Previous article in this series: October 15, 2015, p. 29.
Am I Reformed? Is my church Reformed? These are important questions for those who identify as such. And these are the questions we have been answering in this series of editorials—partly because being Reformed is somewhat faddish these days, and many “New Calvinists” are not Reformed, even if they make that claim. It’s not that they are as fake as the “Siwss-Made” watch my brother bought for five dollars in Mexico when we were boys (no, in our excitement we did not notice the misspelling), a watch certainly not Swiss-made and hardly a watch. But taking the name “Reformed” carries with it a comprehensive responsibility, just as labeling a watch with a certain country of origin.
We may admit that “Reformed” cannot be reduced too simply to a couple of elements. Still, we have been identifying five essential elements of “Reformed.” As the English language permits, and for memory’s sake, each of them begins with “C.” A Reformed church is Covenantal, Calvinistic, Churchoriented, Confessional, and has a peculiar view of the Christian life. In this editorial we conclude “Church.”
The true church and her marks
The true church—Christ’s church, the Reformed fathers said— can be known by three identifying marks.
Last time we saw the importance of the first two marks (pure preaching and proper administration of the sacraments) and showed that because both preaching and sacraments are a part of the church’s worship, the true church may be identified by her worship. Worship was the major concern of the Reformation. Christ restored proper worship in His church, primarily by restoring truth in and giving priority to preaching; and secondarily by restoring the sacraments to their proper number and right administration.
But we also saw that the corruption of preaching and the sacraments was symptomatic of a deep and complete corruption of the whole of worship. Without being so fastidious as to reject all churches whose worship is not identical to ours, we can say that a truly Reformed church is identified not only by truth in sermons and properly administered sacraments, but by her entire liturgy, in all its elements and dimensions. The Reformers—especially the Calvinistic branch—determined a complete overhaul of the church’s worship.
Something similar may be said about discipline—it is part of a larger reality.
The third mark: “church discipline… punishing sin”
Not many churches exercise discipline these days. Exercising discipline on people is hard. Exercising discipline on myself is too. But if a church does not exercise discipline on her members—loving, corrective, purifying discipline—she may not call herself Reformed, any more than I may call myself Christian if I do not discipline myself. Both are difficult; both are extremely painful; but both are necessary for survival. The Head of the church mandates it.
So the Reformed Belgic Confession says, “The marks by which the true Church is known, are these… if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.” Here is not the place for an extended explanation of church discipline, but a number of important elements should be mentioned: 1) Impenitent sin is the reason for discipline, not all sin. A man who “will not renounce” his errors becomes the object of discipline (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31). 2) The “errors” for which one is disciplined are either embracing the lie or walking ungodly. “Doctrines or practices inconsistent” with the name Christian, is how the Catechism puts it. 3) Church discipline is proper discipline that pursues the impenitent until the sin is removed from the sinner or the sinner removed from the church. 4) Because discipline can still be improper if motivated wrongly, the church that is truly Reformed disciplines in love for the sinner, is interested in the purity of the church, is zealous for the glory of God, and is in constant and eager prayer that the lost sinner return—even after he has been cut off. All this the Reformed Church Order of Dordt teaches on the basis of Scripture (; ; ; ; etc.).
Further, the Belgic Confession makes clear that mere discipline is not the mark, but biblical discipline, Christian discipline, discipline according to Christ’s will. For the Roman Catholic Church also exercised discipline, but was the false church, since she “persecute[d] those who live holily according to the Word of God, and [who] rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”
“While the pious snore….”
Is my church a Reformed church? If I never hear my elders announce a stage of discipline and call for the church’s prayer for an impenitent sinner; if the classis of which my church is part never reports that permission was given to such-and-such a member-church to proceed to the next step of discipline; if my congregation’s bulletin always reports only timidly that “So-and-so left our church to join ________ denomination”—while I know well that “so-and-so” left because he was living contrary to the Word and probably was dodging discipline, my church is either not Reformed or is losing its Reformed identity.
But if I, member of that church, never do anything about such failures— of congregation or classis— then not only is my church failing to be Reformed, but I must question my own commitment to the true church, my commitment to being Reformed.
At the time God was directing the Reformed fathers to formulate the Reformed confessions, a man named Heinrich Bullinger wrote his own personal confession of faith. Soon, the churches in many lands recognized it as biblical and sound, and adopted it as an official confession, called the “Second Helvetic Confession.” Sensitive as he must have been to abuse, Bullinger began the section on church discipline with a warning to the churches not to judge too quickly, not “to exclude, reject, or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected.” No extremism must be present in the Reformed camp. He cautioned against an unbridled and immature enthusiasm in discipline. “On the other hand,” Professor Bullinger warned, “we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the church.” Do not fail to exercise discipline!
When Christ lives in a church— Christ’s presence is the most basic way to know if the church is true—the church will not be sleeping. The true church, the Reformed church, will behave Christ-like in “putting away from among yourselves that wicked person,” (), in counting some unto them “as an heathen man and a publican” ( ), as well as in “forgiving and comforting” the penitent, lest they be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” ( ).
Discipline is the third mark of the Reformed church. But, like the first two marks, it also is part of a larger picture.
Synecdoche: A part stands for the whole
In literature, one useful figure of speech has the writer referring to a whole by mentioning only a part of the whole. Or, refers to only a part by mentioning the whole. This way of speaking is called synecdoche. So a whole herd is called “100 head” and “Here come the suits” means “See the businessmen.”
In a certain respect, we may consider the mark of discipline as synecdoche—a part of a much larger picture, and the Reformed fathers meaning something broader than discipline when they describe it. The bigger picture is the government of the church, of which discipline is an essential part.
To illustrate, we may ask some easy questions. Who rules the church (and, thus, exercises discipline)? How is the church governed? Is the minister supreme ruler? Do the members have a voice in any part of the government (discipline) of the church? Do the members have a say in the appointment of officebearers? May they participate in, even object to, discipline? These questions alone make clear that, although discipline itself is the third mark of the church, discipline must not be considered too narrowly. Discipline implies the entire government of the church, as a suit implies a businessman, and a head a cow.
The Belgic Confession directs us here. And not only when it (apparently) is concluding the listing of the marks of the true church and says, “in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church (emphasis added).” That is, in summing up the marks, the Confession says, the mark by which the true church may be known is that Jesus Christ is her only Head (no pope may govern her), and all things managed according to Christ’s Word—that is church government.
Not only from that. The Belgic Confession is not finished describing the importance of church government in its positive statements. When it describes the false church, it starts by saying: “she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God.” How does the Roman Catholic church exercise power? On what basis does she rule? The Reformed fathers had their eye on how the church was governed.1
Principles, not details
Here, too, we must be careful not to be too rigorous in our application of this point. We do not write off as “un-Reformed” those whose church government is not identical to ours. We do not reject those (that’s the language of the PRC’s Church Order) whose usages differ from ours in non-essentials. Reformed principles, wisely applied in especially four areas, show a church is Reformed in her government. The four major sections of the Church Order of Dordt are: Offices, Assemblies, Worship,2 and Christian Discipline.
Although Reformed writers have gleaned different principles from Dordt’s Church Order and the Reformed Confessions, few would disagree that this is a proper summary of them:
1. Christ is the Only Head of the Church, who rules by His Word and Spirit.
2. Christ rules in His Church by biblically appointed officebearers.
3. Local congregations (“particular churches”) are autonomous, that is, self-ruling.
4. Every confessing member of the church, in the “office of all believers,” has the right to participate in the government of the church.
5. Local congregations freely join together in a federation (denomination) of churches, in order to manifest the unity of the holy catholic church of Christ.
A high view of Church
A Reformed man has a high view of the church. Which is not the same as going to church morning and evening every Sunday. It means that he regards the church and her offices, her formal worship, her official teaching, her requirement for membership, her determination to take all things seriously by discipline, as essential. He has a high view of the institutional church, her offices, her assemblies, her worship, and her government.
So we Reformed view Christianity not as mere personal piety and a personal relationship to Jesus (without which one cannot be a Christian), but as membership in the body of Jesus Christ. Active membership. Intelligent membership. Connected to other members and her officebearers and her life.
We also have high regard for the church’s history. But that comes next, when we will see that being Reformed is being “Confessional.” That is, the true church has deep roots. The Reformed church lives deeply and consciously in her history.
1 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XXX) approaches the subject of discipline in a similar manner when its section on “Church Censures” begins: “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of church-officers….” For our Presbyterian brethren, the bigger picture, of which discipline is a part, is proper, Presbyterian church government.
2 “Worship” is how I summarize the section entitled “Doctrine, sacraments, and other ceremonies.” The section begins by requiring officebearers to sign the Formula of Subscription. Thus, doctrine is first because no worship is acceptable without orthodox teaching.