What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 10 of 10 - The Church and Its Worship

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8, and part 9 of this series.]

We believe that the church is God’s New Covenant community called by God to worship him together as his people in the ways taught by Scripture. There are five interconnected principles that shape the Reformed understanding of corporate worship: 1) regulation, 2) understanding, 3) simplicity, 4) participation, and 5) gospel-centrality.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

Reformed Christians believe that our consciences can only be bound by God. No man, pastor or otherwise, has the authority to command us to obey from the heart. This principle of Christian freedom and God’s sovereignty has implications for corporate worship. While individuals may worship God through a variety of means in their everyday lives according to their own conscience, when we gather as the people of God, we are in a unique situation where the whole congregation is compelled to worship God in the ways the pastors lead them. Therefore Reformed Christians believe that the elements of corporate worship must be explicitly prescribed or modeled in the Bible. Scripture regulates how we may worship God as his people corporately.

This principle differs from the approach that we may worship God corporately in any way we choose so long as it is not forbidden by Scripture (sometimes called the “normative” principle). By limiting our corporate worship to that which is prescribed or modeled, Reformed Christians avoid forcing all people in the congregation to worship God according to man’s invented traditions. So Reformed Christians worship corporately through songs, Bible reading, preaching, sacraments, prayer, monetary collections, and taking vows, and they refuse to incorporate things such as drama, dance, visual depictions of Christ, and any other element not laid down in Scripture.

Understanding

Because Christians know God through his word and grow as they taste the goodness of the Lord, Reformed Christians place a high priority on making sure corporate worship services foster understanding. Corporate worship, Bible translations, prayers, and songs should all be carried out in the language of the people worshipping, and every effort should be made to make the message of the gospel and the teachings of Scripture (through every element of worship) as clear as possible. Reformed Christians do not believe that anyone is served merely by being present in corporate worship or by carrying out certain actions apart from faith or understanding.

Simplicity

Closely related to the principle of understanding, Reformed Christians worship in ways that are simple so as to avoid distracting the congregation from the content of God's word. Instrumentation, architecture, attire, atmosphere, and written material should all serve to focus the congregation in heart and mind upon God’s word and the beauty of the gospel. Corporate worship should not be a huge production that intends to impress, emotionally overwhelm, or stir up excitement. It should be simple and focused on the worship of God through the word.

Participation

Because the church is the covenant community of God indwelt by the Spirit, Reformed Christians emphasize the participation of all the saints in worship. Corporate worship should not be a performance by some for others. The voices of the people should rise up together in prayers, confessions, and songs. Even the preaching of the word should be done among the people rather than above and beyond them. Likewise, the celebration of the Lord’s Table should be a true act of communion with God and one another.

Gospel-Centered

Since the word should saturate and shape corporate worship, Reformed Christians believe that the very movement or liturgy of the service should present the gospel in its form. In other words, it is not only the content of the service explicitly taught that communicates and teaches but the flow of a service as well. Even though there are differences, Reformed Christians have a common order of service that follows a general pattern of a call to worship, adoration, confession, assurance of pardon, thanksgiving, collection, instruction, communion, celebration, benediction, and sending. This pattern presents the good news of the gospel in content and form.

Blog Series Conclusion

When we at Trinity Church say that we are a Reformed Church, we mean to say that we are Christians who belong to a robust and comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Many people think of the Five Points of Calvinism or TULIP when they hear the word Reformed. We don’t mean less than that, but we mean much more than that. To be Reformed means that we have a particular understanding from Scripture on how salvation was secured and is applied by the Spirit, on God’s holiness and sovereignty over creation, on the Christ-centered covenantal unity of Scripture, on vocation and culture, on the Law of God, and on the church’s nature, governance, ministry, and worship. Certainly, a lot more could be said in this blog series, and there is no doubt that many people object to the beliefs we have laid out here or even this characterization of Reformed Christianity. But this is broadly what we mean when we say we are a Reformed church.

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 9 of 10 - The Church and Government

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7, and part 8 of this series.]

We believe that the local church is God’s New Covenant community ruled over by a plurality of elders, given to the church as gifts from the Spirit, who shepherd the church as those accountable to other organically connected churches.

Reformed Christians believe that the church, as the covenant community of God, does not have the authority or the wisdom to devise its own structure and governance. The church is given sacraments that mark off the community from the world, and the church is given leaders by the Holy Spirit to rule over the church under the authority of God’s word.

Plural Elder Leadership

Reformed Christians believe the Bible teaches that local churches are to be governed by a plurality of qualified elders. Elders are to be dedicated to prayer and the ministry of the word and sacrament. In other words, the elders lead the church by preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments and discipline of the church. While the ministry of prayer, word, and sacrament belong to each member and the church community as a whole, it is led, overseen, and carried out by a select group variously called elders, pastors, and overseers in the New Testament.

Deacons hold a second office in the church, but it is not an authoritative office. In the early church, deacons collected offerings, prepared and served the tables, and cared for the poor. So while elders oversee and carry out the ministry of teaching the word, deacons ensure that the logistics of community life are consistent with what is being taught by the elders from the word as they apply it to their local church context.

Qualifications for Elders

The New Testament gives two lists that outline the broad requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Taken together, there are five basic requirements that must be met for a person to be qualified to be an elder in a local church. First, the person must demonstrate basic Christian character without any obvious character flaws that would draw skepticism upon the gospel and the church. Second, the person must be able to communicate, teach, and defend sound Christian doctrine consistent with the gospel. Third, the person must be a male since God created men and women to fulfill different roles in the home and the church. Fourth, the person must not be a relatively new convert compared to the rest of the congregation so that he is not tempted to conceit and the arrogance that often accompanies those who are new to anything. Fifth, the person must not have a poor reputation with those outside the church due to scandal or immorality such that the credibility of the church and its message would be undercut.

Elder Authority

While church members elect their officers, elders hold authority in the local church. However, this authority is not absolute. Rather, the authority of elders is rooted in God’s authority made known in his word. Elders cannot command obedience to their will (called "magisterial authority"). They can only proclaim God’s will as it is taught in the word and demand obedience to God (called "ministerial authority"). The consciences of men must not ever be bound by the opinions or wisdom of men since God alone is Lord of the conscience. Only he can command obedience, and so elders have authority only insofar as they communicate faithfully the message of Scripture. However, when covenant community members disobey the word of God and harden themselves in sin, elders have the authority to declare a person to be living disobediently, to warn them, rebuke them, and ultimately to withdraw the church’s affirmation of their confession.

Organic Connectionalism

As a covenant community, a local church is not a voluntary association of individuals. The church is the body of Christ, organically connected to one another through the bond created by the Holy Spirit. So also are local churches connected to one another. This organic connection is such that the livelihood of each church is mutually dependent upon the health of the other churches. This organic unity suggests a connectionalism between churches that goes beyond mere monetary partnership in joint efforts to advance the gospel or to perform acts of mercy. Therefore, Reformed Christians believe that local churches must be accountable to and in partnership with other local churches. Therefore, Reformed churches are ruled by elders who have been examined by the elders of other churches and who remain accountable to other church elders both in doctrine and conduct. One aspect of this accountability is the creation of courts that can adjudicate conflicts within or between local churches, whether the conflict is between elders and church members or the elders themselves. Finally, churches partner together to advance the gospel in new regions by pooling their resources and members for church planting efforts.

Reformed Christians believe that God rules his church through his word. He commands, comforts, promises, and sanctifies his people through the preaching and teaching of his word by elders who are given to local churches as groups of men submitted to God with tested character who avoid both dominating others and shrinking back in fear of others. 

[Editor's Note: Read part 10 of this series.]

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 8 of 10 - The Church and Sacraments

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6, and part 7 of this series.]

We believe that the Church is God’s New Covenant community marked by the preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the discipline entailed therein!

The church is a community created by the will of the Father through the work of the Son on the cross, where people believe in him in the power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever God works to create a people for himself, a particular communal life is formed that we can recognize as a church. Reformed Christians believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a distinct covenant people who belong to God and whose life takes a particular shape.

Therefore, the marks of a true church are three: 1) the gospel is rightly preached from Scripture and believed by a community, 2) the sacraments are rightly administered, and 3) church discipline is rightly practiced. A true church exists wherever these marks are present. Each of these marks is wrapped up in the proper practice of the others, and Reformed Christians believe that no church exists wherever these marks are lacking.

The Right Preaching and Hearing of the Gospel

As discussed in a previous post, the church is a covenant community. For all who believe it, the promise of the gospel—forgiveness of sins and new creation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ—ratifies the New Covenant. In other words, when people hear God so as to believe in his promise in Jesus Christ, they become, along with their children, part of God’s covenant people. Those people not only join his church through faith in the gospel, but they are continually given life as the gospel word is proclaimed regularly on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week as Christians share their lives together.

If a community adopts false doctrines and practices that destroy the sound teaching of the gospel such that people are drawn away from faith in Christ, that community can no longer be considered a church of God.

The Right Administration of the Sacraments

Because the church is a covenant community, it is marked out by God given signs and seals of the covenant. In the same way a marriage covenant is signified by the giving and receiving of rings and sealed by the act of sexual intercourse, baptism and the Lord’s Table are signs and seals of the New Covenant community. As signs, they represent to us the work of Christ and his benefits. As seals, they testify to God's faithfulness, assuring us that God will surely do all he has promised. Baptism is the initiatory rite, and the Lord’s Table is an ongoing rite of Christian fellowship.

While Christians debate the exact details of how these sacraments are to be administered (like timing, mode, frequency, etc.) the main issue regarding the right practice of the sacraments involves their meaning. If communities teach and practice that the sacraments confer or infuse grace as though salvation comes through them rather than through faith alone, then the sacraments have been perverted into a system of works and oppose the gospel of grace. So while some Christians baptize infants and others only believers able to give a public profession of faith, while some sprinkle and others immerse, while some celebrate the table weekly and others quarterly, while some use wafers and others a single loaf, these differences do not amount to errors that threaten the right administration of the sacraments. But those who turn the sacraments against the gospel of grace cannot be considered a church. 

Church Discipline

Because the church is a distinct covenant community marked off from the world through the sacraments, discipline is required to faithfully identify who credibly belongs to the church and who does not. Church discipline involves excluding from table fellowship non-Christians and those whose confession of Christ must be questioned. In other words, because the Lord’s Table is an ongoing identification of who is believing in Jesus Christ, it cannot be served to non-Christians or to those claiming to be Christians but living in unrepentant sin. Neither can baptism be applied to those who have no place in the covenant community of Christ. Churches that refuse to apply the marks of the sacraments faithfully cannot meaningfully claim to be true a church.

Jesus did not die merely to forgive the sins of many individuals. He died and rose again to bring a kingdom, and that kingdom is represented and pointed to by the church. Christians are not just saved from their sins but to a new way of life with God’s people. The church cannot be reduced to a location where a pastor preaches and people sing some songs. The church is a community indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus set apart from the world in the preaching of the gospel, its celebration of the gospel in the sacraments, and its loyalty to the gospel in church discipline.

[Editor's Note: Read part 9 and part 10 of this series.]

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 7 of 10 - The Law of God

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5, and part 6 of this series.]

We believe that God’s commands are good and play an important role in the Christian life and in society even though they have no power to save us or help us overcome our sinful natures!

Resting on the foundation of covenant theology, Reformed Christians have a robust understanding of the goodness and the importance of God’s law that avoids the errors of legalism and antinomianism. The Reformed understanding of the law provides us with resources to pursue justice and morality in the public square, with a starting point for conversation with non-believers about our need for salvation, and with guidance in the Christian life.

Everyone Has a Conscience

Even though sin has pervasively impacted the world and each individual person, God has not left us without some understanding of our obligations to him and to one another. Each person made in the image of God possesses a conscience. We might describe a conscience as an intuition of our creation covenant obligations to love God and others. Reformed Christians are not surprised by the fact that people in every culture throughout the world and throughout history share basic moral tenants. However, because of sin, we suppress the truth, lie to ourselves, and pervert the law written on our hearts. This is why people disagree about moral issues. But even though we might disagree about the exact moral obligations on this or that issue, and even though some moral issues will carry more weight in certain contexts and eras, there exists a basic moral compass in all of us. This is part of what it means to bear the image of God and to be created in his likeness.

The Ten Commandments

The Reformed understanding of the Law of God interprets the Bible to teach that our consciences are stamped by God’s eternal Law. Therefore, when God made a covenant with Israel through Moses and summarized his Law to them in the Ten Commandments, he was making public what mankind already knew by nature but suppressed in sin. In other words, the Ten Commandments outline the basic moral obligations God has created all mankind to obey. Our consciences can be ignored, malformed, and hardened, but when God’s commandments clearly set forth how we must live as those made in his image, we cannot distort or pervert what we already knew to be true. This suggests that the Ten Commandments do not merely belong to the Old Covenant but set forth the eternal moral law of God.

Three Uses of the Law

The Law of God is a good thing. Scripture teaches quite clearly that the Law is good, holy, and perfect (Romans 7:12). However, as sinners, we naturally use the Law in sinful ways. The Law is not an instrument of salvation. It cannot rescue us from sin. We cannot obey it in order to please God, merit his favor, or transform our corrupted selves. Salvation is by grace alone and not through works of the Law.

But the Law is useful when rightly appropriated. Reformed Christians speak of three valid uses of the Law. First, the Law can act as a mirror. It shows us who we are. It exposes us as sinners and even provokes us to sin. This awareness of sin that comes through the Law can drive us to seek salvation in Christ alone.

Second, the Law serves as a guide to justice for civil authorities and the general restraint of evil in the world. Since the Law of God resonates with our consciences, the Law promotes a culture where people conform outwardly to justice. In other words, the Law shows us what is just, and therefore, we can be guided to make good laws that will promote public justice even if people pursue doing the right thing for sinful reasons.

Third, for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ and received his grace through the work of the Spirit, the Law can guide faithfulness. The Law cannot transform sinful people, whether a non-Christian or a Christian. But it can guide Christians being transformed by the Spirit into faithful living. It can stir Christians to obey God out of joy and gratitude since we have been set free from the curse of the Law and the threat of a death sentence.

When the Law is understood properly, Christians avoid legalism (seeking salvation or transformation through the Law) and antinomianism (throwing out God’s commands altogether as having no place in society or the Christian life).

[Editor's Note: Read part 8part 9, and part 10 of this series.]