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When Decency and Order are Bad

The rallying cry of Presbyterians is “Decency and Order!” While we’re not the only denomination that has thought through lots of things in order to define processes and standardize things, we do seem to have that reputation. And we have it for good reason. When Paul was critiquing the Corinthian church for its chaotic church services, he tells them that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33 ESV), and from this theological point Paul draws the following conclusion: “all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor 14:40 ESV).

Now, to be sure, decency and order should not be misunderstood as dead faith. Paul’s critique of the Corinthian church was not meant to quench the Spirit but to facilitate the building up of the church in a meaningful way. If the church is full of chaos and confusion, what benefit is there for the church? So, at its best, decency and order serve the Spirit by making room for the intelligible proclamation of the mighty works of God.

But there are times when decency and order are bad. In our text this morning, we catch a glimpse of one such time, and it revolves around the captain of the temple. Now, I find it interesting that Luke specifically mentions the captain of the temple in verse one as one of the people who comes upon Peter and John. As I mentioned in my sermon, the captain of the temple was tasked with maintaining order and protecting the temple. Moreover, F. F. Bruce notes that the captain of the temple was associated with the chief-priestly families and possessed a high rank in the temple, second to the high priest himself.1

Given his job and his connections, he was likely greatly annoyed by all the commotion that the lame beggar had caused with his walking and leaping and praising God within the confines of the temple. And, from his perspective, not only was this healed man a problem, but so was the open-air preaching and teaching of Peter and John.

Though Luke does not go into detail here, I don’t think it’s a stretch to see the captain of the temple taking action against the “indecency” and “disorder” of this event “for the sake of the dignity of the temple.” And so, what we just might have here is an early example of the Presbyterian distinction of decency and order being hijacked for evil intent.

Of course, the surface-level objection to “indecency” and “disorder” would be used repeatedly in the history of the church to suppress the truth. To give just one example, J. Gresham Machen found himself on the receiving end of this suppressing activity in the early 1930s.

Dismayed by the complete lack of theological integrity in the missionaries whom the Presbyterian Church was sending out and unable to make any positive changes on account of the “decency” and “order” within the established church, Machen created an independent board of foreign missions to raise up and support the spread of the true gospel. But he was ultimately defrocked for his “indecent” and “disorderly” actions. In the interest of “order,” the gospel was suppressed.

However, not only in the testimony of Scripture and the history of the church can the truth be suppressed for the sake of “order,” but so also in our present day and even in our own hearts. The captain of the temple stands as the representative of all those who are opposed to the spread of the gospel when it doesn’t look like or act like expected.

Now, this word of warning is as much for me as for anyone else. There is a temptation to overemphasize order to the detriment of the spread of the gospel. Our task is to seek a sensitive conscience and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit so that we might discern if our desire for order suppresses or disrupts the preaching or the hearing of the gospel message.

Let’s be for decency and order that facilitates the spread of the gospel and the glory of our great God.

1Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2008), 89n4.

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