Reformed Theology

Diversity and the Nature of the Church

“The great strength of Presbyterianism is its uncanny knack of fostering a fellowship in which people of different viewpoints continue to dialogue.”
—David Robert Ord

Here is a very concise statement on the nature of the true church: “The true church is one where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.”

A right doctrine of the church doesn’t require everyone in the church to have right doctrine (though members should have a basic understanding of the gospel). The business of the church is simply to worship God corporately, gathering together to partake in the sacraments, to hear God’s words spoken to them, and to sing them back to him as one. The interpretation and application of God’s words are secondary, and they are the responsibility of the individual’s intellect, and the Holy Spirit, respectively.

Theologians have always put a strong emphasis on the corporate nature of the church. But it’s really hard to do things corporately without a group of people, since in very small groups, the individuals are emphasized over the body. (Small groups are good for building relationship and encouraging one another, but only as supplemental to corporate worship that includes people not in your small group.)

“The unity of the church is compatible with a wide variety of forms, but it is hidden and distorted when variant forms are allowed to harden into sectarian divisions, exclusive denominations, and rival factions.” So says the Presbyterian Confession of 1967. This is not to discount all denominations or abolish Presbyterianism, but to point us to the historicity of the Reformed faith, wherever we may find it, and whatever we may call it; but within those denominations, sectarianism must be discouraged. This is another reason why we’ve chosen to attend the growing downtown mainline church rather than being part of a tiny fringe congregation.

Up until now, we have called ourselves Reformed Baptist. But really, we’re just plain Christian. For me, it was a long journey to get to where I am theologically, but for my wife it hasn’t meant changing her views about things as much as recognizing categories for the things she’s always understood the Bible to teach. We’re looking for ancient orthodoxy. We want to share the same faith that Augustine practiced, that Athanasius practiced—the same faith as the first century church. (I hope that once I get some of these doctrinal posts out if the way, I’ll be able to relax and just be a plain old “mere Christian” again.)

I find myself more Reformed than mosts Reformed Baptists, however, in that I recognize all the Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, Westminster Confession, etc.). A good definition of a Reformed Baptist ought to be

Re·formed Bap·tist noun \ri-ˈfȯrmd ˈbap-tist\: a Presbyterian who waits until their children are of a so-called accountable age before baptizing them, upon their confession of faith.

But many Reformed Baptists don’t recognize the source texts for their 1689 London Baptist Confession and seem to hold to it alone, and so they may end up with only two confessional documents (with Keach’s Catechism as the other). By contrast, the PC(USA) Book of Confessions contains the Scots Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. What’s worse, in subscribing to the 1689 confession, many new RB churches seem to take more exceptions to it than the 1689 itself does to the Presbyterian Westminster Confession on which it is based–making themselves more different from authentic Reformed Baptists than authentic Reformed Baptists are from Presbyterians!

So I feel more welcome at a Presbyterian church than I do even at churches that claim to be Reformed Baptist. As John Piper said addressing baptism issues at his congregation: we shouldn’t make the door to the local church more narrow than the gates of the Kingdom of God (membership in the invisible, global Church). I want to be part of a church where my annihilationist, consubstantiationist friends could be deacons if they wanted to be, because I know they believe the Gospel, and that’s what matters.

It’s like what Mark Driscoll says about the closed-handed vs. open-handed issues. The Acts 29 Network is credobaptist, but it allows for paedobaptist churches to be part of their network, because the things they agree on are more important than the things they disagree on. (Baptism is an important sacrament, but it only happens once—at least it should! After it’s done you still have a lot of Christian living to do.)

Pastor Greg Cootsona blogged a couple months ago in response to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins:

The questions he [Rob Bell] asks can find honest engagement without rancor here. And really, mainliners here just engage (at their best) with the whole of the Christian church in time (reading not only Calvin and Luther, but also Gregory of Nissa and Thomas Aquinas) and in breadth (taking in the insights of Roman Catholics and Orthodox, for example). It’s simply a way of engaging what C. S. Lewis penned as “mere Christianity”.

And so we have come to the place where, if we want to be comfortable and welcome in a church even though we’re Calvinists, amillennial, Sabbatarian, and believe in the antiquity of the earth, then we must recognize the only way we can feel welcome is to be part of a church that would also welcome Rob Bell-types. This is the nature of plurality and diversity. In order to feel safe and not labeled as heretical over our views on secondary issues, we also need to learn to be more open-minded and not label others as heretics.

David Robert Ord, in an article called What do Presbyterians believe about the Bible?, wrote, “Our Constitution requires us to promote inclusiveness, which means including all the different theological positions that are consistent with the Reformed tradition.” This is a breath of fresh air. It’s much preferable to situations in which people leave and form new denominations or kick others out of their church who differ with them. Also, notice how it’s not a kind of “anything goes” approach, but even in these postmodern times seeks consistency with the Reformed tradition.

In the past decade or so, our downtown mainline church has seen unprecedented growth. Not that it’s about numbers, but people are calling it “renewal” and “revival” (as far as Reformed types can use those words). Associate pastor Greg Cootsona attributes it to “the ways that this particular church has sought to live out Reformed theology and practice.” I found it very reassuring to get an email from our new pastor reflecting on how he found freedom when he discovered Reformed theology, and the more articles, booklets, etc., that I read both from the denominational level and particular to this church, I keep seeing the word Reformed.

The phrase “mere Christianity”, coined by the great Puritan pastor Richard Baxter (after whom we named our son), was made popular by C. S. Lewis’s book by the same name. Though it is a Reformed church, this church’s mission is to point to the core of Christianity, those ancient orthodox doctrines which have been believed by all true Christians “at all times and in all places”. Lewis also spoke of the “chronological snobbery” that prevents modern people from reading old books as if they didn’t have anything to say to their condition. It’s very similar in modern American evangelicalism, that they don’t think the Christians who went before them knew anything.

I should mention that I have personally come to understand the Reformed position on infant baptism, as correlating to old covenant circumcision in that it is a sign of the covenant, and as a metaphor for the electing grace which God bestows on his children before they ever had a say in the matter. But my wife is not comfortable with it. We also have different views on the importance of church membership. So, on these issues and others, we’re learning to apply the same policy of diversity and tolerance on non-essentials which we have at our new church in our own family! Did you know Presbyterians will actually perform a “baby dedication” if you’re not comfortable with sprinkling? So it’s not even an issue worth forming new denominations over! (Good luck trying to get a Baptist pastor to sprinkle your kid!)

It’s almost as if what we are doing as Baptists in joining a Presbyterian congregation is the opposite of leaving a church, since we are grafting back into the main branch of Reformation faith, and they’ll still tolerate our credobaptist ways.

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One thought on “Diversity and the Nature of the Church

  1. Pingback: I Have Issues With… | I must follow, if I can

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