The Danger and Need for Labels
In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul rebukes the Corinthians for dividing into factions and adopting various labels to identify each party with different church leaders. For this reason, many Christians today reject adjectives that modify or characterize the kind of Christian church to which they belong. This is a good impulse since Christians receive our identity from Jesus Christ, and Christ’s body should not be divided. Labels can suggest or reveal that we are finding in some doctrinal difference or practice a deeper identity than the one we have in Christ and his people.
But labels don’t have to function this way. Labels can be used as shortcuts that stand in for a much longer explanation concerning what a particular group or person believes about a set of issues. That is how we seek to use the label “Reformed” when we describe Trinity Church. Labels like “Reformed,” “Wesleyan,” or “Roman Catholic” allow us to quickly give others a context for discerning how we understand Scripture without jettisoning our primary identity as Christians.
The Purpose of This Blog Series
However, labels only work this way if people know what they mean to communicate. That is the purpose of this series of blog posts. We hope to outline briefly what it means to be a broadly Reformed church. These posts will not attempt to argue about why we think being Reformed is important. Nor will they cover extensively the historical contexts and events that led to Reformed theology’s particular articulation. These posts seek to identify the Christian tradition to which we belong.
“Reformed” Means Christian
That said, the first, primary, and fundamental thing that being Reformed means is that we are Christians. The Reformed are not trying to discover a faith unknown to Christians in ages past but to hold on to and stay faithful to what Christians have always believed from Scripture. Early in the history of the church, Christians adopted what we call the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the central doctrines taught in Scripture. This creed was called the Rule of Faith, and it guided Christians for centuries to know what a faithful reading of Scripture looked like. One of the great leaders of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, organized his most significant theological work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, using the Apostles’ Creed, seeking to explain what each line meant. Reformed Christians hold to the central doctrines of the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the deity of the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and coming judgment.
Another important term Reformed Christians have used is “Evangelical.” This simply means that Reformed Christians understand the gospel of Jesus Christ to be central to Christianity. At times, the church has lost sight of the gospel or allowed the message to be clouded, but the true church has never been snuffed out. A faithful remnant has always held to the true grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Being Reformed also means that our identity is not primarily found in a reaction to something else but flows from the center outward into all of life. Many Christian traditions find their central identity in important but secondary doctrines. For instance, Baptist identity is rooted in a perspective on baptism that flows from a particular controversy over that issue at a particular moment in history. Methodist identity flows from a particular organization of Christian community and discipleship in the 18th century. Anglican identity comes from its geo-political heritage in England. But despite being known for positions on secondary doctrines, the Reformed tradition should not be understood as breaking off from other Christians over a certain issue but as a movement toward the center of the faith that reconnects our identity with the gospel. As the source of the church’s life, the gospel as center works itself out into all of life.
Therefore, a Reformed church is a Christian church that believes and proclaims the gospel as its life giving foundation. It is a church whose identity rests in the historic Christian faith. Reformed Christianity is a whole-life-forming tradition rather than a splinter narrowly focused on a particular controversy. Because of this, the Reformed tradition is comprehensive, articulating a way of believing and living in the world that shapes every aspect of life.