My sermon this evening will not be an exposition of a text, but it could be the exposition of a number of texts, from the Lord’s prayer for the unity of his people in the Upper Room the night of his betrayal, the so-called “high priestly prayer” we find in John 17, to a number of paragraphs in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But I have chosen a few verses from Romans 15, a paragraph in the midst of Paul’s argument that Christians were to love one another and practice their unity in love even if they had some sharp disagreement over certain doctrines and practices. And Paul ordered that unity even though he himself regarded particular positions being taken by the Christians in Rome as correct and others as incorrect. These few verses set before us the obligation of Christian unity in the face of theological disagreement, which is my theme this evening.
v. 7 The summary of Paul’s instruction is found in 15:2: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” And that summary is repeated in other words in 15:7: “Welcome one another as Christ welcomed you.” The second adds to the first the idea that in an imperfect church one must always make allowances for imperfections. The Lord makes such allowances for you as he does for others, so you should certainly make them for others as well. You are not better or wiser than Christ are you? You don’t have a better sense than he does of what the situation calls for, do you? That is Paul’s point. There are some details of Paul’s argument that may not be entirely clear to a modern reader of Romans, but the gist is altogether clear. Our convictions about things don’t matter nearly as much as either another man or woman’s life or the unity of Christ’s body. Now clearly Paul isn’t talking about the gospel itself, as he does in Galatians. And distinguishing what Christians cannot differ about from what they can is not always easy. But his emphasis on the unity of the body of Christ and the overcoming of differences is immensely impressive and needs to be felt in every Christian heart and practiced in every Christian life.
Tonight we begin a new series of sermons which I have entitled “The Characteristics of Faith Presbyterian Church.” Now lest that title seem pretentious to you, as if I or we have delusions of grandeur – imagining that Faith is a congregation to be studied for its distinctive characteristics – let me explain the unusual title. To begin, let me say that I know very well that we are only a mid-sized church and that in the great scheme of things we are no great shakes. Like any other congregation of the Lord’s people, we have our strengths and our weaknesses, our accomplishments and our failures, our aspirations and our discouragements. But, also like any other congregation of Christian people, we are also to be responsible stewards of both the gifts and the light that God has given us. And at a time of pastoral transition, it is important for a congregation to consider what it intends to be and to do in the years to come, all the more if what it is and does are distinctive in certain ways, that is, if it intends to be different from other faithful Christian churches in this way or that. Should we be different? Can we justify our distinctiveness?
The fact is, churches are different from one another; often significantly different. People who visit us often find us quite different from what they are used to. We are different in various ways even from other churches in our own denomination, even from churches in our own presbytery. For better or for worse this is a now common feature of American church life. When I was growing up in conservative Presbyterianism, our congregations were very similar to one another. Had you visited any congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, the church in which I was raised and the church of which this congregation was once a member, you would have found yourself at home. Whether in Delaware or Ohio, Missouri or California, the worship service, the preaching, and the congregational life would have seemed entirely familiar to you. In those days and in most American churches the denomination imposed an ethos on its member congregations. It didn’t do this by force. I doubt it did it with any real intention or plan to do so. But the revolutionary age had not yet begun in the American church, especially the evangelical wing of the American church, and tradition still exercised immense influence. So much was this so that, in the 1950s or 60s, had a conservative Presbyterian found himself or herself in a Baptist church or a Methodist church it would still have felt much like home. There was an impressive sameness.
As we all know that is no longer the case. Today you can visit ten different PCA congregations and think yourself in ten different denominations, and denominations as different from one another as the Episcopal Church is different from the Assemblies of God! In some of our churches the minister is in a robe; in others he is dressed in jeans, an untucked shirt, and Birkenstocks. In some there is a highly structured worship service, with prayers, responses, various Scripture readings, and the Lord’s Supper every Sunday; in others there is twenty minutes of singing, an offering, and a sermon, with the Lord’s Supper virtually never observed on a Sunday. In some churches hymns that have been sung for a thousand years are still sung; in others the congregation sings virtually nothing written more than fifteen years ago. Some of our congregations still sing accompanied by an organ; many others have a praise band. The very name “praise band,” much less the thing in itself, did not even exist a generation ago. Some churches still worship twice on the Lord’s Day, as, not long ago, was the virtually universal custom of evangelical Christendom; but now many of our churches worship but once on Sunday. Some churches still have a Sunday School; a growing number of others do not. Some, a rapidly declining number, have a Prayer Meeting; many more churches no longer do. And on and on. Like it or not, churches are not the same. They vary widely in practice and in viewpoint. And so it becomes important for us to explain why Faith Presbyterian Church does what it does, at least in ways that distinguish us from other faithful churches: why it is important, why we believe it wise to organize our common life as we have. We have our reasons and we want you to know what those reasons are!
It will be helpful, I think, if we begin by putting the entire question in a larger perspective. The ancient church identified herself, as we read in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, by what theologians have called the attributes of the church. You remember these attributes: “I believe one, holy, catholic church.” The Christian Church, it is thus confessed, is a community of human beings identified by its unity, by its holiness (both objective and subjective; that is, by its status as the body of Christ and by its distinctive life as his followers), and by its catholicity (that is, it is a community drawn from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth). Sometimes a fourth attribute was added: apostolicity. That is, it was a body that stood on the foundation laid down by the teaching of the Apostles; it was an organization and a people defined by and loyal to the Word of God. Until the schism that divided Christendom between east and west in 1054 there was, at least in large part, but one, holy, catholic church. There were earlier schisms, to be sure, and as the church spread out over the world her visible unity was often hard to see, but after 1054 and then, still more after the Protestant Reformation, it became necessary to identify precisely which church, among the churches claiming to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, actually was that church!
As you may remember, the Reformers addressed that problem of competing claims by identifying what they considered to be the marks of the true church. From that point, at least in the Protestant Church, the church was identified both by its original attributes and its marks. If you remember, the marks of the true church were either two or three, depending upon the particular theologian. 1) The first was always the faithful preaching of the Word of God. That is, to be a faithful Christian church, to be the true church, it must be a church loyal to the Bible. Whatever else a church may be, it must aspire to be biblical. 2) The second mark was faithful worship. It was often put in terms of “the right administration of the sacraments,” but the phrase was meant to include the whole of Christian worship. 3) Sometimes a third was added: the faithful exercise of discipline. By that was meant that the first two marks were not simply pious professions, but real convictions. It is one thing to claim to be faithful to be the Bible, but the claim is belied if nothing is done when false teaching is given to God’s people. It means little to claim that a church is committed to biblical worship if, in fact, no effort is made to correct what is definitely unbiblical in the church’s worship. Discipline is absolutely necessary if a church is actually to deliver on its promise of fidelity to the Bible and to biblical life and worship.
Well, nowadays, we’ve reached a third level of distinctiveness. For want of a better term I chose “characteristic.” It has the advantage of identifying the subject – characteristic features of the life and testimony of this congregation – without implying that these features are on the same level of importance as either the attributes or the marks of the church, certainly not on the same level as the gospel, faith in Jesus Christ, or loyalty to the Word of God. Still, we don’t have a prayer meeting because we are traditionally minded people who like doing what we’ve always done. In many ways, ours is a highly untraditional congregation. Our worship is quite different from the traditional worship of Presbyterians. We serve the Lord’s Supper to younger children than was ever the practice among Presbyterians. We have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. Both of those practices remain controversial even in our own denomination. The preaching program here is certainly unlike the program of preaching in the churches in which I was raised. And so on. So we don’t have a prayer meeting because everyone else has a prayer meeting. Indeed, hardly anyone else any longer does have a prayer meeting. We have a prayer meeting because we believe it to be a feature of apostolic Christianity as it is described to us in the book of Acts. Again, we don’t continue to have an evening service because we’re used to having one. We worship twice on the Lord’s Day because we are persuaded both that we are encouraged to do so in the Word of God and because it is the virtually unbroken witness of the Christian ages that God’s people have gathered for worship twice on the Lord’s Day.
In other words, we have serious reasons for doing what we do at points in which our practice diverges from that of other churches even in our own denomination and presbytery. And it was thought important, especially at this time in the life of our congregation, that you know what those reasons are and why we think it very important to maintain these characteristic features of our life together.
With that introduction, then, let me introduce the first of these characteristics, viz. Reformed Catholicism. What I mean by that is that we intend to be a congregation that is, at one and the same time, committed to the Reformed faith as a particular understanding of the Word of God and committed to the unity of the Christian church. John Duncan, the famous “Rabbi” Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, missionary, theologian, professor of Hebrew, and a man possessed of both unique insight and a capacity for putting things in a clear and memorable way, once described his position as a Presbyterian this way.
“I am first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” [Colloquia Peripatetica, 8]
I think that is beautifully and wisely said and articulates a principle of first importance for any Christian congregation. We want to be steadfast in maintaining what we believe to be the truth of God, but, at the same time, and no less steadfastly, we want to maintain the unity of the people of God.
We are far from believing – surely any serious Christian should be far from believing – that every true Christian must or will agree about everything! Take one example. I am quite sure that I could prevail in a debate with Charles Spurgeon over infant baptism, if that debate were impartially judged. But I not only cheerfully acknowledge my status as a pygmy in comparison with that great preacher and writer, but confess how often Spurgeon appears in my own sermons precisely because he saw the truth so clearly and spoke it so powerfully.
Among my heroes are a great many whose views were different from my own in this particular or that. Chrysostom and Augustine deserve the reverent admiration of every Christian, their contributions to the faith were immense, but their commitment to a celibate priesthood, for example, bizarre as that position rightly seems to biblically informed Christians, caused no end of sin and heartbreak in the ages since. Bernard of Clairvaux, whom Martin Luther said loved Jesus as much as anyone can, and Francis of Assisi, were, in some ways, typical medieval monks with the outlook of Medieval Catholicism, and there are good reasons why virtually the whole of Christendom has abandoned their way of life, but who can deny that both men remain, as they will remain until the end of history, some of the finest examples of devotion to Christ, of Christian humility, and of life lived in the service of others. And so it goes. We don’t even agree with John Calvin about everything, the Westminster divines disagreed among themselves about a variety of things, Jonathan Edwards owned slaves, Charles Hodge had a weak view of the Lord’s Supper and so was perfectly content to observe it only four times a year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said and wrote some things that we cannot approve, Billy Graham was an Arminian and a Baptist, and, as you are aware, I could go on and on. But, and here’s the point, who could possibly doubt not only that all of these important Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders lived beautiful Christian lives but contributed in very important ways to the life and work of Christ’s kingdom. It was an important moment in my life when I fully realized that there was a host of Christians who loved Jesus more than I did who nevertheless held view I believe and must believe are contrary to the Word of God.
During the days of the apostles there was never quite the problem that we face today: various churches with significantly different theological positions and liturgical practices. But already we find in the teaching of the Apostle Paul a concern to maintain loving unity in defiance of some sharp disagreements over what Christians should believe and how Christians should live. Paul knew what he believed and said so, but even he, apostle that he was, couldn’t eliminate the disagreements and he never seems to have imagined a church in which everyone happily agreed about everything. Indeed, Peter seems to suggest that Paul’s teaching was controversial even in his own day, and the Lord Jesus had chosen him personally to teach his church! Still he commanded us to practice unity. Surely we all must think it humiliating that we Christians present so many different faces to the world. If indeed there is but one faith, one hope, and one baptism, why does it seem that Christians can’t agree about anything! Surely we have given comfort to the enemy if such a one as Voltaire can make mockery of the disunity of the church.
“I know to be sure that the church is infallible; but is it the Greek Church, or the Latin Church, or the Church of England, or that of Denmark and of Sweden, or that of the proud city of Neuchatel, or that of the primitives called Quakers, or that of the Anabaptists, or that of the Moravians? The Turkish Church has its points, too, but they say that the Chinese Church is much more ancient.” [Cited in Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 22]
I do not myself know how some of our divisions could possibly have been avoided. Calvin thought that there was no need to divide the Reformation Church between the Lutherans and the Reformed, even though there were striking differences of practice in regard to worship and some very significant differences in regard to theology. But the division occurred nonetheless and it is hard to imagine how it might have been avoided.
And, to be fair, those differences were not over nothing. They were not about inconsequential matters. They often concerned doctrines we rightly regard as very important, teaching that is particularly precious to us, and they often concerned practices of immense importance to the Christian faith and life; practices such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the government of the church. That is how the weak and the strong thought of their differences in the Roman church in Paul’s day. These were important matters. They had to do with the history of salvation and the practice of the Christian life. They had to do with the teaching of the Word of God. The issues were not petty and they concerned practices of piety that had been very precious to God’s people for ages. We are not talking about the color of the carpet here.
But consider a doctrine as fundamental as the sovereignty of God in salvation. Calvin, the champion of all champions of predestination and sovereign grace, provided a warm introduction to a later edition of Philip Melanchthon’s popular manual of theology, Loci Communes, at a time when Melanchthon had long since abandoned Calvin’s doctrine of grace in exchange for something similar to what we would call Arminianism today. Calvin wanted above all things to preserve the unity of the church. Unity was more important to him than agreement in every doctrine. But, alas, it was not to be, and the Reformation produced a vast array of different churches, not one united body of believers. On the other hand, I don’t think even Calvin ever imagined that the Reformation Church could contain the Anabaptists! So I am not saying that this balance between fidelity to the truth as we understand it and a commitment to the unity of Christ’s people is easy to maintain. It requires living in a constant tension. But such is our calling.
We are here committed to the Reformed faith because we believe it to be the most faithful reconstruction of the teaching of the Bible. When we compare it to other systems of Christian thought, those often held by Christians we cannot but admire for their love of Christ and their faithful living, we remain utterly unimpressed. In our view they do not faithfully represent what the Bible actually says and says very clearly. Their view of God is too small, their view of sin too insipid, their view of Christ’s accomplishment too limited, and their view of the Christian life in this way or that insufficiently inspiring. Calvinism, as has been said, has a history of making men low before God but high and strong before kings. It humbles men and empowers them. It causes them to place their hands over their mouths as they contemplate the incomparable depths of the wisdom and purpose of Almighty God, but it gives them great confidence in the knowledge that the world and everything in it lies in the hands of their omnipotent creator who has a plan for human history and for every human being that cannot conceivably fail. It renders Christ impossibly great and believing sinners perfectly secure in him. “It extinguishes fear, it makes victory certain, it inspires with enthusiasm, it makes both the heart and the arm strong.” [A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 138] Most of all, it takes the Word of God with absolute seriousness: everything said therein, whether or not we can explain how its truths relate to one another in perfect harmony.
I have lived, many of us have lived with the Reformed faith for many years – its comprehensive worldview, its biblical theology, its embrace of mystery, its demanding ethics, and could never imagine trading this understanding of the Christian faith for any of its alternatives: Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, or Orthodoxy. That understanding of reality must, therefore, continue to inform our life together at Faith Presbyterian Church and must be the touchstone of our preaching and teaching. But we live in a world in which many Christians, real Christians, lovers of God and Christ, think very differently than we do. Recently we learned that Hank Hanegraff, the well-known Bible Answer Man of Christian radio, president of the Christian Research Institute, one-time Reformed Presbyterian, long-time staunch defender of Protestant evangelicalism, has now joined the Orthodox Church. Other Reformed evangelicals, think of Tom Howard, Elizabeth Elliot’s brother, or Peter Kreeft, once of Calvin College, or Scott Hahn, a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and once a PCA minister, have converted to Roman Catholicism. And what of signs and wonders Pentecostals, end-time-scenario-preaching dispensationalists, and hard-core free-will Arminians?
There are two possible responses to this welter of viewpoints, though, to be sure, both these responses come in very different measures or degrees. One response is defiant isolation. It is the spirit of those who are sure not only that they are right but that since everyone else is wrong we are better off without them. Nothing is to be received from those with mistaken theology but spiritual contamination. They are to be avoided. The other response is welcome without discernment. This is the spirit of those who are so little committed to the truth of God’s Word that virtually any theological opinion becomes as good as any other. The church is unified, in this case, by a warm but very vague commitment to toleration and acceptance irrespective of one’s theology or ethics. The former attitude is exemplified in fundamentalist evangelicalism the latter in the Protestant liberal mainstream. But in our own denomination and in every believing denomination there are versions of these same two responses to theological disagreement. There are those who will not tolerate disagreement and there are those who will not tolerate a definite theology, no matter how biblical. So we have had our struggles in the PCA in recent years with brothers who are determined to allow no deviation from the Reformed tradition, on the one hand, and, on the other, we just recently lost a church to the presbytery that had embraced an open and affirming position toward practicing homosexuals. We are too lax for the one side and too narrow for the other. I take comfort from the fact that Paul was also hammered from both the right and the left, by those who felt he was refusing to stand up for the truth and by those who felt he wasn’t sufficiently tolerant of their scruples. We expect to suffer the same fate, as must anyone who is equally committed to both theological precision and Christian unity.
Our intention here at Faith is to practice both theological conviction, carefully founded on the plain-speaking of the Bible, and Christian unity. We intend to be Calvinists ourselves and lovers of Arminian-Baptistic-Dispensational-Pentecostals and even Roman Catholics of a gospel orientation! We intend to maintain our position, confident as we are that we can defend it from Holy Scripture and that God taught us his truth precisely so that we would believe it and live according to it even while we cordially acknowledge as brothers in Christ folk who adamantly reject teaching that is precious to us and preach and teach truth we are quite sure cannot be established by the Word of God. The great Lutheran hymn writer, John Gerhard once said that he could not regard Calvinists, insofar as they are Calvinists, as Christians. That is, he could consider them Christians in their theological ignorance, but he could not consider them Christians to the extent that they actually believed what they confessed. But we happily regard John Gerhard as a Christian, no matter that we disagree with some of his theology and no matter that he abominated our theology.
And so it is that our deacons participate in ministries in town in which things are said and done that we would never say or do. So it is that our people are active in ministries in which they work side by side with folk who would probably be aghast to discover what we actually believe or don’t believe. And so we encourage and support financially Christian folk whose worship we would find objectionable in this way or in that. In other words, we aspire to love everyone and to consider a brother and sister in Christ anyone who loves the Lord Jesus, even as we fashion our lives according to the truth as God has given us to see it.
Faith Presbyterian Church is by choice and conviction a confessional church. That is, we have a highly developed and quite specific theological position, that theology set out in the Westminster Confession of Faith with its thirty-three chapters of theological exposition. We are not a church, like many churches, whose doctrinal statement can be fit on one page! At the same time we are not a sectarian church. That is we do not define ourselves by the views we do not hold and we do not view other Christians as inferior to ourselves because they do not believe in all points as we do. We are perfectly willing to reject, root and branch, teaching that we believe to be contrary to that found in the Word of God even while we accept as brethren many who hold to that same teaching. We are all sinners and no doubt we all sin with our minds as surely as we sin with our hearts and our hands. We are in no doubt that there are certain lines that no one can cross and still claim to be a Christian in any biblical or historic sense, but until that line is crossed we consider every Christian our brother or sister to whom we owe the obligation of love and spiritual comradeship, no matter how much we may regret the opinions he or she may hold.
It is much easier to fall to one side or another, much more difficult to remain committed to both truth and unity at one and the same time. There are devilishly difficult questions that sometimes force themselves upon us. Can we embrace this much deviation from the Bible’s teaching? To what degree can we practice unity with Christians who are teaching this or believing that? I recently exchanged some letters with the pastor of the church in Portland that recently left our presbytery. He was deeply offended that I regarded the viewpoints they had embraced as placing them outside the bounds of historic Christianity. He characterized my viewpoint as fundamentalist. I replied that the term fundamentalism is hardly a useful term for a man who is merely upholding what is the universal and historic position of all three branches of Christendom – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – and rejecting a position that has never been enshrined in any Christian creed or confession, not for two-thousand years. But, you see the problem: one man’s acceptable toleration of different opinion is another man’s turning his eye away from killing heresy. We must find our way between the Scylla of doctrinal indifference and the Charybdis of judgmental separation from people who are also beloved of our Lord Jesus Christ; I say we must find that way carefully with Bible in hand, reading Holy Scripture with the help provided by the careful examination of two-thousand years of Christian tradition and theological reflection.
But, then, who ever said that the Christian life would be easy, that truth and love would always rest together easily in the mind and heart? It wasn’t easy for Jesus, who could be very severe in his criticism of his theological enemies but still pray earnestly for those who so unjustly put him to death. Truth and love at one and the same time; theological fidelity and Christian unity. That is what we mean by Reformed Catholicism and that is why we intend it to be always a characteristic of Faith Presbyterian Church.