Recently, I got a call from a good friend concerning my most recent articles for the Nehemiah Foundation (Are Sermons Enough to Preach the Whole Counsel of God?—Part 1 and Part 2). He serves as a deacon in a Reformed Presbyterian church, and he relayed that a member (who apparently wished to remain anonymous) contacted him to make sure that their church did not support the Nehemiah Foundation monetarily—since I was attacking Reformed traditions and doctrine in my two most recent articles.
My deacon friend, a true and humble man, decided to call me to talk about it. He voiced his concerns (some of which he had in common with his fellow member), we had a good and clarifying dialogue, and we gave each other much to think about before we get together next time.
There are many people who have had similar concerns but have decided not to talk to me about them. My deacon friend was in fact quite surprised to find out that he was the only person with disagreements or concerns about those particular articles who had yet bothered to reach out to me or the Foundation with substantive feedback (privately or publicly).
So I decided I would write some explanation here of where I’ve been coming from recently concerning the Reformed church, since many (either with glee or dismay) have incorrectly considered me its enemy.
I would also like to invite anyone at all who has any concerns or questions to reach out to me privately or publicly—your choice. I have no fear of being corrected, in public or otherwise. I want to grow. I want to learn. I want to be corrected. And I want my correction to be of use to others, so I desire dialogue and reproof. If you truly want to have an “iron sharpens iron” conversation—and even if you just want to rebuke me—feel free to comment or send a private message or email (michael-at-RenewTheArts-dot-org) or whatever you want.
I don’t believe I have reached the final conclusions. I’m still searching, exploring, and yes—reforming. I beg you to please dialogue with me about where I have strayed from Christ and the Scriptures if you believe I am in error. Let’s learn from each other. Let’s grow together. Let’s be reforming together.
Speaking of which …
Why is it the Reformed Church and not the Reforming Church?
Semper Reformanda, one of many Latin mottos from the Reformation, means “always reforming.” It highlights the church’s responsibility to continually seek sanctification in doctrine and practice. But, according to many Reformed leaders in our day, the church’s job is to reform ecclesiastical and personal practice to more closely align with our already sufficient Reformed doctrines. They say our Reformed doctrines are “the clearest and best human expression of biblical truth.” Therefore, in the very best scenario, the continuing Reformation is aligning the church’s practice more closely to the received doctrines of some select number of Reformers—without ever questioning or re-evaluating those received doctrines or practices.
But, in the worst-case scenario (one that is unfortunately quite common), the continuing Reformation centers mostly on correcting other “weaker” churches and Christians who haven’t yet arrived at the correct doctrinal perspective.
If one mentions that Reformed doctrinal standards are written by men and could be wrong, the obvious reply comes back: “Where do you think they are wrong? What exactly is wrong with them?” And most people just don’t have an incontrovertible answer for that.
But that’s not really the point, is it? Even if Reformed doctrinal standards were nearly perfect, holding them in such high regard would still be problematic. My contention with our doctrinal standards doesn’t really concern their framing, wording, meaning, or rationale. The Reformed standards have been and continue to be extraordinarily helpful aids in their proper place. My issue with the Reformed church is that it has nominally maintained the doctrines of the Reformation while denying the spirit of the Reformation.
The Spirit of the Reformation
Think about it. When this anonymous Reformed person criticized my articles, he didn’t say that the articles undermined the truth of the Bible. He didn’t even interact with my argument in the article (which was drawn directly from the Scriptures). Instead, he said my organization and I should be cut off from the church’s support because I was “attacking Reformed tradition.” In his mind, “Reformed tradition” and “biblical truth” were basically synonymous.
I have always replied to this often-repeated criticism in the same way: “I am not all that concerned if what I’m saying contradicts Reformed church tradition or aligns with some other church tradition. All I want to know is this: Does what I am saying align with Christ and the Bible?” Is that not actually the very spirit of the Reformation? The Reformers looked at contemporary church tradition and practice, and in open contradiction to the church authorities of their day, they called Christians back to Christ and the Bible. They claimed that each believer, with the help of the Holy Spirit, could come to the truth of Jesus, the Word of God, without the need of merely human mediation. “Sola Scriptura!” they cried.
How bitterly ironic that the inheritors of the Reformation have begun to trust as much in the tradition and authority of the Reformed church as they do in God’s Word, even to equate the two in their minds. The sad truth is that the Reformation has been hijacked by a spirit that has much more in common with Caiaphas and Tetzel than it does with Jesus and Luther.
In place of individual freedom of conscience and “sola Scriptura” (which go hand-in-hand, by the way), many Reformed leaders appeal to the Reformed standards to label “heresy,” bind the consciences of believers, and create divisions within the church. In place of the priesthood of all believers, many have invested the ministry of the Word exclusively in a few expositors who are viewed by their congregants as the final arbiters and protectors of the truth. And these expositors themselves appeal to the “fathers” of the Reformation much like the Pharisees appealed to the revered interpretations of the Talmud. In place of “sola gratia,” we have an unteachable and self-righteous confidence that our human tradition exclusively comprises the truth, and that we must cut ourselves off from the “bad influences” of other doctrinal persuasions. In contradiction to “semper reformanda,” we call ourselves “totally/thoroughly Reformed.” In place of “solus Christus,” we adopt “Christus et Doctrina” in practice, as if Christian communion depends on doctrinal agreement as much as or more so than union in Christ.
All the while, we claim to cherish Reformed doctrine even while we resist any continuing Reformation. I would go so far as to say that if most Reformed Christians lived during the time of the original Reformation, they would have opposed the Reformers and trusted in the traditions and authority of the churches they grew up in. How do I know that? Because that’s what most people in Reformed camps are doing right now. The only difference is the church tradition they trust in.
If the Reformers Were Alive Today
I know it’s hard to believe. I know it’s hard to swallow. It’s unpleasant for me too. I hate that it could be true. But look closely at the fallout and upshot (the fruits) of Reformed practice today. We have become a proud and contentious faction of the church. In spite of our smallness (which many cherish as a sign of remnant faithfulness), we continue to bite and devour each other into smaller and smaller micro-denominations.
Consider: Do you think any of the Reformers would appreciate that we have elevated their teaching to such a place that no one can contradict them without accusations of heresy? Do you think Calvin would appreciate that a whole host of people call themselves “Calvinists”—followers of Calvin? Speaking of Calvin: he was 26 years old when he first published the then-inflammatory, now-authoritative Institutes of Christian Religion. If a 26-year-old with Calvin’s spirit and insight were to criticize the corruption, hypocrisy, and complacency within the leadership of the Reformed church, how would its leaders respond? Maybe a little like the leaders of the Roman Catholic church did in the Counter-Reformation?
Do you think the Reformers would not shudder to see the vast proliferation of Reformed factions and cliques? I wonder if Luther would have nailed the 95 theses to that door if he had known then what would happen to the Reformed church (from which even he, the original Reformer, would strangely be excluded). After all, he wanted discourse, not division.
More importantly, don’t you think it grieves our Lord to see Reformed Christians bickering with one another about who is the most doctrinally correct in his kingdom—while the sheep are neglected and even abused, and the unbelieving world crows over our hypocrisy or languishes in dire need?
Is it in fact “pure and undefiled religion” to keep doctrines unstained from heresy (James 1:27)? Is that the heart of what Jesus will judge us for in the end: whether or not we had all our doctrinal ducks in a row? Will he judge us for our doctrines or for our deeds (Matt. 7:21f; Matt. 25:31ff; Rom. 2:5–6; 2 Cor. 5:10)?
Why are we so unteachable? We can set aside for the time being why unbelievers or even our own young people won’t listen to us. Why won’t we listen to each other? Why do we hold so firmly to our own human opinions and standards as if they are themselves as infallible as the Word of God? Was it not the corrupting tyranny of tradition and human authority that had hoodwinked and derailed the church right up to the Reformation? Was it not this same trap that caused the Jewish leaders to reject their Messiah?
But That’s Not My Church!
The natural fleshly reaction to what I am saying is:
But that’s not me or my church! My church is doing a good job of preserving the free, Christ-centered, biblical spirit of the Reformation. If this is true at all, it’s a problem in other churches. And things are even worse outside the Reformed community. Baptists and Roman Catholics and Pentecostals think they’re exclusively right, too. It’s not just the Reformed church. Hey, even you think you’re right and are trying to correct others!
Sure, but is this a competition? Is it really “us vs. them” or “me vs. you”? Every Reformed denomination (there are dozens of them just in North America) believes that even the other Reformed denominations believe enough error to justify a split, and these denominations agree on virtually everything. As you can imagine, the division between the Reformed church and other church traditions is even more pronounced.
It’s true that we can’t all be right on everything. But why focus on the error? We also can’t all be totally wrong either—unless we are truly cut off from Jesus and his Spirit. Is anyone making that claim: that all the other denominations are cut off from Jesus? Most people in the Reformed camp aren’t even willing to make the claim that all Roman Catholics are cut off from Christ (even though the original Westminster Confession calls the Pope an anti-Christ).
So if they aren’t cut off from Jesus, why are we cutting ourselves off from them? Why are we willing to break communion with those various fellowships? In practice, we are willing to rend asunder what God has joined together in Jesus. This should not continue. If anything, I am criticizing the Reformed church because I am still in it. The Reformed church is still my local church community, and it grieves me to see her so divided. It grieves me even more to see her contributing to the dissension in God’s house worldwide.
We may not all bear the same level of guilt in the horrible disintegration of the church, but we are all responsible to be part of a Christ-centered solution. The solution is not to turn every church into a Reformed church. The solution is to turn every church into a reforming church. And in order to do that, our first step needs to be to model the Reformation we long to see by listening with charity and grace to other interpretations of the Bible, considering the value and importance of other church traditions, and regularly re-evaluating our own practices and doctrines when their fruit is not in keeping with the Spirit.
Everyone is the Chief of Sinners
We’re all desperately fallible and in need of God’s continual sustaining grace. We all know this, but do we act like we know this? No one local church is sufficient within itself to stand on its own. The pillar and support of the truth is not your church or your denomination. It’s the church (1 Tim. 3:15). And the church has a lot of different perspectives, angles, facets, ideas, opinions, doctrines, creeds, practices, and traditions within it. In short, there are lots of different people in the living God’s living house, and every single one of those people is uniquely valuable.
The point is—we all still have so much left to learn. And we can only learn it together. Shouldn’t that be obvious? Can I really learn that much from people who believe and know exactly what I believe and know? Remember that even the perfect and infallible Word of God includes four Gospel accounts of the same exact events. If the infallible truth values different angles and perspectives, how much more should we fallible people be open to learn from other perspectives?
Are we afraid of being tested or “proven wrong”? Why? To be tested in any area is to be given an opportunity to grow. Again, is this a competition? If anything, this is a competition of service: to be greatest in the kingdom, Christ calls us to be the servant of all, just as he came and laid down his life for us (Matt. 20:25; Matt. 23:11; etc.).
Have you considered that each Christian is actually inferior to every other Christian in at least one thing? Why else would God have created each of us, if not for a unique purpose for which any other person would not be adequate? That’s not a bad thing unless you react to it with bitterness or envy. It actually opens you up to value all people as your superiors.
If every believer on this planet is better than I am in at least one area, then shouldn’t I be focusing on the superiority of Jesus’ image in all those millions of Christians that he has inclusively shepherded into his body for a specific Gospel purpose and calling? Recognizing the peculiar value of each individual Christian expands and magnifies the glory of Jesus. His body is bigger than just you and me. It’s bigger than just the Reformed church. It’s worldwide, and it encompasses a huge variety of wildly diverse cultures and perspectives.
So unless you are willing to declare that some particular people who call themselves Christians are unbelievers, you should be willing to walk with them, work with them, support them, talk to them, and learn from them. Especially in and through disagreement.
If you can’t yet recognize where and how every one of your Christian brothers and sisters are your superiors, look harder. If you look hard enough and pray for discernment, you will recognize, like Paul, that everyone is actually better than you—that you are the least of the righteous, the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
We say that sometimes. Because we want to seem humble or because we know it’s a biblical idea. But do we act like it’s true? If we really thought of ourselves as the least of these—or as the chief of sinners—we would be naturally open to discourse and correction from our Christian brothers and sisters. And we would consider it a privilege and high calling to serve them.
“You Will Know Them by Their Fruits”
The Reformed church can’t escape blame for the apostasy of the church in America by withdrawing into protective isolation. You shouldn’t horde salt and light—it is most beneficial when it is usefully dispersed. Cutting ourselves off from other believers when they don’t agree with our particular view of biblical doctrine is not any different than hiding our light under a bushel basket.
If we are actually more in accord with the light of Scripture, then we need to serve our brothers gladly in this. But the fact is: we may not be more in accord with Christ, the Word of God. We’ll never know if we only ever hang out with those who agree with us in everything. In the last judgment, it will do no good to say, “I knew you were an exacting Master, so I kept your biblical doctrines buried in a handkerchief within this shrinking denomination—pure and undefiled from heresy and corruption. Here, receive these doctrines back again. They are in the same condition as when they were entrusted to me.”
No. God wants fruit. And the one who separates himself from other believers doesn’t do so to protect the truth, no matter what he may say: “He who separates himself seeks his own desire; he quarrels against all sound wisdom” (Prov. 18:1). Just take a look at the deeds of the flesh again (Gal. 5:19ff). Consider that seven out of fifteen (nearly half!) of those fleshly deeds concern a lack of peace: “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions.” Apparently, God is most concerned about a lack of peace and love in the church. Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Peace is a fruit of the spirit. Correct doctrine is not mentioned. Indeed, the Spirit will lead us to all truth (Jn. 16:13). But, again, he will lead us together.
So, do we love one another? Take an honest look: Is the Reformed community generally characterized by disputes, dissensions, strife, enmities, jealousy, outbursts of anger, and factions? Or do we see within it the overwhelming peace and unity of Christ and the reconciliation of the Gospel flowing out even beyond its borders?
My family and I are currently members of a PCA church in Woodstock, Georgia. I love the Reformed church. I know that may seem odd at this point. “If you love her, why have you been criticizing her so regularly?” I’ve been criticizing her because I love her, and because I am still within her. I’m still repenting of all the deeds of the flesh I have attributed to Christ and the Bible because of my enslavement to human tradition.1 But my enslavement to human tradition was not in keeping with the spirit of the Reformation!
That is why I am calling the Reformed church back to her roots in the Scriptures and in Christ. I am not the innovator here. The Reformed church was built on freedom of conscience, on the priesthood of all individual believers, on the Gospel usefulness of all professions, on the value of different perspectives and discourse, on a Scriptural re-evaluation of church tradition, on a rejection of the “never-wrong” elitist insulation of church authority, and on a return to depending on Christ and his grace alone.
I know I have wounded and perplexed some within the Reformed church with some of my recent articles. But I promise you that I am wounding as a friend of the Reformation rather than as its enemy. Many who call themselves Reformed have betrayed the heart of the Reformation, even while they kiss its cheek.
These many have nominally adopted the Reformation in order to bring the weight of “orthodox doctrine” down on those who disagree with them. They are unwilling to submit themselves to their disagreeing Christian brothers in the fear of Christ. They are even unwilling to serve those who do not agree with them. They in fact consider all those who disagree with them to be their enemies.
But if we treat the friends of Christ as our enemies, how can we honestly call ourselves Christ’s disciples?
May God grant us grace and peace in Jesus!
- As I wrote this article, I felt a pang of conviction for my own quite personal sin in all this, not only in the past, but in the present. I feel led to confess it: One of my oldest friends said some very hurtful things to me a few weeks ago, and though I have forgiven him in word, we have not become fully reconciled. I have treated him like an enemy though I have hope and confidence that Jesus loves him. I am going to call him today and ask his forgiveness. He reached out in humility to ask my forgiveness, and I have responded thus far in hurt pride. ↩