An Open Letter to the Reformed and Never Reforming
The oft-heard phrase in Reformed circles, ‘Semper Reformanda,‘ came first from Jodocus van Lodenstein – a Dutch Reformed stalwart who coined the expression in a devotional publication in 1674. According to Lodenstein and others who began to use this terminology, it was not enough for a resurgence of Biblical literacy to reform the doctrine of the church, but also by necessity must reform its practices and do so continually. The principle is simple – the church is always in need of being Reformed by the Word of God. Notice, it’s not that the church reforms (as though it’s the church performing the action). The church is being reformed by the Word of God. That’s the true essence of Semper Reformana. In short, it’s not being “Reformed” (as a one-word term) as though Reformed is a status of what has been accomplished. It’s actually “being Reformed” as a two-word term and denotes continued action. Every church in every generation slips into theological #DOWNGRADE. This slide into lukewarm apostasy is the result of a fallen nature that is prone to wander and leave the God we love. Heading downhill at breakneck speed (to quote Spurgeon), the church must realize the ways it has diverted from the narrow path of God’s design for her and return to her groom.
Why is it, then, I see so many pastors that have attached to themselves the moniker ‘Reformed’ who are not being reformed? Sure, they hold to the Reformed confessions or a particular doctrinal statement that espouses the Doctrines of Grace, but there’s no active or passive reforming of their churches, lifestyles, or methodologies. They are pastors in non-reforming churches, practicing non-reforming methodologies, living non-reforming lives. They are in essence “Reformed and never reforming.”
I’m reminded of a Baptist church near the capital of Montana that has certain church members proudly calling their church and pastor “Calvinist” who are prayer-walking their way to Beth Moore Bible studies. Forgive me for being incredulous. Quite frankly, it takes more to be Reformed than to hold five points of theological supposition. I tire of pastors who have fought tooth and nail for a Reformed doctrinal statement to be adopted by the church, only to subsequently lock the doctrinal statement in the church office safe and never let it out again. To be Reformed in doctrine and not in practice, is to not be Reformed at all. Often times, this leads to struggles and trepidation among the membership, if not confusion and dissension. Capitalizing on the modern day Reformation, these pastors hang out in coffee shops and dark corridors, espousing Calvinistic ideas and waxing eloquent on Owen’s Triple Choice or more nuanced perspectives on the Covenant vs Dispensational debate in hushed tones and muffled volumes. They are fanboys of whatever celebrity pastor isn’t currently in a plagiarism scandal and they enjoy the smell of dusty, musty books on their office bookshelves, providing credibility for their self-announced title of “theology nerd.” Often around these closet Calvinists are a strong core of young men that pine for the deep things, and they pick up crumbs from the pastor’s table in one-on-one Bible studies and men’s outings, when if the non-Calvinist attendees aren’t around, they know the conversation might turn to the Doctrines of Grace and they can again fellowship over the bread of Scripture.
As these “Reformed” pastors (as some in the congregation might call them, so long as they first look both ways to make sure only the right people hear it) play Calvinist in private, they project mainstream and nebulous in the pulpit. Claiming that “reformation takes time,” these men spend years upon years in the pulpit slowly and methodically leading their congregations nowhere. Like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, these pastors take their people around in theological circles rather than cross the Jordan into the Promised Land of true, Biblical, and Reformed theology. Not everyone is ready to cross the river just yet, they might reason, and they take another spin around the desert like a plane circling the runway with a pilot who lacks the guts to land.
And as far as their preaching truly is from the blunt honesty of the men they admire whose books rest upon their office shelves collecting dust, the methodologies of their church are even farther away. If one walked into their church and tried to guess the theological positions the pastor holds in his heart, they would never hit the mark on their presumption. Their ladies are still reading Beth Moore. Their men are reading books about rabbis praying in circles. They’re prayer walking throughout the community, lifting their hands like a Jedi performing a mind trick, never having to stopped to think about the theology of the practices they employ in their pursuit of mainstream evangelical obscurity. The only Scripture read in their service can be found in what little the pastor reads in his message, and the songs are chosen not by their Biblical fidelity but their rank on the Worship Top 40. They scoff at preaching in the open air or handing out tracts of clear cut Gospel messages, preferring to inconspicuously serve the community by cleaning up trash at the local bluegrass festival or hosting a movie premier of the latest sorta-kinda religious themed cinema spectacular. And Heaven forbid if there’s another church nearby that teaches their people discernment – they’ll castigate them as the “angry and bitter” variety of Calvinists in a moment while they continue on worshiping to Phillips, Craig and Dean and letting their wives devote themselves to Rachel Held Evans.
In short, they’re not truly Reformed. They’re posers.
Written by Kay Flemming and Dennis Morgan, Barbara Mandrell sang ‘I was country when country wasn’t cool’ and reached number one on the Country Music Charts back in 1981. Mandrell’s song laments that her “style” had suddenly become hip and trendy, and the song was an artistic attempt at explaining that there was real country and there was trendy country. The nine-year anniversary of the death of Chris Ledoux last week reminded me that most real country has died with the men who would have worn boots whether it was trendy or not. And yet, I presume (I don’t listen to the genre much any more), there’s still some real out there, but there’s a whole bunch of fake. There were those of us who were Reformed before it was cool. Then there are those who are Reformed because it is cool.
One has to wonder if Reformed theology wasn’t popularized by so many good and godly men (and a few that haven’t been so godly), how many “Starbucks Calvinists” would even be masquerading as Reformed in private. Unless the process of Reformation is affecting one’s methodology as well as doctrine, I have no choice but to assume their flirtation with Reformation principles are a momentary infatuation and not a ministry-altering conviction.
Brethren, we are not called to have a doctrinal statement we can lock up and ignore. If the principles and doctrine rediscovered in the Reformation haven’t altered the landscape of your church, haven’t been consequential for how you “do” church, haven’t changed your perspective on things like church discipline, ecclesiology, reverence in worship in regard to the Regulative Principle, devotion to prayer and the supremacy of God’s Word in both preaching and worship, and for crying out loud – if you’re still having Beth Moore Bible studies (sorry to harp on that, but seriously) – you’re not Reformed and Always Reforming. You are Reformed and Never Reforming. And if that’s the case, you’re not [being] Reformed at all.
Grace and Peace,