Previous article in this series: December 15, 2017, p. 125.
With the New Year upon us, it is customary to think of improving ourselves personally. Christians may want to read more, eat less, adopt an exercise regimen, develop different entertainment practices, or change spending habits. True, one person may be inclined to self-examination more than another, but we all do well to consider ourselves regarding correcting personal flaws and promoting spiritual growth. The apostle Peter warns that, if there is not growth in a man, he may well be led away with the error of the wicked and fall from his own steadfastness (II Pet. 3:17, 18).
But the new year also serves as an occasion for ecclesiastical introspection, what I have called “ecclesiastical self-examination.” Recommending this, I am well aware that, if there are only a few who are inclined to personal introspection, there are probably fewer yet inclined to reflecting on the spiritual condition of their church. But the Reformation calling in the motto Semper Reformanda expresses a biblical principle that requires churches to examine themselves. Serious and regular ecclesiastical self-examination is necessary.
So I return to the question: Are we willing and able to do this? Is the PRCA in her membership willing to be serious about examining herself in the light of the Word of God and making reforms by that Word of God? Are we? We must give more than lip-service to Semper Reformanda.
Asking the right questions
In the last editorial, I ended by suggesting three categories of questions for this self-examination, in connection with both doctrine and practice: 1) What have we lost? 2) Where is the church slipping? 3) What could be improved? We ask them with the prayer that God will make us willing to see ourselves as He does.
Is it possible that a doctrine that in the past was taught regularly is no longer being taught or is rarely expounded and applied today? Are there warnings that our fathers heard from our pulpits that our children would be surprised to hear today? Or are there practices among us about which our grandparents, if they observed them, would be rightly alarmed?
If we have lost something in the preaching, one reason may be that the preachers have allowed one important exhortation, too frequently made, to elbow aside other exhortations that ought to be made. Or they have given one important doctrine preeminent place, the result of which is that other important doctrines get short-changed. If a minister, for example, always refers to faith as a bond, at the expense of faith as knowledge, trust, and activity, he could be leading his flock into doctrinal error. He would not be wrong to speak of faith as a bond. But he would be wrong nevertheless, because he omits faith’s other dimensions. Sanctification, to use another example, can be preached at the expense of justification (or vice versa), or the efficacious calling at the expense of election or some other vital truth. The same is true with regard to the Christian life. So focused on one important commandment—perhaps one commonly violated in other churches or in society—a church could fail properly to emphasize another commandment. The church or churches (or preacher) have become imbalanced. This is not just lack of wisdom, but error that must be corrected.
All this shows that it may take effort to determine whether something has been lost or is slipping. That is, ecclesiastical self-examination is not as easy as asking whether there are any heresies propagated among us, or any ungodly life-style promoted, or even a conscious refusal to give some necessary exhortation. If it were that easy, most churches could conduct the exercise quickly, conclude smugly that they are fully and robustly Reformed, and go on their merry way…in error.
Ecclesiastical self-examination, like personal self-examination, takes diligent work and honest reflection.
When the PRCA began almost one hundred years ago, one parting word from her mother church was that, although the departing ministers were orthodox in the main (“reformed with respect to the fundamental truths”) they exhibited a tendency towards one-sidedness. The PRCA rejected and still reject that charge, believing that it was a way to cover up the doctrinal errors of common grace. But the expression itself—an “inclination to one-sidedness”—expresses a possible fault in churches, one for which churches should examine themselves. Specifically, in the 1920s, our fathers were charged with over-emphasizing the sovereignty of God. The charge was denied by saying that it is impossible to over-emphasize the sovereignty of God. Of course, every Reformed believer can appreciate that denial. But Reformed believers must also be aware that a person could over-emphasize God’s sovereignty: by talking about sovereignty so much that other doctrines, also important, rarely get mentioned. There is no balance. In that way, a man or a church could truly be guilty of a tendency towards one-sidedness.
My prayer is that every reader, especially elders, will be willing to admit that it is possible to be guilty of this. Faithful to our Reformed tradition of Semper Reformanda, we will do so.
Then, where may the church be slipping, so gradually perhaps that she does not notice it? Had she been thinking and watching—had she cared—it would not have been difficult to see and avoid. Or, where may improvements be made? Grow in grace (II Pet. 3:18)! Increase in the fruits of your righteousness (II Cor. 9:10)! Be sure that the increase is “from God” (Col. 2:19). The sanctification of a church is like the sanctification of individuals: they make progress in holiness. If there is not progress, there will be decline.
Whom to ask?
Sometimes a friend may be our best help to point out our weaknesses.
A minister acquaintance recently told the humorous story that, walking home after church one morning, his wife complimented him on his very good sermon. As his pride began to swell, he was instantly deflated by the rest of her sentence, “…and you need to listen to it.” We ministers need such blunt help at times.
We as congregations and denominations need help too. But who will give it if we do not ask? Likely very few, unless they know that we have shown genuine openness to their help.
Who, outside one’s congregation or denomination, will say in Christian charity, “Your worship has this weakness.” Or, “Your denomination would be much more effective if you would consider….” Or, “Your church magazine betrays this blind spot.” Why would we not ask our neighboring congregation, or our friends in Northern Ireland, the Philippines, and Singapore—who are our sisters? Or our brethren in Australia or other lands where mature saints have mature opinions about church life, but do not share our long, Dutch Reformed traditions?
They may well have good opinions, worth hearing, even if hearkening to them may not be required in every case. The Namibians and South Africans about celebration of the Lord’s Supper—why did we let go the tradition of the common cup and the one table? Our Irish friends, who have a much older Psalm-singing tradition than we have in America, will have good opinions about singing the Psalms. The Australian brothers could speak about worship more broadly. The Germans about how to involve women in the church’s care of the poor. Our Filipino, Indian, and Burmese brothers would be able to say some powerful things about Americans’ affluence. The Singaporeans about the importance of higher education, the place of sports in the Christian’s leisure time, or how to live with the painful reality of unbelieving family members.
These are my informed guesses about what they could say. Would we want to ask them? At the same time, would they want to ask us what we may see in them that they do not see?
Help to analyze ourselves at present may also come from “friends” in ages past. That is, we should ask “the question of history.” Of course, the caution is always necessary: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these?” (Eccl. 7:10). But the wise preacher’s warning is a warning against sentimentalizing history, not against learning from it. And history is a valuable friend to help us evaluate ourselves regarding our present spiritual condition.
Every month, for many years now, my own congregation has published in her monthly newsletter old church bulletins. These are old. Starting in the 1940s, with about four bulletins each month, we are now coming to the bulletins of the late 50s. The old mimeographed bulletins are a delight to read—I always turn to them first. Some of what I read makes me laugh. I can visualize Rev. G. Vos, late on a Saturday night, sitting upstairs in the parsonage or church with his typewriter, writing some things no minister today could get away with. Some of what is there makes me thankful that we have learned some things in the past fifty years. But some things make me reflect on what may have been better “in the olden days,” with regard to the life and worship of the people of God. That is healthy. We ought to read our own history.
Besides old church bulletins, where can we find this history? We could speak to the old members of the congregation before the Lord gives them their eternal reward. We could pick up some of the yellowed and out of print pamphlets, or sit down in the church library by the almost twelve linear feet of old Standard Bearers or (almost as long) Beacon Lights. History! Learn from history. How does our church today compare to the church of fifty or one hundred, or five hundred years ago?
And then, because the church is catholic (and we give that more than lip-service, too), we ought to read other churches’ writings. There are other Reformed churches in the world and edifying magazines. Our sisters and friends have some also: the British Reformed Journal of the brothers in the UK, the Salt Shakers from the youth in Singapore, or the Evangelical Presbyterian published by our EPC brethren in Australia. PRCA members ought to read more than PRCA publications.
This becomes a reminder to me and all other PRCA writers to be explicit in leading the readers to history, to Reformed tradition, to the fathers and their writings, and sometimes (without watering down Reformed tradition) to the breadth of that tradition and the ability to take different opinions on some non-essential or non-confessional matters—like supra- and infra-lapsarianism, eternal and temporal justification, the frequency of Lord’s Supper celebration, reading the law weekly or not….
If church members in one denomination insulate themselves from the Reformed community—present and past—they make it impossible to be always reforming.
Someone asked me recently whether I would be willing to give a speech or speeches about elder training. If I were to give that speech, it would not be complete hyperbole to suggest a short one: “Read history; end of speech.”
Who will help us see ourselves as God sees us?
Should we be fearful for the PRCA?
That is a question every church member, especially the officebearers, ought to ask, carefully.
If we find a ‘conservatism’ that is more nostalgic than knowledgeable, indeed, we ought to be fearful. If we commonly hear, “Because we have always done it that way,” with no explanation of the why of that tradition, we should be fearful. If we sense steady refusal not only to reform in some particular area, but even to consider the need for constant re-formation, we should be afraid for ourselves. These signs do not bode well for the denomination of which we are a part.
And if such a mentality would continue, it would evolve quickly into an ecclesiastical “super-bug,” an ecclesiastical infection resistant to all treatment. The assumption that all is well (“We are Reformed, after all!”), mixed with a dose of ignorance (“Who needs to read?”), combined with a measure of unwillingness to engage in self-examination, these will bring about the church Herman Hoeksema called “a dead church with a dead ministry.”
If, on the other hand, the church leaders are wise, balanced, not reactionary, careful in their instruction regarding Semper Reformanda, warning about the deep ditches on both sides, we can be grateful that God gives hope for our church.
Let us be strong, quit ourselves like men, and fight (I Sam. 4:9) for the continued welfare of the church that is not ours, but the Lord’s.