I’ve just returned from our first ever international study week! For five days I’ve sat with a group of eight (occasionally nine) men around a table in a church building in Wetzlar, Germany. And together we’ve worked at understanding Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Seven of the men were German-speakers; another was a Russian speaker from Moldova, another was an Afrikaans-speaking South African.
My German runs out when I’ve said Danke and Auf Wiedersehen. Neither my Russian nor my Afrikaans stretches even that far. So nearly all the discussion round the table was in English. Most of the men speak excellent English; on the rare occasions when we struggled to communicate, one of the more capable linguists would turn my English into German for the benefit of the others.
For six hours or more each day, we laboured together. Our goal was to work together through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, examining each chapter, each verse, working to understand what Paul wrote and why; drawing out the truths that are taught in this part of God’s book; discussing their application to Christians and churches today – and especially the churches of Germany. But this was a conference for preachers, not armchair theologians. So we needed to discuss how we would preach the message of Philippians. Each man had to prepare his own sermon outlines on the different sections of book. Then with the help of an overhead projector, he would put his outline in front of the whole group, and we would discuss ways in which it could be improved.
How our study weeks began
When we held our first study-week here in the UK many years ago, that was, more or less, the programme we adopted. We didn’t know of anyone else who was trying to do exactly the same thing in the same way, but it seemed a common-sense and efficient way of proceeding. Since then we’ve varied it according to the group of men that have met, and the part of the Bible we’ve been working on. (I don’t ask men who have preached thousands of sermons to prepare sermon outlines as a practice exercise). But the goals of every study week remain the same: to know more clearly what’s in the Bible and to preach it better.
Our first UK study week, back in 1993, was attended by six men: David Last, Duncan Lally, Mark Richards, Oliver Allmand-Smith, Tim Mills, yours truly. Only two of us – Tim and myself – were full-time pastors; David was the only married man. Now, all of us are married and all but one lead churches full-time. Year by year that initial group grew as we invited along other friends who we thought would add something to the mix. But we knew that there was a maximum number we could fit round the table. When we had a group of ten or so regulars, we thought that we had reached the limit for the sort of interactive workshop approach we had adopted. But still there were more men I wanted to invite – including a number of able younger men from the church here in Stockport. So, as we approached that number, it seemed right to start a new group. It began in 1998. The pattern that emerged was that we held one study week in the autumn geared for men who were already pastors; a second, earlier in the year, for men who weren’t yet pastors but seemed to have some gift for teaching and preaching. And so it continues.
Some men have come back year after year without fail. Some have been birds of passage, appearing for a year or two, and then moving on. But altogether, around forty men have sat round the table at one or the other study-week. Most of them are well-known to folk at Grace Baptist. Of our present members, Carl Williams, James Goodman, Geoff Budgell, Matt Hart have all been there. From Charlesworth, we’ve had Martin Grubb, Keith Hilton, Jason Isherwood, Nathan Stevenson. From Chorlton, Matt Cox, Stephen Johnston, Julian Hurst and of course Wal Johnston himself. Joe Tudor, Andrew Gullett, Mike Judge, Tim Whitton, Gerard Hemmings: they’ve all contributed not just to study week but to our life as a church.
And the men who have attended regularly have grown to trust and love one another. As we’ve shared news round the table, discussed needs, prayed together, bonds have been forged which will not quickly be broken.
The German connection
In October 2010, the pastors’ study group was joined by a new face. I had first met André Bay and his wife Masha when I visited South Africa in 2000. I got to know Andre a little then. I got to know him a bit better when he came to the UK a year later to study at the London Theological Seminary. From there, his next stop was St Petersburg, Russia, where he worked as a church-planter. And then, when the Russian authorities pushed him out of that country, he moved to Germany to pastor the young Reformed Baptist Church in Wetzlar. When I travelled, with my family, to Germany at Easter 2009 to speak at a Reformed Baptist Family Camp, I discovered with delight that my old friend Andre was staying, with his family, in the next room to ours. So I got the chance to get to know him a little better again.
There are not many churches in Germany – four or five at most – that could be called Reformed Baptist: churches which are reformed in doctrine and baptist in practice. And those churches are very small. Their pastors – if they have pastors – may find themselves very lonely and isolated. I knew that would be true for André. So it seemed only right to ask him whether he’d like to come over to our next study week. And he was glad to accept. He came that year, he came again in 2011.
As always, the men around the table spent time talking about their different situations. And when André took his turn, what a moving story he had to tell us!
Peter and Nathanael
André told us of two young men, students at the Baptist Union Seminary in Frankfurt. They had been sent to that college by their churches to train as preachers and pastors. But to their dismay they found that the seminary was dedicated not to studying the Bible but to shredding it. They heard learned professors in every lecture declaring that the Bible was simply a collection of ancient documents, full of absurdities and contradictions. They were told that Adam, Noah, Abraham David were simply fictional characters. The stories of Creation and Flood – just ancient myths. Paul? A visionary who brought together a strange amalgam of Jewish rabbinic traditions and Gnostic speculations. And Jesus?… well he probably existed but we can know almost nothing for sure about him. Students were encouraged to dissect the Bible, to argue with it, to dismiss it – anything but believe it and obey it.
André told us of the brave stand these two young men had taken in the seminary. For four long years Nathanael and Peter had faced ridicule and insult from staff and students alike. Yet they had stood firm, setting an example of diligent study, treating the professors respectfully, but refusing to budge an inch from their certainty that the Bible in its entirety is God’s Word. They had met up each day and read the Scriptures together from end to end, again and again. They had encouraged each other, prayed with each other, and witnessed to their fellow-students. And they had grown in grace and understanding. When they started at the seminary, they were Bible-believing Christians but knew little about the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, and especially his plan to save sinners. But as they read the Bible together, they had discovered those great truths for themselves. They learned that Man, left to himself, is helpless, depraved in every way, incapable of turning to God, repenting, believing. But they also learned that God the Father has chosen a great number of people to be saved, Christ has redeemed those people, the Holy Spirit brings those people irresistibly to salvation, and guards them safe to the end. They learned that salvation is God’s work from end to end.
They had gone into the seminary as naive young men. Now they were battle scarred veterans, fired with an ever greater love for Christ, and an ever greater desire to serve him.
But how, and where? They had another year to go at the seminary. And then? The staff at the seminary had made it very clear that, holding these convictions, there was no place for them in any Baptist Union pastorate. Nor would they have wanted to serve in a denomination so corrupted by unbelief.
They could see only one possibility. They must begin the work of planting real churches, gospel churches, churches committed to the reformed baptist faith. But who would support them in such a venture?
It was to André and the church in Wetzlar that they turned. Would that church, itself so young, so small, train them, send them and support them for the work of church-planting?
A decision and an invitation
That was the story André told us at our study-week in November 2011. And as we drove back together from the Quinta to Stockport, we asked ourselves the question, what could be done to help these young men? By the time the journey was over André had settled the question in his mind. If his fellow-elders and the church were agreed, he would invite Peter and Nathanael to move to Wetzlar, they would spend a while there getting to know the church and gaining experience, and then, when the time was right, they would be sent out to begin planting another reformed baptist church. But André wanted something from me too. He wanted me to travel to Germany to lead a study week in Wetzlar – for Peter and Nathanael, and for any other men who wanted to attend. That would be my contribution to their training.
So that’s how I came to be in Wetzlar this week sitting with André, Peter, Nathanael and the other men at the study table. Most of them are already elders in churches. All of them were able men, who followed intently, grasped new ideas quickly, asked incisive questions, and prepared fine sermon outlines. It was a privilege to lead them all. But there was a special thrill about teaching two men who will soon be launching out into pioneering missionary service (they’re hoping to begin the church-planting project in February 2013).
I think they found the week exciting too. They know their Bibles back to front. They’ve been thoroughly trained in Greek and Hebrew. They are familiar with all the technical tools that scholars have assembled to interpret the Bible.
But it was still an eye-opener for them to see how the same tools that have so often been misused to rip the Bible apart can be used to demonstrate the unity, the truthfulness and the power of Scripture.
As we studied Philippians together, we could all see that there is a reason for every sentence, every word Paul wrote. It all fits together, and it all fits into the great tapestry of the Bible message. For men who have been told that Scripture is little more than a collection of random fragments, it was a great delight to see the perfection of God’s Word shine out.
André and the other elders in Wetzlar are wondering whether it will be possible for them to organise another study week next year. Whether or not that happens, I’ve invited Peter and Nathanael to come over for our next February study-week. They’re eager to do that. They know that they need as much training as they can get for the work that lies ahead of them.
One of the great themes of Philippians is “koinonia” – the unity that exists between believers because of all they have in common. In our translations it’s sometimes translated as fellowship or partnership. Paul – in his prison in Rome, the Philippians – hundreds of miles away, were partners. They were working together in the cause of the gospel; they were sharing one another’s sufferings; they were praying for one another, encouraging one another, bringing one another joy, helping one another in every practical ways. Paul told the Philippians that even in his prison cell, he could find joy, “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:4).
Through our study-weeks we have enjoyed “partnership in the gospel” with men and churches across the UK for many years. What a joy it is that we can have partnership too with a church in Wetzlar, Germany, and with men like Nathanael and Peter as they give themselves to the work of the gospel.