Previous article in this series: June 2012, p. 388.
If our churches lose the will to fight, we truly have given up our ability to survive. The church must know that the enemies of God’s truth are like the Middle Eastern terrorist organizations today: patiently waiting, always observing, ever planning another way to slaughter. Unless we are vigilant, we will fall to the enemy, lose the truth, and become a false church, the synagogue of Satan (; ). We must engage in polemics—oppose the lie with “fighting words.”
The true church protects herself by combating error with fighting words. Fighting words are spoken from the pulpit, inked in books and magazines, and must be used in almost every venue of the church’s life (see below). According to Scripture, the fighting words are Christ’s sword (), mighty and effective weapons against heresies.
I pointed out last time that the issue in polemics is God’s truth. That is, the issue is God’s name, which is His reputation. God’s truth, name, and reputation are one. If the church does not fight for these, it does not deserve to be called church, will not remain church. Under the judgment of God it will inevitably become the false church. We must fight for God’s name. We want to do so because we love God’s name and reputation. As every good wife will fight to protect her husband’s reputation, the bride of Christ will protect His.
We do not want to forget, either, that at stake is also the welfare of the people of God. If the truth sets free, the lie brings into bondage. So if we love the people of God, we will love and teach the truth and root out the lie.
The polemic against polemics
But there is a long history of opposition to polemics, even in Reformed churches.
Already two hundred years ago, part of the Reformed community in America began a kind of “ecclesiastical suicide” by refusing to fight for the faith by fighting against errors. In 1792 the Reformed Church in America (RCA) removed the polemical section from the Canons of Dordt, the “Rejection of Errors.”
In 1857 one of the reasons more recent Dutch immigrants to America left the RCA to form their own denomination was the RCA’s omission of the rejection of errors. Today, we note with great sadness that the descendants of these immigrants—who formed the PRC’s mother denomination— will consider a proposal at their synod this summer to adopt a new Formula of Subscription, one that removes all mandates for officebearers to defend the faith by opposing errors.1 The committee presenting advice to synod was mandated by last year’s synod to “address concerns” regarding last year’s proposal, one of which was the lack of reference to “defending” the creeds. The 2012 proposed formula had no such language, because the committee was determined not to “discourage significant theological discussion” and was determined to participate in “ongoing reflection” on the creeds rather than adopt a document that “precludes or hinders such reflection.” The synod in June did insert the words “and defend,” although the final product is a complete gutting of the significance of subscription. We pray that God’s people will see the fatal mistake it is for a church not to require her officebearers to oppose with fighting words all assaults on God’s truth, but instead to be interested in “unity with a secondary concern for purity.”2
In other Protestant (non-Roman Catholic) circles, the trend of relativism has been growing for generations. Even though the interest in unity at the expense of purity did not begin with the Billy Graham Crusade, it received strong impetus from it. In the 1950s, in order to evangelize America, Billy Graham was determined that fundamentalists should work with Catholics and liberals—who denied Scripture, miracles, even the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. Every effort was made not to make sharp doctrinal declarations of truth so as to create controversy. The result, unsurprisingly, was that the unbelief of German liberalism that had infected the elite universities on the United States’ east coast quickly spread across America, lodging in influential seminaries like Fuller on the west coast.
By now—in the twenty-first century—America is filled with “emergent churches” that despise doctrinal declarations. We get books from Reformed pastors that embrace doubt.3 And our country spawns churches that refuse to identify themselves in any other way than this-or-that “community” church. Or perhaps not even church, just “The River” or “Crossings” or “Elevation.”
What happens when the church loses the will to fight for truth!
May God graciously enable us to make clear that unwillingness to fight for truth is the spirit of Anti christ, who questioned truth already in the garden: “Yea, hath God said?” This spirit killed the Old Testament prophets whose fighting words opposed error, burned their prophecies that exposed the lie, and finally crucified Christ whose preaching ministry was as polemical as could be. What distinguished Jesus from His contemporaries was not that He taught, but that He taught with authority (), distinguishing truth from error and condemning false teaching. In this, Christ was a good shepherd. Reformed churches follow Christ’s lead.
The official Reformed “Call to Arms”
As Reformed believers, we may be reminded that membership in a Reformed church requires us to agree with and promote polemics.
First, our Reformed confessions model polemics for us. The creeds not only present truth, they oppose errors. The Heidelberg Catechism’s infamous Q&A 80 (the mass as “accursed idolatry”) is not the only place this relatively peaceful creed engages in battle. In the Belgic Confession, a few examples of real “fighting words” are Articles 7, 12, 14, and 34. And the Canons of Dordt end each chapter with a lengthy “Rejection of Errors” to refute false teachings that opposed these doctrines of grace.
Second, the Formula of Subscription— still maintained by the PRC and a few other Reformed denominations in its original form— has every officebearer promise:
…diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine [of the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordt], without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing. We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine…but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors (emphasis mine).
Further, the Formula even has the elders, deacons, and ministers publicly vow:
…if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis, and synod, that the same may be there examined, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis, and synod.
If they violate this, they understand the penalty: “in case of refusal [to submit] to be, by that very fact, suspended from our office.” This is how seriously Reformed churches historically have taken polemics.
If we allow this Formula to be signed with “mental reservations,” or anything less than full sincerity, we will soon lose it, perhaps to our own proposal to emasculate it.
May I suggest that consistories make the Formula of Subscription a matter of discussion at the beginning of one of their meetings. The discussion may well come to the conclusion that future nominations for office will involve making very clear what promises the man will be making when he signs the document at his installation. “With all my strength I will defend the truth taught in the Reformed creeds!”
But the Formula of Subscription is not the only place that speaks of a Reformed officebearer’s duty to be polemical. Besides the Forms for Installation, the Church Order has two explicit references to defending the faith. Let me mention them, with brief explanation of each:
Article 18: The office of the professors of theology is to expound the Holy Scriptures and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors.
By this article, the Church Order gives marching orders to the seminary professors: be polemical! Vindicate sound doctrine! Oppose heresies and errors! When the professors engage in this work, all those who prepare for the ministry are trained to follow their example. We do not oppose heresies in some hidden corner of the seminary, but in the classroom, teaching the future preachers to do so, too. As I showed last time, the Form for the Installation of Professor of Theology demands of us to caution the students “in regard to the errors and heresies of the old, but especially of the new day.”
Article 55: To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.
This article, immediately following those that require officebearers to sign the Formula of Subscription, calls both ministers and elders to “ward off false doctrines and errors.” Note, first, that the church is reminded how prevalent false doctrines are. They are not rare occurrences, but frequent dangers. Second, note that false doctrines come through writings. Today, we can add YouTube videos, Mp3 recordings, SermonAudio.com, as well as heretical songs through which false teaching comes into hearts and minds. Our elders as well as our ministers should be alert to the dangers, reading and listening as much as they are able.
Third, and most striking, are the settings in which “refutation, warning, and admonition” take place. First is the catechism classroom. That’s where “Christian teaching” takes place. The youth must learn to say: “Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight” (). Carefully, the wise minister will show the church’s children the importance of battle, the proper time to take up arms, and the way to engage in combat. “Christian teaching” also includes writing, in books, pamphlets, and magazines.
Most surprising may be family visitation. The Reformed fathers even asked officebearers to engage in polemics at family visitation! I must admit that my visits to families did not often include warnings regarding false teachings. Certainly polemics may not dominate visits, normally. But there is a place, even here, to caution members about errors and to refute them. Why, if their life is threatened, how can any faithful shepherd keep silent?
So it is clear that membership in a Reformed church is membership in a church willing to defend herself, because she is God’s church, pillar and ground of the truth. Elders in Reformed churches must know how to fight. And ministers must not only be permitted to use fighting words in the pulpit, they must be required to do so.
But that, God willing, I take up next time.
1 Readers may find the proposed new “Formula,” called a “Covenant For Officebearers,” and the argument for its adoption at www.crcna. org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/2012_ agenda.pdf beginning on page 448.
2 Agenda, p. 455.
3 See John Suk’s new title, Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. Watch the promotional video at Eerdmans.com.