The church is in constant need of discernment in order to avoid catastrophic errors that lurk beneath the surface like an iceberg that can take down a ship. More than one church has disbanded because the church split and fractured due to theological and methodological error that sucked the life out of the body of Christ.
The warnings of Scripture highlight the importance of adhering to sound doctrine, testing the teachings against Scripture, and being vigilant against false teachers who lead people astray. By exercising discernment and staying grounded in the truth, the early church could protect its members and preserve the integrity of the Christian faith. That same need exists to this very hour.
Avoid the Error of Deformation
Pastoral search teams are known for asking a pastoral candidate what their vision is for reaching the next generation. Sadly, they are often looking for an answer that is filled with statistical analysis and trendy innovation rather than the tried-and-true method of semper reformada.
The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) became a staple statement during the Reformation era. The church is to be always moving, but moving in the right direction—back to Scripture. As the church is consistently deformed, we must be willing to embrace the principle of “always reforming” in order to get back to the biblical standards. To resist this reformation principle will result in pulling up the anchor and allowing the cultural winds to reek havoc upon the church.
There is a prevailing temptation for Christians and church leaders to move away from Scripture to embrace cultural trends in order to allow these cultural winds to lead the church in the direction of relevance and acceptance. Let’s face it, many pastors are craving success and one quick and easy way of validating such success is through numbers. If specific methods are employed within the life of the church and specifically the worship practices of the church—it can often lead to a drastic increase in attendance.
The world, the flesh, and the devil are consistently moving the church away from Scripture. Throughout history, the Church suffered through periods of serious deformation theologically that led to debate and councils which brought the people of God back to Scripture. When the Trinity was under assault by the anti-Trinitarians, a reformation was needed to move back to Scripture that proclaims the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the trinity. This was likewise the case in the 1500s when the church was perverted in form and doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church resulting in the explosive movement known as the Reformation.
To be reformed is more than quoting John Calvin and Martin Luther. The movement of reformation and the principle of reformation are closely connected, but this idea of always reforming is far more than wearing images of the Reformers on your T-shirt or putting the “Five Solas” on your laptop computer case. To be reforming is to be moving back to Scripture. As the world seeks to deform you, your doctrine, and your church—you must be committed to a move (a reform) back to God’s standard in his holy Word.
To resist cultural conformity is one thing, but to admit that your local church needs to be reformed is often difficult as well. Pride will lead a church to avoid reform because it seems like cultural relevance is the path to success when in all reality it’s the pathway to further deformation. Remember, it’s not just the cool kids who need to be reformed away from their cultural relativity. Sometimes old-fashioned traditionalism needs to be reformed too—and that can be one of the most difficult cases to reform because the people think they’re holding the line when they’re really stuck in man-made traditionalism.
Avoid the Error of Formalism
There is a tendency among some Reformed churches to press their understanding of reform to extremes where being Reformed becomes a contest to see who can reform the most. Such attitudes show up in Reformed circles and such extremes should be avoided. One such extreme is a formalism approach to the function and worship of the church. Formalism is taking what has been reformed according to Scripture to a new level by adding rules and regulations as a rigid religiosity.
When formalism is embraced as the status quo of worship—it can often quench the Spirit and lead to a checkbox approach to religion. Formalism embraces the regulative principle of worship and the reformation principle of semper reformanda but raises certain theological conclusions and worship methods to imperatives without the slightest degree of flexibility.
For instance, in some circles to be reformed and always reforming involves the women wearing head coverings, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, exclusive Psalmody (or the use of Psalms with a heavy resistance to new hymns or spiritual songs), the use of minimal instruments in worship (with the exclusion of percussion), the use of creeds and confessions, refusing to celebrate or acknowledge holidays within the church, a thoroughly reformed ecclesiology is mandatory, church discipline practiced monthly, a refusal to segment the church with the use of a nursery or classes that might be specifically designed for children’s discipleship (prior to the worship service or on Wednesday), and a resistance against the use of screens for media to display lyrics or sermon notes are just some examples that are hotly debated.
While each church has the obligation to search the Scriptures and to be governed by the prescriptions set forth in God’s Word—there must be an honest attempt to discern between the prescriptions and the indicatives of Scripture. An overly regulated church is like a person who prides himself as a masochist. It’s unnecessary pain that is not mandated by God’s Word. Not only is such formalism dangerous, it likewise leads to a brand of legalism that is deadly.
Legalism is a technical term that means that a person is adhering to rules as a means of pleasing God in a salvific manner. In short, the keeping of such regulations and rules is part and parcel of a person’s salvation. While this may not be in the fine print or doctrinal standards of a local church—if not guarded against, a church’s reform may lead beyond the borders of reform into legalistic practices that hinder God’s people. There is no semper reformada contest, but there is a serious need to please a sovereign and holy God in how we approach him in worship. Avoid deforming your church’s reformation.
The Need for Wisdom and Patience
There is great need for wisdom and patience among God’s people. Before packing your bags and leaving your church because the church isn’t “reformed enough,” ask yourself if your departure is regulated according to God’s Word. I once met a man and his wife who hopped from conference to conference to be fed from the Scriptures because they could not find a church that met all of their checkboxes. They needed a reformed church that mandated head coverings and held to specific reformed theological standards. Needless to say, I encouraged them to join a local church and lay aside certain non-essentials in love.
We must avoid anathematizing people unnecessarily. We must likewise understand the need to admit fault when we have been in error. The use of children’s ministries for the discipleship of young people is not sinful, but refusing to sing the Psalms is a serious neglect and sinful practice that is commonplace in the life of many churches. The church may have flexibility on the practice of head coverings, but there is no room to neglect church discipline. A church may have some room to consider the frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper, but the church must not neglect the observance. A church may be going through a revitalization and season of great reform and may not have a full plurality of elders and people need to exercise wisdom and patience in the process.
If anyone should exude love and patience with one another it should be reformed-minded Christians. Sadly, that’s not always the story among reformed circles. May our Lord remind us from his Word that our God has been greatly patient with us in love as we have grown in our sanctification and knowledge of our great God. As we are reminded of God’s patience with us, may we likewise learn to be patient with one another along the journey of faith which will always involve reforming and being reformed according to sacred Scripture.