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.]

The Rotating Pulpit

One of the interesting features of life in Trinity Church is that you really never know who will be preaching on a given Sunday. The responsibility of proclaiming the word of God to the people of God is shared among the elders, so the pastors of Trinity Church take turns preaching the Scriptures. Most of the time, one pastor will preach for three or four weeks at a time, and then another pastor will take over for a season. This may make answering the question, “Who’s the preacher?” a bit more difficult when members are asked by those curious about the church, but the elders have deliberately adopted this practice for a variety of reasons as we seek to shepherd the flock faithfully.

1. We share preaching responsibilities to avoid inadvertently creating a culture of celebrity.

In everyday life, celebrity is everywhere. The general strategy at work in the world to gather a following is to platform charismatic, attractive, dynamic, relational spokespeople who are able to attract the masses with their unique skills for communication and leadership. But the church is a counter-cultural community created by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The mission of the church is not to form a cult of personality around any individual but to gather repentant sinners in worship of the Lord Jesus. This means that the word of the gospel, and not any specific leader, is to be central in the witness and ministry of the church.

Many churches agree with this assessment and adopt a plurality of elders (leadership by multiple pastors) to guard against the dangerous dynamics of power, pride, and pastor-worship that can develop when one person stands above all the others. Yet, even where a plurality of elders exists, if there is a singular public figure who delivers the word every week, a culture of celebrity can slip in the back door. One pastor becomes the face of the church, the voice of the congregation, the minister. The temptation for members is to associate the ministry of the word with this individual’s ministry of the word and to identify following Christ with following this shepherd as he preaches Christ. If that particular person were to leave or die or disqualify himself from ministry, the church would lose the figure around whom they’ve organized the life of their community.

Because people naturally want a charismatic leader to claim as the leader of their movement, and because pastors naturally desire to be that man, we elected to guard against that temptation by alternating which shepherd is before the congregation giving the word. There is only one man whose ministry is essential to the life of the church, the true Shepherd of the sheep, the risen Christ.

2. We share preaching responsibilities to give the church a variety of voices and perspectives.

Every Christian has certain parts of Scripture that are especially meaningful, certain emphases that they constantly return to for comfort, joy, and motivation. And in much the same way every pastor has characteristic ways of exploring, framing, explaining, illustrating, and applying the Scriptures and the Christian life. Even though each pastor is seeking to hear and receive the whole counsel of God and grow in the ways we understand the word and minister in balanced and well-rounded ways, we inevitably have weak points and blind spots. If any one of us were to exclusively preach each week, the congregation would likely grow to share in our emphases and our blindnesses.

One of the advantages of having multiple preachers is that the church has a chorus of voices and perspectives to teach the word and speak to the heart. Two pastors may preach very similar truths from very similar texts and yet express the doctrines, commands, and prayers of Scripture in remarkably different ways. Each shepherd has different life experiences he is bringing to the table, different manners of speaking and methods of communicating, and different ways of illustrating the text and processing God’s word in his own heart. When diversity in preaching helps the church develop a fuller understanding of God’s Law and gospel, then this diversity can be a blessing that equips Christ’s bride for greater faithfulness.

3. We share preaching responsibilities to allow shepherds to be fed in corporate worship.

Many pastors find that publicly proclaiming the glories of God in the gospel to his people is one of the great joys they experience. But these same pastors need to receive the word as well. When there is only one designated preacher, everyone in the church may be nourished by the word, challenged in their assumptions, called to repentance in unexpected ways, comforted in their affliction, and exhorted to new forms of Christ-exalting faithfulness—everyone, that is, except him. Of course, part of developing a sermon is taking the time to sit in God’s word and let the Spirit expose sin and minister the gospel to us, but there is a distinct benefit to being among God’s people and receiving the preached word from someone else who has soaked in Scripture and is ministering it to the church.

By sharing in the task of preaching, the elders have the opportunity to be a blessing to one another and to receive blessing from another. Each of us has seasons when we can hear the preached word in a way that grants insight, offers new perspectives, lays bare sins of which we weren’t aware, and offers comfort in the cross and motivation for holiness and witness in our own lives.

4. We share preaching responsibilities to avoid the typical forms of exhaustion that plague pastoral ministry.

“Burnout” is a buzzword in pastoral and leadership circles. The term refers to the exhaustion and frustration that result when a pastor works and ministers with no relief or rest. It’s easy to see how this could be a real danger for those who are alone in preaching on a weekly basis. Sermon preparation by itself can take twenty hours or more of study, prayer, and writing. Combine that with administration concerns, home groups, pastoral care, hospitality, meeting with members, and the everyday obligations of life in a family and community and you’ve got a full schedule indeed. It’s hard to see how one person could navigate all of these responsibilities on an ongoing basis without permitting one dimension to suffer or be neglected altogether.

Because we alternate preaching, no single pastor finds himself solely responsible for everything. When one preaches, another often takes the lead in other shepherding roles to free him up for study and preparation, and when one isn’t preaching, he can afford to earnestly give himself to all the duties besides sermon writing that are essential to shepherding the flock. The twenty hours that would have been devoted to preparing to preach can be devoted to sharing life with believers, focusing on the home group, being available for members, coordinating various aspects of church life, and ministering in other faithful ways. A shepherd must be more than a preacher, and sharing preaching responsibilities ensures that each pastor is able to fulfill the role of shepherd without consistently neglecting other aspects of the role. And the breaks from preaching provide times for reinvigoration so that when the time comes to publicly proclaim the word again, there is a renewed excitement and energy for the task.

These are but four of the reasons we have adopted a “rotating pulpit” at Trinity Church. Our prayer is that God would guard his people from temptation and equip them for ministry and faithfulness as different pastors feed the sheep with the word of Christ.