because I’m not a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist, and when I was a baby I was christened in the church. Except for then, I’ve never been to church, and I’ve never read anything of the Bible - I wouldn’t know what it says - but when ever I’m asked about my religion on a form I always write down that I’m a Christian.”
Pastor Turnbull reverted to his normal voice, “So are you content from that answer that I’d be a Christian.”
“Oh, no.” Jemimah shook her head, “That’s not what I mean by a Christian. It’s not a cultural thing, it’s because you believe in Jesus as your Saviour.”
“Okay. So would it help you know if I was a believer if you asked what I thought about the Bible?”
“Yes.” His game made Jemimah forget her earlier uneasiness, and she spoke without reserve. “Do you believe in the Bible?”
“Oh, absolutely. Does that make you sure we would be able to fellowship as Christians?”
Jemimah nodded, but Pastor Turnbull continued in his assumed identity, “Even if I went on to say that I believe the Bible is an important historical document, that probably expresses something of man’s understanding of God - whoever he or she is - but it is certainly not free from error and shouldn’t be taken literally? That you don’t really want to push belief in the Bible stories too far, like insisting that Jesus really was born of a virgin and really was raised from the dead - but just take the essence of what he tried to teach about loving others as you love yourself?”
“No, that’s not what I mean by believing in the Bible,” Jemimah corrected him, “If you believe in the Bible that means that you think it was given by God, and it is true, and that we have to believe it exactly.”
Pastor Turnbull raised his eyebrows. “So it is important to define what you mean by believing in the Bible to know you are talking about the same thing? What about one more try. If this stranger you’ve just met tells you he believes in Jesus, would that satisfy you that you were both on the same wavelength?”
“Go on,” Jemimah smiled warily, ready for the trap this time.
“Oh, yes - I believe in Jesus Christ,” Pastor Turnbull enthused in the guise of the Scottish stranger, “I believe he was a good man, and had many things to teach us.”
“Do you believe he was truly God? That he died for our sins?” Jemimah questioned him.
Pastor Turnbull laughed. “You’re getting shrewd now. You’ve got a definition already of what believing in Jesus means to you. I wonder if you can see where I’m heading with all this?”
“I think so. That we really need to define what we mean or we could be talking about two different things?”
“Yes. You see, everyone - whether they admit it or not - has their own Statement of Faith. You just told me part of yours, in just a few minutes. You believe that a true Christian is not someone who just considers it to be their cultural identity - but someone who personally believes in Jesus as their Saviour. You believe the Bible is inspired directly by God, that it is without error and that a Christian must obey what it teaches. You also believe that Jesus was not just a man, but that he is truly God. All those things are, in part, the Jemimah Parker Statement of Faith.”
He paused and Jemimah nodded to show she was following what he was saying.
“You refer to that to know whether someone who says they are a Christian, believe in Jesus and believe in the Bible really means the same thing as you do. Because if they don’t, you probably won’t be so sure that they are someone you can really have true Christian fellowship with. It would help you decide whether a church was really a Bible teaching church or not. But, what’s far more critical than what Jemimah Parker thinks the Bible teaches, or what Michael Turnbull thinks the Bible teaches - is knowing what the Bible truly does teach.”
Thankfully Pastor Turnbull didn’t seem to notice the blush that had crossed Jemimah’s cheeks before she’d realised he was using his own name as an example, not his son’s, and continued on. “We must strive to truly understand what God’s own statement of faith is - and make it our own. Not just as intellectual knowledge, or something we can parrot, but a knowledge of who God is and what he requires of us that we believe in our heart and our soul and would be prepared to die for.”
He picked up his Bible, and waved it as he spoke. “The Bible is a big book. It contains many things that are hard to understand, which those without knowledge and stability distort to their destruction.
The Scriptures teach that they contain everything we need to understand them,
and that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it - yet God does not leave each one of us on our own to start from scratch with the onerous work of ensuring we don’t distort the Scriptures. It says in the book of Ephesians, in the fourth chapter, that God gives us pastors, and teachers to help us understand and apply the Scriptures. That’s a really important passage, I’ll read it out to you.”
Pastor Turnbull flicked through the large Bible in front of him, and began to read.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love."
That’s why each Christian must be part of a church, taught and discipled by those mature in the faith - and why every church, and every believer must study to know what the Bible teaches, so we can know falsehood and error and can run from it, instead of embracing it.”
Jemimah nodded. “Yes, I do believe that - which is why I wouldn’t have come to Jacaranda Plains if my pastor didn’t tell me there was a good church here. But if the Bible says God gives us teachers and pastors in the church to understand the Scriptures, why do we need something extra like this Confession of Faith?”
“Do you know who wrote the Confession of Faith? The pastors and teachers of the church in the 17th Century, building on the hard work, and prayerful study of generations of pastors and teachers studying the Word before them. They knew how beneficial a thorough understanding of the Scriptures was to guard against error and heresy.”
He tapped the Bible in emphasis, “If we truly believe that God does bless the church through his under-shepherds, it would be pretty short-sighted of us - even arrogant - to discard the gifts the Holy Spirit has given through them to the Church throughout history. Especially when those men studied the Word like their life depended on it, unlike so many in our present day who take pride in what they call their “simple” faith, which in some cases may actually be simple laziness.”
Jemimah frowned. His last comment about taking pride in their simple faith made her think of her father - who never seemed to be interested in learning anything new about the Bible. He said that the simple Gospel about Jesus was enough for him, and that too much worrying about doctrine only caused controversy and division. Was Pastor Turnbull saying that kind of faith wasn’t good enough?
“Yes, that makes sense about the Holy Spirit teaching generations other than ours …” she trailed off with a sigh.
“But?” prompted Pastor Turnbull.
“But ... are you saying to be a Christian we have to be able to know and understand all the doctrines in the whole Bible?”
“No, no, no - not at all. Our salvation only ever depends on trusting in the finished work of Jesus. While God wants us to grow and mature in our faith, and demonstrate the work he has done in us - we can never add anything to our salvation.”
Pastor Turnbull glanced at his watch. “Think of the Confession of Faith as an index to the major doctrines of the Bible. It is a good thing, as you are able, to work your way through them and see for yourself whether you believe that is what the Bible teaches. As issues arise in your life it is a great resource to refer to and see what godly men of the past and the present have understood the Bible to teach about it, and to find a starting point in searching the Scriptures. But it is especially useful at times like this, when you are considering joining with a new church or ministry to assess whether you are committed to the same things or are going to be in conflict over major issues.”
He looked at his watch again and pushed back from his desk. “That had better do for today, anyway - I still need some time to go over my notes for tonight. Just remember, Jemimah, there’s no rush and no pressure. I know you have your hands full with a brand new job and everything else, so just work your way through the book and we can have another chat about it all in a month or two. Ask any questions as they come up, and just observe the life and ministry of the church for the time being.”
Jemimah thanked Pastor Turnbull for his time, and made her way back through the long hallway. The cheerfully domestic sound of dishes being put away beckoned from the kitchen, but Jemimah walked only slowly toward it. The book and leaflet about the church that she held in her hand seemed heavier than they should have - as did her heart.
Everything that Pastor Turnbull had discussed with her sounded Biblical, but suddenly being asked to reassess the way she’d always considered her faith was immensely threatening.
Jemimah took a deep breath and headed for the family area. Just before the doorway, she hesitated. This was a very new way of looking at things for her, a new kind of seriousness - but obviously it wasn’t new to the Turnbulls. She remembered the way Michael seemed to know a Scripture for everything he said, and even Angie was unshakably confident whenever she spoke about what she believed. If that kind of understanding was what they took for granted, what must they think of her?
© R. L. Brown 2007