In the November 1 special issue of the Standard Bearer, I wrote on the Reformation principle Semper Reformanda, or “Reformed and always being re-formed.” I defined that important principle as the calling of the church always to be examining herself in the light of the Word of God, and then making necessary correction based on that Word of God. Always. There never is a time when the church may rest satisfied with herself. She must start with being “Reformed,” and then always be willing to be “re-formed.” She is active in that calling by examining herself. Thus: “ecclesiastical self-examination.”
Because the PRCA and other true churches in the world desire to pay more than lip-service to this great Reformation principle, we must determine how to conduct this self-examination—difficult and painful exercise that it may be. How is this self-examination done?
Ecclesiastical self-examination is like personal self-examination, which believers engage in regularly.
Before the Lord’s Supper’s administration, the minister preaches a “preparatory” sermon to call the people of God to spend the upcoming week examining themselves in three areas—their sins and the curse of God they deserve for their sins; their faith in the promises of God; and their intentions regarding thankful living and neighbor-love. We who know the Reformed Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper have heard such sermons and calls for many years. We have engaged in a serious, spiritual self-appraisal often.
So the church must engage in serious, spiritual self-appraisal. Often.
And it safely can be said that how carefully we have personally examined ourselves will likely determine whether we will be able to participate in ecclesiastical self-examination.
Ecclesiastical self-examination may be like personal self-examination, but it is different. What I can readily do for myself, I cannot do for the denomination of which I am a member. What I conduct in my home each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper I cannot conduct for the congregation of which I am part. At least not in the same manner—a very personal and quiet introspection. The church is not a “person” and a “self” as a Christian is.
So, is a man appointed to perform the examination of the church(es)? Does synod appoint a special counsel to conduct an inquiry? An objective, unbiased inspection to show the denomination her weaknesses?
In some denominations of which I am aware, the president of the denomination (or some other functionary) is called to give a “State of the Church” address to the body. As the president of the USA gives an annual “State of the Union” address, or the governor of a state a “State of the State” address, the denominational representative offers his assessment of the church’s spiritual well-being. If you read such addresses in their church magazines, you will notice the profit of annual self-reflections, but also the manifold difficulties: the difficulty of doing it with sufficient objectivity, the difficulty of having full and accurate information of the denomination as a whole, the difficulty of one man making the assessment, as well as the difficulty of exercising proper discretion—to be bold where boldness is necessary and carefully discrete with sensitive matters that may not belong in a public report.
Already practiced by the PRCA?
In the PRCA, some ecclesiastical self-examination does take place on certain levels.
First, each congregation engages in this activity through her own consistory, perhaps almost subconsciously. The preaching regularly comes under review. Quarterly, as the Church Order (Article 81) requires, officebearers ask and admonish one another about the “faithful discharge of their office.” I have noticed and have heard reports of commendable improvement in this exercise of censura morum in consistory rooms. Faithful elders are always asking themselves whether the congregation is obedient to Jesus Christ, both in her formal and informal life. Some consistories even hold a special meeting each year, devoting (for example) an entire Saturday morning to a discussion of the spiritual well-being of the congregation. “What are the strengths and weaknesses of our church? Where have we grown? What ought we change? How can we mature?” This is certainly a healthy and important aspect of ecclesiastical self-examination.
Second, each classis in the PRC mandates an annual “church visitation.” In Article 44, the Church Order requires two of the older and more experienced ministers to visit each congregation to “take heed whether the minister and consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office….” For 20 years I was on the receiving end of these visits. In my experience, a very profitable hour was set aside for these servants of God to hear from and then give due counsel to our consistory. I always looked forward to the visit and encouraged the council never to look at the visit as an intrusion or unnecessary annoyance, but as precisely what we asked our denomination to do for us so that we could grow. As long as this practice does not become a formality, and all the parties involved prepare very carefully for the visit, church visitation is an even better means to examine ourselves ecclesiastically, because it involves others from outside our own congregation.1
Profitable and necessary as these two exercises are, it must be asked whether there are other means by which we might examine ourselves, or whether there ought to be more intentional and explicit questions regarding our denomination’s spiritual well-being.
In love for our denomination, therefore, this editorial begins to have us consider: “Are we asking all the right questions as we examine ourselves? What other questions could consistories and church visitors consider? As we ask these questions, are we doing so in keen consciousness of our calling in the Reformation principle Semper Reformanda? Being Reformed, are we in need of any further re-form? Are there other ways that our churches can examine themselves in the light of the Word of God, willing to be re-formed by that Word of God if necessary? And, is there any way to examine ourselves denomination-wide?”
Why we might not like to
The difficulties of such a careful and thorough ecclesiastical self-examination must not deter us from seeing the importance of the exercise.
A church must do more than pay lip-service to the motto, Reformed and always being reformed. Lip-service to the motto is praising it in special issues of the church magazine, but not acting upon it, improving ourselves year by year. Lip-service is explaining the motto over against other churches who do not embrace its principle or others who misuse it by always seeking change—for change’s sake—but then misuse the motto ourselves by not asking where we need reform.
The dangers of not engaging in this exercise of self-examination are real. Besides the natural, personal disinclination to any exposure of weakness (no little consideration), consider these:
First, in days of great growth and prosperity as we experience today, it would be easy to assume that all is well in Zion. And we are prosperous! Church buildings are not large enough to hold growing congregations. Daughter churches are springing up. Existing Christian schools are expanding and new schools are being established in areas one might not have dreamed a generation ago. Financially, we are rich! We are able to send three missionaries to the Philippines and have a domestic missionary in the USA; to support fully our own seminary in which students pay no tuition and even receive financial aid to support themselves; to send emissaries and sometimes loan ministers to friends and contacts in Australia, Germany, India, Myanmar, Namibia, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Singapore, South Africa, and more. With all this prosperity and growth, what could be wrong? What need to examine ourselves?
Second, there is danger that we do not conduct this constant self-examination because of our sinful tendencies to see faults in others rather than in ourselves. Our resistance to personal self-examination and our tendency to find faults in other people find parallels in ecclesiastical life. It is much nicer to see sin and weakness in other churches than to look for them in our own. It is less painful to read articles about the apostasy of another denomination than ask where we may need reform. When our thus-puffed-up sinful natures let themselves loose, we might even find ourselves saying, “God, we thank Thee that we are not like those denominations who allow this disobedience and embrace that doctrinal error.”
Third, there is the fear of angry reactions. Just as no individual likes to be exposed in his sin or her weakness, no self-respecting congregation or denomination wants to be shown where she is erring or lacking. The defensive huffiness we find in ourselves will also appear in us as churches. A letter to the editor from someone in another denomination who takes offense is one thing; from a fellow church member is quite another.
Indeed, the danger of ignoring ecclesiastical self-examination is high. But it should not be ignored. Truly to be Reformed means a willingness always to open ourselves to the possibility of needing to be ‘re-formed.’ Semper Reformanda.
What should be asked?
Some self-examination questions for our congregation or denomination might include:
1. What have we lost or improperly added? What practices or teachings that were present in the past no longer have a place among us? What has been added? And why has this happened? Has this been part of on-going reformation, or regression?
2. Where are we slipping? If a practice or teaching is not altogether gone, has something lost its proper place, emphasis, or clarity? And why is this happening?
3. What could we improve?
Next time I will return to these questions, spell them out with some concrete examples, and then ask whom we might enlist to help us see ourselves as we ought.
To paraphrase the Scottish poet: “O, to see ourselves as God sees us.”
1 To see the questions for Church Visitation, go to prca.org under “Resources” and then “Official Documents.”