How Distinctives and the Details Matter to Life Together
For the past twenty weeks we’ve taken time to walk through some distinctives of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church including: the Free Offer of the Gospel, Social Covenanting, Close Communion, Psalm Singing, and the Sabbath. I hope this has been helpful in getting us to a place where we know a little more about our history and to move us to think a little bit about where we are as a church and as Christians. This week and next in our worship and prayer help we are going to spend some time kind of bringing it all together and then start fresh in the month of August. To do that we won’t just summarize and remind. Our goal will be to holistically use each of the different concepts to give a coherent theology of ministry for our individual and corporate blessings in our common Lord.
As we start that today let me take a moment to reflect.
Many lanes of the Reformed faith have transformed themselves and reconfigured their priorities over the last one hundred twenty-five years. The modifications in some cases were so major that if you took an average pew dweller from a PCUSA church in 1880 and placed them in the same congregation in 2023 they’d likely stroke out. Modernism and the changes natural to history have led them and us to some interesting places, and while the ARP has never been a part of what we would call the “mainline” that does not mean we have been unaffected by similar patterns. If you read our ARP red history books (which I recommend) you will see that those distinctives I mention above weren’t all that foreign to our sister Presbyterian denominations around us for many years, outside of communion and psalmody. That was part of the reason why we sought union with them at first. It seemed a bit daft to be divided. John 17 should play an important part in our lives as churches.
However, God in His merciful love always frustrated those plans and as time moved on those things which we did hold in common (especially the gospel) became more and more a barrier to an organic alliance. It should move us to lamentation. It is never good to see men and women move away from the clear teachings of Holy Scripture when it comes to the basics of the good news of Christ for sinners. That being said we have also discovered that we as ARP’s didn’t really hold on to them either. There was even a time when we were in danger of following our PCUS neighbors into some troublesome waters. Yet, again, God was faithful to steer us away in the 1960s and 1970s by raising up a generation of godly elders and ministers who stemmed the tide and allowed us by His grace to begin the process of returning to good foundations once again.
I say all that for this purpose.
A church needs to be on the same page about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Inertia and genealogy can only carry you so long and so far. There has to be a buy-in and common understanding of the Biblical witness for someone else to want to come in and be a part of your community of faith. You won’t often hear me saying nice things about big-box evangelicalism, but one of the things they do well, and is part of the secret sauce of their numerical success, is that they know what they believe and they do a good job of making sure that everyone who comes in is enculturated into the world of that church. While any large group of people are going to develop cliques, that’s unavoidable, people feel welcome when it isn’t difficult to fit in. All churches have membership requirements. Those are good and helpful. What aren’t are the unspoken ones that you can only learn if you are shown the secret handshake, or that you can’t really meet because of circumstances outside your control, like who your grandparents are.
One of the things we started doing in our children’s and adult Sabbath School the past two years is reintroducing the Catechism, the Children’s or the Shorter depending on age level. The main goal with that is the same as any kind of family bonding. To know the language of the tradition is the first part of building common bonds. Kids are far more capable of learning things than we sometimes give them credit for. If our middle schoolers can learn Algebra they can learn the catechism, which was originally written in the 17th century for the illiterate. The sooner they get the bones of faith the more they will understand the meat of what they are being taught, and what they read themselves, from the Bible. Part of the reason why the ARP lost some of those distinctives is because we ceased to teach the why’s of them. Just doing things because “that’s what ARP’s do” is not really a scriptural way of education, which is why we stopped doing them once the generations moved on. The old saying about wealth: the first generation makes it, the second generation enjoys it, and the third generation squanders it, can be true of the church as well. We need to make sure that every child born in the faith and every new convert/member has the biblical grounds for what makes us ARP and not something else.
In closing, God in His grace has been good to us. There is a purpose for all things under heaven and the blessings of that for the Christian is that the glory of the Lord is seen in how His people take care to ensure that everything they are engaged in is in line with what He desires for us. God is a God of the details and there is an important universal truth to help us to see that the life of a church is systematic. The how’s and why’s of the believers walk with Jesus encompass a lot and it is helpful for us to think through each of them with care and graceful concern. Every activity of our Church, or any Church, must be founded upon the word of God for we cannot bind the conscience with man’s commands. Take some time this week to ask questions, if you don’t know the why please feel free to ask. There are no bad inquiries, only those not sought. We serve a great and a glorious God. Let us rest in His commandments, for in Him we have peace.
Here’s a word on community:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser