Gathering Grapes: An Encouragement to Congregations to Study John Owen
In the last few months, the church I serve has been working through the updated version of Eshcol, John Owen’s little treatment on church life now entitled Duties of Christian Fellowship: A Manual for Church Members.
The volume is divided into two main sections. The first contains seven ‘Rules for walking in fellowship with respect to the pastor of the congregation, with explanations of the rules, and motives for keeping them.’ The second contains fifteen ‘Rules for walking in fellowship with respect to other believers, with explanations of the rules, and motives for keeping them.’ While so many exhortations might seem a touch overwhelming, none is more than three or four pages of text. Owen seems here to have studied the virtue of pithiness! Furthermore, the structure for each rule provides a helpful framework for study.
In each case, Owen begins by listing a series of relevant texts drawn from across the Scriptures. From these, he adduces a single rule. For example, the seventh rule in the second section is that ‘Believers must bear with one another’s infirmities, weaknesses, sensitivities and failings, in meekness, patience and pity, and providing help and assistance.’ Once the rule has been identified, Owen explains it in greater detail, drawing together the threads from God’s word, probing and pressing, and then offering motivations and encouragements to the reader. In this version, all this is followed by ‘Questions for consideration/discussion’ supplied by a modern editor.
We study the book in our Bible class, a sort of Sunday school for adults. Our first task was to introduce the volume, considering Owen’s personal circumstances and the distinctive features of his ecclesiology at this point in his pilgrimage. He first published Eshcol in 1647, while serving at Coggeshall, Essex, not long after he had practically embraced Congregationalism. It is a thoroughly pastoral production and seems to be established on the platform and in the context of little more than a local church seeking to be faithful. At the root of the whole is a practical principle of love for God and for one another, and this manifestly and helpfully governs everything Owen says. He consistently anchors all he says in the nature and character of God, as revealed in the Lord Christ, as the Saviour and Lord of the church, the Shepherd whom the sheep follow. The first section, dealing primarily with the relation of the whole church to the pastors of the flock in particular, might need a little more pastoral wisdom in pressing home the applications, lest a man seem self-serving, but if he sticks to the Scripture he can do this safely and well.
Our approach, working through the book section by section, is as follows. We begin with Owen’s Scriptural basis for a particular rule. Recognising that it was typical of Puritans not simply to fling out random proof texts, we glance at each text in its context, seeking to understand what Owen has in mind as he brings in various principles, the immediate relevance of all which may not be evident. This gives us a fairly thorough biblical grounding.
Each rule is brief and punchy, usually a single sentence such as, ‘Prayer and supplications are to be made continually on the pastor’s behalf that he might receive help and success in the work that has been given to him’ (first section, third rule). If the sentence is complex or the language at all tricky, we can break it down.
That done, we turn to the explanation. Now the real work begins! We read through, paragraph by paragraph, turning to any additional texts that Owen might introduce. At appropriate points we pause and consider the attitudes and actions that Owen identifies, positively and negatively, and what form they might take in this particular congregation at this particular time, in our own hearts and lives. We try to trace out the warnings and encouragements. Often this is painful, such as when we find something like this: ‘Let pity, not envy; mercy, not malice; patience, not passion; Christ, not flesh; grace, not nature; pardon, not spite or revenge, be our guides and companions in our fellowship’ (p. 58). Or again, there is much soul-searching prompted by an assertion that ‘A member not affected by the anguish of its companions must be a rotten member’ (p. 61). This is probably the most useful part of our study.
To be honest, we do not use the suggested study questions that much. By the time we reach that point, we have usually considered any issues that they raise, and often gone beyond them in terms of the particular challenges we face or encouragements we draw from Owen’s treatment of the issue.
What should you expect from such a course of study? In my experience, you might expect at least three things. You might expect Satan to rage. The Adversary loves to create division and distance in the church of Christ, and anything which militates against that, and which promotes unity and peace, is utterly obnoxious to him. I do not think it any accident that, as a growing and varied congregation enjoying a measure of blessing in other spheres works through such material, the Opposer does all he can to stir up strife and provoke antagonism among us. At the same time, it is worth noting that—in God’s kindness—we are ingesting the very antidote we need under such circumstances. Perhaps it is simply the right thing at the right time?
Furthermore, you might expect the saints to profit. There have also been a number of personal expressions of appreciation. Then, there is the joy of seeing some of Owen’s exhortations really embraced in the life of the church. Some of the profit is painful: particular sins are exposed, ungodly attitudes identified, careless or crass actions addressed. While there are times when we can be grateful for what, under God, we have attained, we equally find ourselves mourning over how far we fall short of the glory of God in such things.
Again, you might expect the Lord to bless. Our Saviour delights in the health of the body and the love of the family of God. These are matters close to his heart. If we approach such a study with eager humility, a zeal to be informed and formed by such truths, then we can anticipate something of God’s smile upon us. Even asking the right questions is a step in the right direction; if we can arrive at the right answers, and translate them into words and deeds of principled and transparent affection, then this is progress indeed. If we hear and heed these things, in dependence upon the Lord setting out to be both hearers and doers of the word of God, then we can anticipate the growing health, holiness and happiness of the church of Christ. We might even anticipate that some who will not embrace such exhortations will be provoked, rebuked, even exposed, by this teaching. That may be a difficult blessing, but a blessing nonetheless.
With all this in mind, I would encourage any church to engage with Owen’s work, and to do so readily and eagerly. Remember Owen’s design, revealed in his original title: this was intended as ‘a cluster of the fruit of Canaan, brought to the borders for the encouragement of the saints travelling thitherward, with their faces toward Zion.’ This is, for Owen, a taste of the Promised Land, designed to stir up appetites for heaven for those heading in that direction, giving them a relish for what still lies ahead by allowing them to taste the fruits to come. If heaven is a world of love, taking Owen’s work to heart and in hand would make any local church a more manifest outpost of the kingdom of God.
This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of the Banner of Truth magazine.
Jeremy Walker is the Book Reviews Editor of the Banner of Truth magazine, and author of the booklet, Called to Be Holy: The Discipline of the Church. He serves as the pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, England. You can follow him on Twitter, @peregrinus75.
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