The Reformed Distinctive, or the Reformed "Stink"?
March 29, 2011
Updated July 3, 2018
13 comments 147 views
I have a problem. Maybe you have the same problem. Maybe you don't. Maybe you should; then again, maybe not. My problem is this: I'm wrestling with what the real implications of denominationalism ought to be.
Let me expand. The sad fact is that denominationalism is, no matter how you slice it, rooted in sin, schism and strife unbefitting for the bride of Christ. Some will make the argument that these days there is an increasing recognition that the cultural and theological distinctiveness found in a diverse denominational milieu can be a good thing. Indeed, as Bruce mentions in another topic under this forum, we in the CRC have finally become (for the most part) confident enough to realize that we have something to contribute to that context, but also humble enough to recognize that we're not the be-all and end-all — that we don't have all the answers.
That's all good. I've been, in a lot of ways, very encouraged by the changes that we've seen in attitudes among Christians over my lifetime.
But I'm still struggling. Why? Because when I hear phrases like "Reformed distinctiveness" being thrown around I feel that quite often those words are just another way of excluding other Christians from amongst us. For example, we hear much about reformed distinctiveness when we talk about infant baptism vs. believer's baptism. We hear some people claiming that (for example) infant dedications in the place of infant baptism simply should never be allowed in a Reformed Church, regardless of the sincerity of the parents in question. Regardless of the fact that a good theological case can be made for believer's baptism alone, etc. We also hear other people saying that we could do infant dedications, but then those folk should not be allowed to be elders or deacons or be in a teaching role in our churches. This seems to make sense insofar as these parents obviously cannot, in good conscience, sign the form of subscription. But that reasoning really serves to exclude people of differing opinion from leadership positions over non-salvation issues doesn't it?
Baptism vs. Dedication is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. There are many issues that we treat similarly. But shouldn't there be a different way?
Here's my proposal for our thoughts and comments. First let me be clear that I'm not hanging my life or faith on this proposal. If it gets knocked down, that's fine — as long as it gets replaced with something better! ;)
1) All "denominations" and churches should continue to work towards really fully recognizing that none of us have a corner on the "truth".
2) Properly speaking, it should be the CRC's task to eliminate the "Reformed Distinctive" as an exclusionary distinctive:
3) The CRC, in her ecumenical relations should work towards encouraging the acceptance of a similar way of thinking in other denominations:
Ideally, this would result in the following:
If we had had the kind of mentality that I'm envisioning in the Church during the debate about the Nicene Creed's filioque clause then there wouldn't have been that split. And if we'd maintained that throughout the centuries, then schism would have been very rare indeed.
If we worked towards this type of mentality now, then we could work towards true unity in the church, while still celebrating the uniqueness that God has given to various denominations and individuals.
It's time to become unified. It's time to truly change. It's time to get rid of the "Reformed Stink" that means that others, who believe differently than us on non-salvation issues cannot participate fully in the life of the church.
What do you think?
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The Canadian Council of Churches is dedicated to Christian unity. As a staff person working there, I can testify that Reformed churches definitely have a particular flavour, and that the Christian Reformed Church in North America also has a particularly flavour, as do all the other 23 member churches. Rather than seeing these differences as an obstacle, we've been applying the same insight that the Race Relations people have been teaching over the years: unity, not uniformity.
Overall, the Forum model of being together has provided room for difference and room for furthering a common expression of faith and a common witness to Canadian society, frequently in consensus or full agreement with one another. It is my conviction that the deeper we all go in exploring our tradition and convictions in the light of those historic teachings, the Holy Spirit's leading, the awe and intracacy of creation, and the Bible, the more closely we draw to one another. Even core issues tend to take on a different color and resemble one another.
So rather than focusing on what is core and what is peripheral, I see that a focus on living out and reflecting on the Good News together brings about, sometimes in small measure, more Christian unity.
The Lund principle about affirming that churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately is also a pretty good starting point for action, and probably echoes some of your insights.
<p>I hear you, Peter, and appreciate your thoughts. I also appreciate the work that the Canadian Council and other ecumenical organizations do.
<p>Don't you think, however, that our doctrine needs to start to reflect this "working together" idea? Don't get me wrong, it is great that churches are, in many ways "living out and reflecting on the Good News together" far more than they used to. It's just that our internal doctrine is still EXCLUSIONARY, rather than inclusionary. Shouldn't any truly Christ-honouring theology and doctrine create as much room at the table as possible, while still maintaining the essentials?
<p>Come to think of it, isn't that what Paul was essentially doing when he kept on intervening between the Jewish and Gentile Christians? He said to each party effectively: It's fine for you to do this or that as long as you're doing it to the Lord, just don't get all hung up on it if it's not core, and don't foist your beliefs and practices on others either, unless it's a core issue.
<p>That may be the attitude that's developing on an inter-denominational level, but shouldn't it also be our attitude within each denomination itself?
<p>As it is, many folks who love the CRC, and who love individual congregations within the CRC can not be members of those churches and/or cannot be leaders in some capacities within those churches simply because of essentially minor differences of doctrine. Isn't that a sin? Isn't it akin to Peter not eating with the "unclean" gentiles?
No doubt there is more that can be done within the CRCNA, and I pray for continued openness in spirit and practice to discern how we might best live in to the reigning of God.
Along the lines of the example you give, I find it difficult to stand aside in an ecumenical setting where there is a sharing of bread and wine and to pray for the unity of the church, rather than to participate; and I know others feel the same way when there is a sharing of bread and wine in a tradition I can participate in, but others cannot. It seems Christ's prayer that all may be one has not yet been completely fulfilled. Those are the moments when I most directly feel both the unity and the brokenness of the church. And, to extend the analogy of the table you used in your remarks above, the Gospel story about who is invited to the feast is a pretty strong example of inclusion!
My congregation's experience of people who felt excluded by the denomination but needed to be included was more about sexual orientation than doctrine... that's maybe a different and somewhat polarizing example of the difficulty deciding what is core and what is peripheral than what you are mentioning.
Otherwise I don't have the same experience you have with people in and around my own congregation who would like to participate but cannot. But I believe you that it can be frustrating and should be addressed. More people may need a vision like Peter needed to get past historical differences of culture, tradition, and religious practices.
Praise God!!! thanks for being honest about this...let me state up front, that I love the CRC, and have been a part of it all my life...but I love the Kingdom of God more!! I pray that our vision will expand beyond the CRC walls, and we will connect on greater levels, in worship with congregations of other "streams"/denominations. I have found that God really honors when we connect with our brothers and sisters in Christ, that are from different congregations and denominations as well as our own. It broadens our perspective of His Kingdom, and grows our love for each other. I have witnessed wonderful breakthroughs as believers have prayed together in unity, again crossing denominational barriers...earlier this year, the local prayer center invited all the pastors (150-200) from the area to come together for prayer...there were over 40 pastors that came, from probably about 30 different churches, that prayed and had communion together. The testimonies from that gathering are beautiful and powerful. (some of the pastors on this network were there!)
One of my biggest struggles, is with our hesitation with, no - I will say it more bluntly, our fear of the Holy Spirit. Fear of the "manifestations" that are not what we are used to. I could write on this a long time, but I will succinctly say, that we can learn alot from our Pentecostal brethren, who have been more completely walking in step with the Spirit much longer than we have. I sense that we are cautiously treading forth, and granted we can point to some of the extreme and even bizarre manifestations as a reason for not going that direction too swiftly. But I have found, as I have worshipped, prayed, and talked with my brothers and sisters, that we have much to offer each other. On the one hand, a pentecostal pastor shared that he wished that there was more reverence in the worship at his church...well, we definitely have that, if that's what you want to call it...while I'm praying for more freedom in our worship, instead of the stiff, stoic reserve. Believe you me, I know CRC members can praise exuberantly, just go to any local sporting event. SO, what's holding us back during worship of the ALMIGHTY GOD OF THE UNIVERSE!!! OF HIS PRECIOUS SON WHO POURED OUT HIS LIFE to the point He was unrecognizable as a man. My heart breaks, with our reasons/excuses. Anyway, that (high praise -Ps. 149:6 NKJV) is an entire discussion in itself (and one of the things i believe we have mostly missed).
Again, my heart breaks for what we have missed in our tradition. I have to remind myself often, of how far we have come and the good growth that is happening. PTL!! But when I hear similar statements about being thankful for the reformed tradition, for whatever reason I am burdened, it seems like the areas we have missed are on my heart right now.
The LORD gave me a picture in the natural, it's even on DVD (would you like to see it?), of a passionate (non-CRC) pastor/intercessor sharing on the supremacy of Christ and restoring the tabernacle of David (both are an entire discussion in and of themselves). He was sharing at a CRC church, and so the messages were given in front of the pulpit, with the CRC symbol of the Trinitarian triangle and cross in the background. That gave me hope for our denomination, whatever it might look like, when we embrace/focus on the supremacy of Christ (not humanitarianism), raise up missional worshippers and connect beyond our denomination, that there will be a new life, a vibrancy to our faith.
We talk about accepting diversity...I believe we have to go beyond accepting, and celebrate it.
Let's see, did I mention honor...honoring each other is huge.
Ok, you also mentioned people attending the CRC who cannot be involved in leadership due to minor differences of doctrine...one that I'm struggling with is mentioned under the CRC positional statements of pentecostalism...that those who believe in the 2nd blessing as one of the ways we are baptized in the Spirit, cannot be in leadership roles...or something to that effect. Here's what the CRC position states:
Church members who believe the “second blessing” teaching are disqualified from holding office, but not everyone who claims to have certain charismatic experiences is by that fact alone disqualified. The Spirit-filled church must judge what gifts of the Spirit may or should be employed in the exercise of the offices. Ag
Again, this is an entire discussion...but I've found that those who have experienced the 2nd blessing or whatever we want to call it, have a vibrancy to their faith and prayer life that I have not found often in our denomination, either that or it's buried deep and maybe it's time to uncover it.
I really do want to honor the CRC, and sense that God will break open the floodgates, but we've got some purifying and purging ahead of us.
So, again, bless your heart for being bold and brave and starting this discussion...again, my heart is to honor the CRC, but we do need an honest assessment of where things are not healthy, to prune that which is not bearing fruit.
ps...we would really stink (with pride) if we think we have a corner on the truth... that's not a place I want to be... and that's probably why God made spread it out over all the "streams", so we wouldn't have this "elite" mentality.
Again, thank you for sharing your heart...I'm so glad you did...I had brought up a denominational concern last year to a local CRC leader, and the response was basically "no one really cares, and if they did, nothing's going to change at the denominational level"...talk about discouragement and frustration...these issues have been on my heart, and I don't know what God is going to do about them, but I know He wants us walking more fully in step with His Spirit, and bearing more fruit for His Kingdom...so I will keep praying into this, as your post is a very encouraging confirmation that He is putting similar thoughts on other believers hearts!
There are different ways of looking at ecumenism, and people have different expectations of what the result of the ecumenical enterprise will be.
Sometimes people say things that imply that ecumenism will be the death of anything that is distinctly Reformed. As we sink together to the lowest commom denominator, we will in time end up having nothing to say and confess except for the blandest platitutes. All that we are and all that we have been given as Reformed people that is unique or makes a special contribution will be lost. Our "aroma" will be that of zucchinis. Ho-hum.
Other times people say that ecumenism is the way to draw the lines between us so starkly that it actually results in further alienation and is motivated by fear. Our Reformedness is to be hung like the flag of a victor on the battle field. The fools who are not as wise as we! Our aroma is that of limburger cheese. Phew!
My observation and experience of ecumenism from the CRC perspective is that we are neither zucchini nor limburger cheese. Rather, because we have a healthy understanding of who we are and what we believe, and because we are humble and honest enough to look at other denominations and traditions and see the wisdom and beauty that they contain, we add a pleasing aroma that mixes well with al the other delights on the banquet table. Maybe we're the fresh baked bread, others are the casserole, yet others are the apple pie. The meal would be less without the bread. And the meal would be disappointing if it were only bread.
I hope for two things: first, that we continue to become more Reformed, meaning that we grow and mature, living out the implications of our traditions and worldview, and second that we interact and engage ever more joyfully and positively with Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of Christ's Body.
<p>Thanks for all the replies everyone!
<p>@ Bruce: I hear what you're saying about our particular flavour and aroma, and I would agree with you that, on an inter-denominational level we are definitely acquiring that kind of good aroma. I think that we're not all the way there yet, but things like the Reformed/Catholic dialogue on the sacraments and the revision proces for Q&A 80 in the Heidelberg Catechism bode very well for our future in that regard.
<p>My questions have more to do with how we treat fellow believers from other traditions who come to worship with us. In this day and age when we are encouraged by the denomination (and rightly so) to start "counting to one", and when more and more people search out congregations based more on things like what sort of mission activities the church participates in, etc., and less and less on the nuances of doctrine (I'm not talking about the big stuff--people still care about that), then how should we respond to these "new" people in our midst?
<p>Is it really right for us to say: "You cannot be a member of our congregation because you don't believe in infant baptism."? Or, "You can't be an elder in the church because you believe in the possibility of a second blessing."? What if these people hold these convictions genuinely, but are willing to submit to the teaching of the church and not to "promote" or "indoctrinate" others with their beliefs within the community, but are willing to present fairly what the church believes instead?
<p>For ministers there is room for a "gravamen" or some such thing (which is a whole 'nother discussion), but what about for people who would normally be perfectly suitable for serving as elder or deacon or Sunday school teacher? Where's the room for them?
<p>@Bev: Thanks for your encouragement. Let me encourage you. I don't know where you're from, but here in Ontario there are many people who wrestle with these types of questions. My congregation is not the only one. Many ministers and church leaders wrestle with this type of question on a very frequent basis. Some congregations that I'm aware of seem to have abandoned any sense of a reformed identity and have basically "masked" themselves as non-denominational, community churches. Other congregations have taken a "harder" line and have not allowed people in membership or in leadership depending on their beliefs about relatively non-central things. And many other churches fall somewhere in-between. Ours falls currently somewhere in-between, in that we allow membership, but we don't allow certain leadership roles for people who believe differently than us in terms of (for example) infant vs. believer's baptism.
<p>As far as our "fear of the Holy Spirit" goes, I can understand where you're coming from, and there are some folks in our congregation who feel the same way as you. I also understand the historical and theological context for others' "fear", as you put it. Again, this is an issue where there's legitimate room to say (IMHO) that there is not an ABSOLUTELY clear answer to some of these questions. We've wrestled with it as a denomination, and our "official" doctrine has come a long way (I'd encourage you to read the study reports on "3rd wave pentecostalism", if you haven't already). The practical living out of that doctrine is a different story for many of our congregants. But in the meantime, how can we create room for each other--for those who are essentially "cessationists" and for those who are essentially "3rd Wave Pentecostals"?
<p>@Peter: Thank you too for your comments! I would agree with what you've said on so many fronts. I do think that sexual orientation is a significant part of this discussion as well. We have people (as do we all) who are homosexual and/or who struggle with what a proper biblical understanding of this issue is. In the past the church (as a whole) has had a pretty lamentable history of dealing with sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Still today there is not really a general recognition among Christians that sexual orientation is perhaps not quite as clearly black and white as maybe we once thought it was, and that there's a possibility that, no matter what viewpoint we have we might possibly be wrong...and that perhaps we ought to make room for each other in this too.
<p>I guess I'm suggesting that there must be a different way altogether:
<p>1.) Teach people what we (as Reformed Christians) believe.
<p>2.) Acknowledge to our own people (in addition to other denominations) that we don't believe that we have an absolute corner on the truth, but that this is the best we've been able to understand His revelation so far.
<p>3.) Allow for membership and leadership, provided the potential members/leaders acknowledge humbly that they too do not have an absolute corner on the truth and that they will not undermine the teachings of the church by proseletyzing others, etc.
<p>Blessings, everyone. Thanks for contributing your thought. I appreciate them as I explore and seek to follow Him.
<p>in His service,
Regarding your conclusion, that summary sounds Reformed to me!
Well...maybe one of our aromas is the almond family, ie marzipan...do a study on the almond branch in scripture, it's interesting...that's what Aaron's rod was, an almond branch because when it sprouted, there were almond blossoms and almonds (Numbers 17:8)...the candlesticks were designed with almond blossoms as the cups (Ex. 25:31; Zech 4:2), and when God asked Jeremiah what do you see. and jeremiah said a branch, it was from an almond tree (Jeremiah 1:11)... anyway, an interesting possibility about our denomination...
I have read the '73 and the '09 reports on pentecostalism from synod. and I am very grateful for the forward motion these represent...Praise God, we no longer officially endorse cessationism...although i do run into it still, with a flat out "God doesn't do that anymore" response to some "supernatural" testimonies. God's working on me to honor these godly believers even though we are on different pages (or on different "wave"lengths) in regard to how the Holy Spirit is working today.
In regard to high praise...I do feel this has been an aspect we have missed, and to support that, just look up Ps.149:6 in the NIV and in almost any other version, and note the difference. Another scripture regarding praise, that I'm digging into the various translations on, is Ps. 22:3...the NIV is unique, as far as I can tell, in how it translates it... Through this focus on v3 (PTL!), I have also gained beautiful insight into Jesus suffering on the cross through this psalm during this Lenten season, since Ps. 22 is a messianic prophecy. I wouldn't have been digging into it to the level I am, other than I was working on further insight on v3.
So, yes, the LORD is working on my heart, for the areas where I am not in one accord with the denomination I am in, to respect the authority of the denomination, but yet to be honest about issues/concepts/doctrines I'm struggling with. I sense that He doesn't want us glossing over these areas anymore, but refining them - sharpening each other. There is much gold in the CRC, but there is refining that needs to be done to consume the dross. Are we willing to go through the refining, are we even willing to admit that we need refining? Do we even want to be refined, or are we pretty comfortable with how things are?
God is connecting across denominational lines, just this morning someone shared a beautiful testimony on this in their life.
Thanks for the affirmation, again (I take it as a compliment to sound reformed--at least trully reformed). The problem (as always) is that we're in the "already/not-yet", isn't it? This maybe the kind of thing that many of us say, but for all of us (no less me) putting it into action within our congregations is another thing.
This is especially easy to notice with the position statement that Bev mentions earlier on in this forum, but it's also visible in the current synodical study on children at the Lord's Supper. In that study the recommended wording that they are putting forward to Synod is that "all baptised members" may participate in the Lord's Supper according to age and ability. Notice that, technically (whether the study committee intended this or not) it means that conceivably a church could allow children as young as those who can eat bread and drink juice (more or less just after they've been weaned) if they've been baptised, but children who've been dedicated by their parents, but who are in otherwise an identical position are not technically allowed to even be considered for participation.
I know it could be argued (pretty successfully in most cases, I grant) that parents who believe in "believer's baptism" only probably wouldn't want their children to participate in Lord's Supper before they themselve get baptised. On the other hand, I can (as a Pastor) conceive of a situation, for example, where parents have had some sort of traumatic experience related to an inappropriate application of infant baptism (or teachings surrounding it, or some other thing) and might not be willing to risk forcing a similar experience on their children, but who might be fine with having their kids (who express their love for Jesus) participate in the Lord's Supper.
I don't mean to nit-pick, or split hairs or whatever, but my point here is that, though my conclusions might sound "reformed" they are not really being applied (especially on that internal denominational level that I keep talking about) in the way that they should.
Anyway, that's all I'll post for now. I need to make some popcorn for my son's 7th birthday party! ;-)
I hope you take this the correct way, you are exhibiting wisdom of the Spirit. I know the Spirit well and you my friend are walking with him. I am not a Pentecostal but I look for Spirit in most conversations. Just remember you have to the correct motive for Him to work and you must remain humble. God bless you
This was a good discussion, and difficult. It needs to continue if we are to get at why the membership of the denomination is declining, since this is part of the issue, although not the entire cause of it. When we make peripheral issues more important than issues which are more clear in scripture, then perhaps this is one of our problems. For example, whether you believe in infant baptism or adult baptism, if you treat repentance and obedience cavalierly with no respect, then the issue of infant or adult baptism is not really the issue at all. Scripture says much less about baptism (whether at youth or maturity, whether once or twice), than it does about true repentance and obedience. Scripture says much more about adultery, idolatry, homosex, and telling falsehoods, than it does about infant baptism or about speaking in tongues. The very fact that we have a number of churches in North America which refer to themselves as Reformed Baptists, adopting many reformed doctrines while still maintaining adult baptism, should tell us that our conclusions about the relation of election and predestination to infant baptism are not so obvious to all, and certainly not inevitable. Scripture's promise to our children is exactly the same promise to those who "are afar off", and so is somewhat of a stretch to apply to infant baptism. So I appreciate Daniel's comments in this regard, and also Bev's comments.
Having thought some more about this issue, I would like to disagree with the concept of core and peripheral. I think that is the wrong way of looking at how we as christians can live with one another in spite of differences of perspective. For example, Christ being divine as the Son of God, and dying for us, and our sinful nature needing redemption is core. God having originally made man good is core. God choosing us before we choose him is also a core concept. But, other issues which may not seem to be core issues, such as what constitutes sexual immorality, or what constitutes theft, adultery, or murder, are still in many cases clearly indicated by scripture. When differences on these things are dismissed because they are assumed not to be core issues, then we lose the guidance of scripture as our basis. It is not legitimate to say that we simply have different interpretations of scripture. On the basis of different interpretations of scripture, core doctrines are also sometimes neglected or perverted. So I would suggest something different.
How about being realistic about what scripture is clear on and what scripture is not so clear on? I know this can involve debate and discussion before a consensus is reached. But in reality, some doctrines are extrapolated doctrines, and not directly or clearly given in scripture; this includes the practice of infant baptism. We say one Lord, one faith, one baptism as if it means to forbid a repeat baptism. Yet, scripture clearly indicates that John the Baptist baptized with the baptism of repentance, and Jesus would baptize with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Clearly different baptisms. Why are we so adamant then?
Also, what is the significance of the fact that Jesus was not baptizing, and the apostle Paul also did not hardly baptize anyone? Why do we assume then that this sacrament is such that only "priests" can do it, when scripture gives no such indication? Is it possible for us to separate worldly ideologies of power and ceremony from the real life of the people of God? I don't know if I have an answer for this, but the question should be asked.
Scripture clearly indicates that women should not have authority over men in the church, in several passages. Why are some of us so adamant then that a church is regressive or ancient if it follows this injunction? Is this not the same scripture? Is this not the same writer that we claim supports "there is neither male nor female"?
Scripture gives no indication of a theological understanding equivalent to our requirements for participating in Lord's supper, yet we have made rules about it. Why? (and we have reduced these rules lately which seems to make sense.)
Scripture clearly indicates that the church was to cast out the immoral man (I Cor 5), until he repents. Why do we look down our noses at those churches who impliment discipline? Why are we more relaxed about those things that scripture is more clear about, and stricter about those things that scripture is less clear on?
We know that Annanias and Sapphira died for merely telling a lie in order to gain acceptance, while we also do not read in scripture anywhere that anyone died for baptizing or not baptizing an infant. Nor did anyone die for preaching without a license. So which practice then is more relevant to our doctrine?
If we used the criteria of things that are more clear in scripture, to reduce our reliance on those man-made rules and things which are outside of scripture, perhaps more unity and harmony would be possible. It would not solve all issues and problems, but it would seem to help.
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