Another year is coming to a close, and a closing year for most students brings much free time. Before you, my readers, conclude that this is a boring nag to read intellectually heavy books on Reformed theology, please hold back your judgment and realize that the book we review here is on practice—godly living based on sound doctrine.
Side by Side, by Edward T. Welch, is the book.
Those of us who have read this book would have recognized that it is not doctrinally sound. Before speaking of the depravity of our hearts, the author claims there is “good” (12) and that man still bears the image of God (88). In addition to the lack of soundness, we do not appreciate the author’s use of the NIV, which is known to be an unfaithful translation of the Bible.
Yet, the book is not wholly founded upon its doctrinal errors. There is doctrine with which we can heartily agree; in it, we will find the author promotes edifying conversations leading to spiritual counseling that all of us in the church need from each other.
Two themes struck me as I read the book, and I hope an open reflection of those themes will encourage you, my brethren, to pick this book up.
One recurring theme in this short book is fellowship in the church.
The author, in a way, forces us to examine what characterises our conversations in our church. What are our conversations like? Are they made up of laughs and banter only? Are they circled around earthly matters, without any Scriptural insight? Let everyone judge himself; but I know I have missed too many opportunities to steer a conversation for the spiritual edification of my brethren. And the author assumes that that is the case for most Christians.
The author assumes so on the basis of two experiences. As the ones speaking, we are often “afraid of what people will think” when we share about our struggles (p. 11). Hence, to run away from our fear, we avoid such conversations. As the ones listening, when it comes to helping others, “we feel unqualified” (p. 12).
Identifying these common experiences, the author offers encouragement to overcome them. We must not, he writes, be afraid about sharing our “neediness” in life (pp. 60, 63-64). As needy people, we naturally need others to help us; and as the Lord uses us to be a helper to others, we must know that the Spirit qualifies us to have such spiritual conversations and be of help to others in those conversations (pp. 68-71).
The author also realizes that these experiences paralyze our speech; we do not know how to start and maintain spiritual conversations. So he briefly goes through the process of a conversation: Greeting others (pp. 73-77), finding topics to start off with (pp. 79-84), leading the conversation into speaking about the heart (pp. 87-93), etc. Through his suggestions, the author clearly does not intend to teach that every conversation must be aimed at talking about others’ problems. The intent, rather, is that one creates a rapport that, in God’s providence, may be used to help. Not all the suggestions in these pages must be used in every conversation; but they are worth our attempts. Perhaps, through our attempts, we will find better ways to start and maintain edifying conversations.
The second recurring theme in this book is sympathy. Again, the author leads us to examine our sympathy towards our brethren in Christ. Do we show sympathy? Or is there, instead, a cold—perhaps harsh—response to the needs of our brethren? Or, in response to the weaknesses of our brethren, do we jump straight in to a scolding? Again, let every one judge himself; but I know I have not shown sympathy to those who were in need of it. And, once more, the author assumes that that is the case for most. What does the author have to say about sympathy? Our words must express our sympathy for our brethren (p. 103). Even the words of our rebuke must be marked with that sympathy. One cannot go to the brother or sister without sympathy, and the author shows the need for sympathy by devoting an entire chapter on it (pp. 101-110).
Having established the need to show sympathy, the author points out specific words that do express sympathy, and others that hinder that expression (pp. 104-107). Once again, the author understands how often we lack the wisdom to choose the best words to use, so he offers concrete suggestions for our consideration. Having spiritual talk and sympathy— but overarching them is the one truth that the church is the body of Christ. Having spiritual fellowship, and in such fellowship having true sympathy, is part and parcel of the body of Christ. “We were meant to walk side by side, an interdependent body of weak people…. That is how life in the church works” (p. 12). Why? Because Christ our Head did so with us! He walked on this earth with us—to experience the weaknesses of our earthly bodies, and even the temptations in our hearts— to save us from these weaknesses and temptations (p. 13).
To this truth we give our hearty consent. Discern and disagree with the doctrinal errors of the book; but receive its instruction from cover to cover!
But…perhaps something still bugs you. What good does this book do for us, Reformed Christians?
Certainly, reading a wavering view of total depravity does not add to our knowledge of Reformed doctrine positively. However, what does help is that we discern these doctrinal errors and, in our minds, replace them with right doctrine as we read the book.
Yet, what seems to be of greatest help is to keep our confessions in mind as we read the book. What do our confessions say about helping one another in the church? The Belgic Confession has strong language for this: “…all men are in duty bound…” To what? Join the church? Absolutely. To stand for right doctrine in the church? Definitely. But also, “… as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren.” We are duty bound to serve—to help—one another! Certainly, then, we are interested in learning how to counsel one another. With that interest, read the book!
Written by: Lim Yang Zhi | Issue 46