Conform, Reform, or Leave?

Part Two • Part Three

Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the castle-church in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517.

Dr. Scott Clark 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. 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 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.

Part Two • Part Three


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9 thoughts on “Conform, Reform, or Leave?”

  1. Pingback: Conform, Reform or Leave? Part Two

  2. Pingback: Conform, Reform or Leave? Part Three

  3. Thanks for this article. I need it very much. I’m a Pastor and by the grace of God He led me in through my study of Scripture and in my readings to the reformed faith specially the doctrines of grace. My church that I am Pastoring is a conservative evangelical church. I praise God that the Bible is being held in high esteem and being preach in our pulpit. My problem is that our view of salvation is Arminian. And I am now preaching slowly The doctrines of grace. I am being labeled a Calvinist by some of our leaders. By the grace of God I am still here even though I am still new and learning I hope someday the church I am Pastoring will see the truth of the doctrines of grace.

  4. Even if a church had preaching and sacraments every Lord’s Day, it doesn’t mean that it meets the three marks of a true church. Is the preaching Christ-centered and Word-centered, or is it moralistic and psychotherapeutic? Is the Lord’s Supper and Christian baptism “fenced,” or is it administered openly? Lastly, does the church have formal membership so that the elders can exercise church discipline among its members?

    These are the most basic questions, among others, to ask about your present church or if you’re looking for another.

  5. What’s important in finding a church is not the multitude of programs for adults, youth, women, divorced, cowboys, golfers, hula dancers, etc., but whether the church evidences the three marks of a true church. Why do we find most of our youth separating themselves out of the church after high school? Why are they (and most evangelicals) biblically and doctrinally illiterate?

    Bill Hybels and his Willow Creek Church found out that the big number of church-sponsored secular programs does not result in spiritual maturity. Rather, as many polls have repeatedly found out, these programs only turn out oodles of church people devoid of true doctrine, worship and practice.

  6. Are these three marks Biblical? Absolutely. We can find them easily in two passages:

    • Acts 2:42: Believers are to devote themselves to (1) “the apostles’ teachings” –preaching of the pure gospel; (2) fellowship and prayers–church discipline; only those who are in good standing can partake, share and pray with believers: and (3) “the breaking of bread”–sacraments. Church discipline is also implied in the first and third: the consequence of false teaching is exclusion from the sacraments.
    • Matthew 28:19-20: The Great Commission implies the three marks: (1) “baptizing them…”, sacraments; (2)  “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” preaching the true gospel; and (3) exclusion from the sacraments in case of false teachings.
  7. When the Belgic Confession says that no person has the right to separate himself or herself from the TRUE church (Article 28), it also implies that a person MUST separate himself or herself from the FALSE church.
    If one agrees with the Belgic Confession, as as far as the marks of the true church are concerned (Article 29), it seems that a church that lacks one of these can be considered false. Am I right?

  8. When the Belgic Confession says that no person has the right to separate himself or herself from the TRUE church (Article 28), it also implies that a person MUST separate himself or herself from the FALSE church. So those who wanted to separate themselves from one church for another must be sure, after doing the necessary steps, that the one they are leaving is really an apostate one.

  9. What a timely reminder considering that most of the members and prospective members of the Pasig UCRC are from “evangelical” backgrounds.  

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