Monday, July 29, 2013

"The problem with being 'Reformed' ..."

"The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch." - Acts 11:26

I grew up in a church that had "Reformed" in the name.  I served churches that had "Reformed" in the name for more than thirty years.  There was even a time when I didn't mind being called, "Reformed," much as some people are called "Catholic" or "Lutheran" or "Baptist" or "Presbyterian" or "Methodist" or ... (fill in your particular "brand" of Christianity).  But early in my ministry I began to be somewhat uncomfortable with what some were doing with this "title" and what they were meaning by "Reformed."  After nine years of ministry in a small denomination called, the Reformed Church in the United States, I left to become part of the Reformed Church in America.  It was 1986 and the congregation that called me to serve them as pastor was at the time in need of revival.  God showed up big time in that small rural South Dakota Church and people began to be excited about the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Then, in 1996, I moved to West Michigan.  For those who may not know, West Michigan was THE birthplace of the "Reformed faith" in the new world.  People came from the Netherlands to found a colony committed to biblical truth and they left a heritage of faithfulness to God's Word and to the building up of Christ's body, the Church.  That foundation still stands today in congregations throughout West Michigan.  The "Reformed faith" based everything on the authority of God's Word and traced their heritage back to the Reformation, to men like John Calvin and others.  Such faithfulness to Scripture produced fruit and great blessings to countless communities as men, women, boys and girls were brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and to faith in a sovereign God who rules over all things and who loves His people passionately.  The offer of God's forgiveness by grace through faith was proclaimed to all with the sure and certain knowledge that God had chosen some for eternal life and that His Word would not return empty, but would accomplish the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

All of this sounds good ... and it IS!  So what's the problem with being "Reformed"?  The problem arises when being "Reformed" becomes more important than being a disciple of Jesus Christ, being a "Christian."  Some would say that the name "Christian" doesn't mean a lot today.  People who have little, if any, knowledge of the Bible, of Jesus or of the Gospel claim to be Christians because they have some vague belief in God and go to church once in a while.  In some places around the world "Christian" simply means that you are not an atheist or a Muslim.  For the past four hundred and more years people have used other names, other titles, to distinguish themselves from other "Christians."  Thus the titles: Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, etc.

Two years ago, Lighthouse Community Church in Allendale, Michigan, the congregation I have been serving since 2004, decided to become non-denominational.  This congregation had been part of the Reformed Church in America for 95 years.  So what prompted 95% of the congregation to leave, and why didn't we join another denomination?  Here's what happened:  God began bringing people to Lighthouse who had been finding that their particular brand of Christianity, whatever it was, wasn't giving them the spiritual food their souls needed to live in this world with hope, with peace of mind and with spiritual strength to face life and to find victory in Jesus Christ.  At the same time, the Spirit of God continued to convict the leadership of Lighthouse that the Reformed Church in America was drifting away from its commitment to biblical truth in order to be "Reformed and always reforming" (a catch-phrase that is increasingly used by those who want to "re-interpret" the Bible without being noticed).  First, it was joining organizations like the World Council of Churches and mingling with those who had agendas other than preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Then it was approving the role of women in leadership.  Next it was opening the door to the idea that people who did not know Jesus or confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord could still be saved.  Then it was saying that homosexual behavior was sin, but allowing pastors, elders and congregations, and even Professors of Theology to openly affirm homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage, without any form of correction or discipline.

When we called others to stand with us in withholding any financial support from the denomination until the truth of God's Word was upheld, it was we who were viewed as stirring up trouble and being divisive.  When we attempted to leave the denomination by filing a petition to withdraw, we were denied.  And when we voted to leave anyway, we were charged - actually officially charged - as acting contrary to the Book of Church Order and I was charged with breaking my ordination vows.  All of this took place more than a year ago, so why bring it up now??  Because in recent months I have continued to see evidence of the tragic consequences of comprising the truth of God's Word and have been overwhelmingly convinced that the name of Christ will continue to be dishonored before the world and unbelievers as long as true Christians consider any other title or name to be more important than "Christian."

Most people in churches today have no idea what Luther or Calvin or others during the time of the Reformation taught.  Most people in churches have no idea what it means to be Reformed or Baptist, Lutheran or Presbyterian.  Then there are those who are Pentecostal, and of course, Catholic.  What does all of this mean to those who sit in pews or chairs on Sunday morning?!  MORE importantly, what does all of this mean to those who desperately need to find hope in a world filled with evil?  And even MORE importantly, what does all of this mean to GOD ... to Jesus Christ, who is the Head of HIS body, the one true Church??  Being "Reformed" is a problem when it becomes more important than being "Christian" and when being faithful to a denomination means more than being faithful to Christ, whose name we have taken upon us!

As God was bringing people with various "labels" to Lighthouse Community Church, His Spirit was uniting our hearts around the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the authority of His Word in all things.  When it came time to leave a denomination, given the evidence mentioned above and more, it was an easy choice to become non-denominational, because that is what God had already produced in our midst.  We call ourselves "Christians" because we believe in Jesus Christ, we love Jesus Christ, and we desire to follow Him, obeying His Word in all things.  When we disagree about something, we go to God's Word TOGETHER to see what HE says, not what a particular brand of "Christianity" might say.  We search the confessions of those who have gone before us to see what others have understood Scripture to say and we continue to use certain confessions as being faithful expressions of what the Bible teaches.  But our foundation is the authority of God's Word!!

Some question where our accountability is found and we answer:  the Spirit and the Word.  Where is the accountability of those in denominations?  Councils, Books of Church Order, etc.?!  Who holds the seminary professor or the college professor or the pastor accountable - really accountable?  In a local congregation the Elders, those chosen by God and ordained by those who know and follow Christ, along with everyone who hears the Word preached and taught, hold the pastor and other teachers accountable to proclaim the truth.  The Church is not a place for "lazy Christians" to be spoon-fed and to just accept what they are told.  It was said of the Bereans in Acts 17:11 that they "were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."  THAT was accountability!  And that's what the Church needs today - biblically literate people who hold one another accountable to God's revealed truth and who desire to proclaim to the world the ONE message that has the power to SAVE!!

I urge you, wherever you are in the world, whatever denomination or church you may be a part of, to be a student of the Word of God.  Pray earnestly for wisdom from the Spirit of God, who is the author of the Bible.  God has called some to labor in the word and to be pastors and teachers.  Make sure that those you are listening to are being faithful to God's Word.  Do not accept things just because it comes from a certain church or denomination.  False teachers were present in the early church and they are present today on TV, the internet and in churches - even in West Michigan.  Make sure you are not led astray and deceived.  There is a rapidly growing trend towards "inclusivism," that all religions are expressions of the spiritual nature of man and that no one particular religion has more truth than another.  More on that next time.  For now, know that God knows those who are His.  Those who are true "Christians" are zealous followers of the Christ, the promised Messiah, whose name is Jesus.  Let THAT title define who you are as you live daily to honor Jesus Christ by your words and your actions!

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