Conform, Reform, or Leave?

This is a repost from my Doctrine Unites! blog post on January 13, 2010.

Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the castle-church in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517.Dr. R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, has good advice for many of those whom I have recently spoken to regarding the sorry state of their churches or denominations. There are two main groups in the Philippines (and in other countries as well): mainliners and “evangelicals” (in quotes because it has an entirely different meaning today than during the Reformation).

Mainliners like the Methodists, Presbyterians and UCCP are generally liberal and politically-inclined. Evangelicals are those who are generally Bapticostal—a hodgepodge of all kinds of Pentecostal, baptistic, Arminian, dispensational and health-wealth teachings. Some are a combination of mainline and evangelical cultures. Mostly, none of the three marks of a true church (see below) is present.

Like the mainliner who asked Dr. Clark if he should stay to reform or leave, those whom I have spoken to have the same question. What would a Reformed pastor, assigned by his denomination (this, in itself, is already a big problem) to a 17-year-old church whose members’ beliefs are a syncretism of Pentecostalism and superstitious ignorance, do?

The task of pointing a mainline denomination back to the historic Protestant Reformed faith is practically a mission of changing the course of the planets. You may be able to change your “local” church, but what about the whole denomination? If the leadership at the very top has been well-entrenched for decades—and going deeper into apostasy, like the PCUSA, the Anglicans, ELCA, etc.—how is a local pastor or member going to change the whole denomination? I have no knowledge of any denomination who has gone down into the pit of apostasy and then climbed back up to orthodoxy.

The options then narrow down to two: to conform or to leave. The first one, for a faithful believer, will be a breach of his own conscience, as Martin Luther declared as he stood before the Diet of Worms. At the end of the day, the only course of action left is to leave as soon as you find a faithful church, even at the expense of leaving lifetime friends and commuting one or two hours, to worship there every Lord’s Day.

Here’s Dr. Clark’s advice to those struggling with this question:

Many confessional Reformed congregations are commuter churches. I don’t know that I would raise the “local church” preference to a principle. Our principles are confessed in places such as Belgic Confession Article 29, which gives us the marks of a true church: pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. You’ll notice that geography isn’t among those marks of a true church.

Moving from a church that does not confess or practice these marks to a place where it does is a very long journey indeed. Sometimes it happens but it takes a long time. Often it doesn’t happen and the “reformer” who tries is very frustrated and even burnt out. Attempting the reformation of local church is slow, difficult work. Of course the sovereign work of the Spirit is essential. Nothing we do can replace his work and if the Spirit does not bring it about it will not happen. The single most important lesson I learned as a young pastor is that I am not the Holy Spirit. It seems pretty obvious but the temptation to try to do the work of the Spirit is powerful and seductive.

Much of what one does, in the attempted reformation of a typical evangelical congregation, will be determined by the response of the congregational leadership. If the pastors and elders don’t see a need for Reformation according to the Word (as confessed by the Reformed churches) then there’s little concrete basis for hope of a reformation. One way to proceed is to approach the leadership (pastor and/or elders) and to lay out your case to them. It might be best to approach the pastor first to see how he responds. If he’s favorable, then you have an ally. If he’s not favorable, well, things have become that much more difficult and (speaking humanly) unlikely. Then you might approach the elders (or, in some cases, depending on the structure of the congregation, the deacons) to see how they respond. You might begin by asking questions rather than laying out a case. The questions would be diagnostic in nature with a view to discovering how they view the situation. Are they happy with the preaching and approach to worship and ministry? Are they aware of the Reformation theology, piety, and practice and the discrepancy between current approaches and the Reformation approach? Do they care?

If you get some good response you might share some of the resources that you have found helpful (e.g., White Horse Inn and Office Hours audio). Perhaps that will lead to reformation. There are a number of books (e.g., Mike Horton’s Christless Christianity and Gospel-Driven Life) you might share with the leadership if they are willing to consider these things.

I very much appreciate your enthusiasm for the Reformed faith but there may well be a solid Reformed congregation that is not “local” (that is defined rather differently in So Cal than it is in other areas; anything within 60 minutes is more or less “local”) that needs your help and that may be able to help prepare you for future service.

Some of you who go to Pasig Covenant Reformed Church come from as far away as Caloocan City, Pasay City, and Quezon City, commuting more than an hour away. Some of you who attend Trinity Covenant Reformed Church in Imus, Cavite also travel from far away places. We are thankful for your faithfulness to God in seeking to a true church that is faithful to the preaching of the gospel, the administration of sacraments, and church discipline. If you’re still members of another church where these marks are absent, would you consider membership in our church?

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