Patience with the Next Generation: passing on a tradition without bitterness
When I was a boy, my father, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), consistently taught my siblings and me always to ask why we do what we do in church. Never accept as a reason for doing something that “this is the way we’ve always done it.” To be Reformed was not to be traditional or conservative. It was to be biblical. To be sure, we were taught that our Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort are faithful expositions of Scripture. But we were never told we could not question those confessions, or probe whether or not they were truly biblical. We were allowed to argue, to debate, and to claim the confessions not on the basis of the authority of our parents or our church, but because we were convinced that they were biblical.
In contrast to my father, I have known many people who grew up in homes were questioning and argumentation were not tolerated. Signs of push-back from the young people were interpreted as rebellion. Changes of conviction on practical or controversial issues were viewed as betrayal. The CRC of the mid-twentieth century was a bastion of conservative Reformed Christianity, and it was all too easy for the conservatives to look with anger and frustration on the rising generation that questioned old traditions. Trust and dialog gave way to bitterness and politics. The very dogmatism and rigidity that made the CRC look so Reformed made its rapid slide into liberal evangelicalism utterly breathtaking. In many instances, the younger generation simply threw off the conservatism of the older. They could see that being conservative was not the same thing as being Christian.
This overgeneralizing account of what went on in the CRC is not historical and it is not the only factor in what happened. I’m not trying to offer any sort of definitive interpretation. I’m simply pointing out one part of the story, a part that Reformed Christians need to think about and to think about deeply.
I have now been living in PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) circles for 11 years (my whole adult life) and I have attended PCA churches for the balance of that time. My first and most formative pastoral internship was at a historic, rural PCA church that was being wisely and carefully transformed through the ministry of Don Clements. There I met many people who had grown up in the Presbyterian Church, or married into it, but had no clue what it meant to be Reformed. They had never been taught, and they had never been exposed to consistent biblical preaching. When they were taught Reformed theology from Scripture (rather than from tradition or simply from a confession) they ate it up eagerly. Thanks in large part to Don’s hard work, the church is now a thriving Reformed church.
During my time in the PCA, however, I have grown concerned about two dangerous trends. On the one hand, it has become far too ordinary of an experience for me to visit a PCA church – whether traditional or contemporary in style – and be disappointed by the quality (and quantity) of the preaching. The emphasis in worship, in many of these cases, has shifted to congregational singing or choral presentations, much of which is as thin in Scriptural content as is the preaching. In one instance (in a traditional church) a pastor even decided to preach on Pilgrim’s Progress rather than Scripture.
On the other hand, I have been very disappointed with the quality of teaching on worship itself. Far too often, it seems, “traditionalists” merely complain (or vent) about the trends in the church away from the confessions, or from the Directory of Public Worship. Rather than lovingly and laboriously returning to Scripture and making a clear New Testament case for what Christian worship should look like, we have to listen to complaints about “rebellious” trends such as support for women deaconesses, social outreach by the church, or things like “intinction.” Indeed, we are told, those who push these causes are not concerned about Scripture at all. They are simply rebels wanting to parrot our culture. They should just leave the PCA.
This is terribly unhealthy for any denomination. Trust and solidarity seems to be breaking down. Progressives view traditionalists as committed to a tradition rather than to Scripture, and traditionalists view progressives as informed by the culture rather than the Bible. Neither side seems willing to do the hard exegetical and biblical-theological work of lovingly persuading the other (or of taking the arguments of the other seriously).
It is not that the Scriptural case for Reformed worship is difficult to make. In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul points out that the problem with the worship of the world (and much of the worship of the church) is that it is shaped by worldly or fleshly instincts about how to please God. In other words, it focuses on the use of external or physical practices and circumstances that pander to human desires rather than on Jesus Christ. Why, Paul argues, if you have died to this world in Christ, do you still pander to its thinking about worship? Why do you still follow Old Testament instructions? Instead you should hold fast to Christ, and let him grow you. What are the means by which he grows you? As Ephesians 4 clearly tells us, they are those associated with the ministry of the gospel, that is, the preaching and teaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments. Everything else that we do in worship is simply our testimony to God’s work of growing us by taking his own word upon our lips (in prayer or song) or sharing his gifts with one another.
There are some voices out there pointing us back to this sort of ministry. At his thoughtful and helpful blog The Reformed ReaderShane Lems points us to letters by the 18th Century English pastor John Newton demonstrating just how concerned Newton was to get his parishioners to hear his preaching, and how hard he tried to communicate to them nothing but the clarity of Christ’s word.
I have done my best to avoid whatever might give you needless offense. I knew that if I would be faithful to Scripture and my conscience, that some of my hearers would be displeased. But, though I was constrained to risk your displeasure, I have been careful not to needlessly provoke you, or to lay any unnecessary difficulties in your way.
I am not a polished orator nor do I wish to capture your attention by the elegance of my words. If I had the ability to use elegant words and capture your attention with them, I would not do it. I speak to the unlearned and the wise, so my principal aim is to be understood. Yet I hope that I am not wrongly charged with speaking nonsense, with flippancy, carelessness, or disrespect. But alas! There are too many hearers who seem more desirous of entertainment than of real benefit from a Christian sermon!
If the vocal traditionalists who so often complain about those ruining the PCA would display this spirit and devotion to faithfully and lovingly explaining Scripture it would do a world of good for the conversation. Derek Thomas offers a helpful example in a recent piece on worship. I wish that Thomas would be more clear about the unique authority of the New Testament as opposed to the Old, but that aside Thomas’s emphasis is refreshing.
Of particular significance are Paul’s responses to errant public worship at Colossae and Corinth. At one point, Paul characterizes the public worship in Colossae as ethelothreskia (Col. 2:23), variously translated as “will worship” (KJV) or “self-made religion” (ESV). The Colossians had introduced elements that were clearly unacceptable (even if they were claiming an angelic source for their actions — one possible interpretation of Col. 2:18, the “worship of angels”). Perhaps it is in the Corinthian use (abuse) of tongues and prophecy that we find the clearest indication of the apostle’s willingness to “regulate” corporate worship. He regulates both the number and order of the use of spiritual gifts in a way that does not apply to “all of life”: no tongue is to be employed without an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27–28) and only two or three prophets may speak, in turn (vv. 29–32). At the very least, Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians underlines that corporate worship is to be regulated and in a manner that applies differently from that which is to be true for all of life.
The health of any church depends on both the authority and teaching of Scripture and on a spirit of loving patience and careful communication. No part of the church can say to another, “I have no need of you.” We need the next generation with all its questions and challenges, even if it sometimes strikes us as rebellious. After all, you cannot pass on a tradition with bitterness. Loving patience, the hard work of persuasion based on Scripture, and a willingness even to see the tradition itself corrected is the only way forward.