Why We Need Personal and Congregational Disciplines
Welcome to 2016, and welcome to the start of year number four for us here at the Ask Pastor John podcast. We are back with guest Dr. Don Whitney who serves as the Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is well known for writing his classic book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, which was originally published in 1991, and then revised and expanded in 2014. Don is also the author of the new book from Crossway titled Praying the Bible.
The new year, 2016, is here, and with a new year brings renewed interest in all kinds of disciplines, including the spiritual disciplines. January 1 is a good date to reset our spiritual practices. For the first week of the New Year, I want to ask you, Dr. Whitney, the five most common questions we get on the spiritual disciplines. Here’s the next one: How do you distinguish the personal disciplines from the congregational disciplines?
It is important for people to distinguish between personal spiritual disciplines and what I call interpersonal spiritual disciplines — the private and the public, the individual and the corporate or congregational. There are those disciplines that we are to practice alone, but there are those disciplines we are to engage with the church in order to practice. And the goal of both is to experience God. The goal of both is growth in godliness.
Personal and Corporate Habits
So, for example, we are to pray alone. The Bible surely teaches that. Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door” and so forth (Matthew 6:6). That is a personal spiritual discipline. But the Bible also would have us pray with the church (1 Timothy 2:1–2, 7). That is an interpersonal, corporate, congregational discipline.
We are to get into the Bible all by ourselves, read it on our own, study it, and memorize it on our own. That is a personal spiritual discipline. But we are to hear the Bible read, taught, and preached with the church. So that is a congregational discipline.
We are to worship God privately. We are to worship God publicly.
Now some of the spiritual disciplines are by nature personal, private. Solitude, by definition, would be one like that. Fasting is one that you usually practice alone. You can do that with the church, but this certainly has that individual aspect to it most of the time. To keep a spiritual journal is something you do by yourself.
And some of the biblical spiritual disciplines by nature are interpersonal: fellowship, for example — not mere socializing, not just talking about news, weather, sports, work, family, or politics. That is good, healthy, normal. But koinonia, that New Testament Greek term for “fellowship,” involves talking about God and the things of God. It is life together in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that requires people. You don’t fellowship by yourself.
To hear the word of God preached requires a preacher and hearers.
Another very important one is the Lord’s Supper. We are told by Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). We are not to serve the Lord’s Supper to ourselves in our private devotional life. That is given to the church. We should experience that with the church. So those are corporate spiritual disciplines.
Jesus and the Disciplines
And we should practice both personal and the interpersonal for two reasons: (1) the Bible teaches both, and (2) Jesus practiced both.
For example, on at least four occasions we are told in the Gospels that Jesus got alone to pray, thereby practicing personal spiritual disciplines. But in Luke 4:16 we are told, “As was his custom, [Jesus] went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.” That is engaging in interpersonal spiritual disciplines.
And wouldn’t you think that if anyone ever had a pass in coming to public worship it would be Jesus? He had all these people to heal, all this teaching to do — his messianic ministry to fulfill. And he knew he had a very short time to do that. So why would he pull away from this public ministry to sit and listen to some dusty, old rabbi preach what must have been to him a boring sermon? I often say to people that only a preacher can really understand what I mean when I say that Jesus must have often sat there thinking, “Boy, I could do better than that.” But he was there. Why was he there? Because it was the appointed time for the people of God to gather. And Jesus said, “Those are my people. That is where I want to be.”
It is much like when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus had no sins to be symbolically washed away in the waters of baptism like those who came to John the Baptist did. So Jesus was baptized to identify with his people. The people were being baptized to identify with the Messiah that John was preaching. Jesus was baptized to identify with those people. That is why Jesus came for the appointed time of public worship. He said, “That is where the people of God are gathered. Those are my people. I want to be numbered among them. I don’t want it to be said, ‘Oh, you are the Messiah, huh? Then how come you are out here doing your own thing when the people of God are to be gathered here?’
So Jesus engaged in the interpersonal spiritual disciplines and the personal spiritual disciplines. He is our example for spirituality, for walking with God. Now he is much more than our example. He is our Lord, our Savior, our King, our substitute, and so forth. But he is not less than our example. And Jesus practiced both the personal and the interpersonal spiritual disciplines.
We Need Both
That is a very important point today when there seems to be so much talk about spirituality in general in the culture, but it is always personal. It is always individual. And spirituality is not individualized in the New Testament. There is the individual component, but there is this crucial interpersonal component to spirituality, and we are calling those the interpersonal, congregational, corporate spiritual disciplines — and we need both.
Do you know what? We are all inclined a little bit one way or the other, aren’t we? There are some people that love their personal spiritual disciplines. They love to be alone with God. They get so much out of that. Some might say, “I get more out of that than I do down there with that ungodly, half-committed bunch at the church. They only slow me down anyway.” And then there are other people, the people, perhaps, who are there just about every time the doors are open, and their error is to think, “You know, if I am here pretty much every time the doors are open — and I am, and I profit from that, as I do — I am sure in the end that will compensate for the lack of a devotional life.” Well, no it won’t.
We all have our temperament, our own inclination a little more toward the personal or the interpersonal, but we need both. The Bible teaches both. Jesus practiced both.