Reformation for the Real World
The West has tossed off biblical orthodoxy and called it a revolution.
But it was in reality a revolt or, to be more precise, a rebellion. The cost of this rebellion has been societal perversion and chaos.
Things are bad. Real bad. So we need a reformation. We as individuals, families, churches, and a broader society need to be reformed, reshaped, by the truth of God.
And reformation, of course, requires reformers.
I’m a pastor and I’m very much interested in localism.
So my focus is the reformation of the local church.And I want to briefly contrast for you two approaches reformation, two mindsets:
- the annoying visionary dreamer
- the plodding principled pragmatists
These two approaches, for better or worse, can be applied to whatever domain God has put you to be an agent of reformation.
Reformation should always start with the individual. Reform yourself. Grow in godliness and practical competence. That should be your goal and starting place but individual reformation at some point must spill out into other domains… such as the church and then broader society.
I’d like to see a lot of pastors be raised up to fight this battle from the pulpit, like it or not wide scale reformation tends to start top down not bottom up but this reformation is going to require more non-ministers, men and women in the pews who are taking action. Brethren like you.
To do this you must have the right frame of mind. Tactics and strategy matter but the flow from your mind frame. From your belief…. what then is the right frame?
Well, the reformer is neither a compromiser or a revolutionary.
The compromiser has a can of paint.
He just white washes the problems.
The revolutionary has a can of gasoline.
He just burns everything back to the ground.
But the reformer has a toolbox.
He knows that culture is always a fixer-upper.
Reformers are pragmatic but principled. They recognize that both personal and corporate change is incremental. It's a form of sanctification. They don’t create from nothing. They reform what exists. This is key.
Here are three things that are necessary if we are going to see a reformation in the real world and not just in the pontifications of online theoreticians.
First, you must accept that, like individuals, there are no perfect churches and all churches require further sanctification.
In Chapter 25, the Westminster Confession of Faith explains:
“This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.(1) And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”
“The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error;(1) and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall always be a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.”
So, no doubt there are many churches that are synagogues of satan which you can’t join. They aren’t merely impure. They are in active and willful revolt against the clear teaching of Scripture.
Churches with women pastors, who preach a false marxist gospel, who condone SSA, who preach egalitarianism, who permit divorce for just about any old reason, and so forth. To join those churches would be to become a compromiser, a white-washer.
But you need a church. And you’ll have to deal with imperfection and make small concessions. This is true of all institutions and organizations made up of sinners. They have impurities.
The revolutionary refuses to make concessions. He is what Bonhoeffer called a visionary dreamer.
So, second, you must not be a “visionary dreamer” at least not in the sense that Bonhoeffer used.
In Life Together, he writes:
“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.
By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.
The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Bonhoeffer is talking about a man who lives in his head and has crafted a church which can only exist in his mind.
And when any church fails to live up to his vision, he hates it. It's a wish-dream rooted in fiction. Not reality. Thus, he must first become disillusioned with his dream so that he can get to work in reality.
And Bonhoeffer goes on and says:
“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.”
When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”
I have met so many embittered whiney visionary dreamers who have come to despise the church and think of themselves as a lone voice in the wilderness.
Unappreciated. Unrecognized. Persecuted. And rejected.
Maybe you're Jeremiah or John the Baptist. Maybe. But you’re probably just a self-righteous fool who lacks discretion and shrewdness. Reformation requires both.
Which brings me to number three.
Third, you must be a principled pragmatist.
I’ve learned a lot by studying reformation-era Geneva, especially as it relates to the reformation views of sexuality. My main influences are JC Ryle, Thomas Watson, and above all, John Calvin.
One interesting historic book (not for everyone) is “Sex, Marriage, and Family Life in John Calvin's Geneva: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage.”
But there is another volume by the same author which has Geneva’s Consistory records which is something like the notes or minutes from the elders board meetings.
Listen to this long but insightful quote…
“What makes the Consistory (something like an elders board) record particularly valuable for our project is that John Calvin sat as a judge on the Consistory. He rarely missed the weekly meetings of the Consistory, and he sometimes dominated its proceedings, particularly in complex cases that required advanced legal training.
The Consistory provided Calvin with a laboratory to test and refine many of the theological ideas in his Institutes, commentaries, sermons, and statutes.
It was one thing for Calvin to insist that marriages should be publicly celebrated with parental consent.
It was quite another to decide whether a secretly married couple with a brand new child should be separated and their child thereby illegitimated and become a public ward.
It was one thing to thunder loudly from the pulpit that adulterers of all sorts should be stoned.
It was quite another to decide whether an engaged couple caught in heavy foreplay in their own bedroom should be sent to the gallows.
It was one thing to declare anathema on inter religious marriages.
It was quite another thing to deal with hundreds of desperate new immigrants who poured into Geneva with spouses of carious confessions on their arms.
It was one thing for Calvin to say that married couples must live together at all costs, save in cases of adultery or desertion.
It was quite another to insist on such reconciliation when a battered wife, already bent and lame from her husband’s repeated savageries, stood before him with newly blackened eyes.
It was on the Consistory bench that Calvin was forced to integrate theory and practice, theology and law, principle and precept, rule and equity. Some of these Consistory cases forced him to rethink and refine his prior theological positions on sex, marriage, and family. Other cases sent him scurrying back to his Bible and his books in search of new edification. Still other cases drew him back to the rules and procedures of the Roman civil law and Roman Catholic canon law. The Consistory experience certainly made some parts of Calvin’s reformation messier, more volatile, more difficult to follow or appreciate at points. But it also made his reformation more realistic, rigorous, and resilient.
In the end, Consistory work ensured that Calvin’s new teaching on sex, marriage, and family were both principled and pragmatic, not only formed through new biblical exegesis but also reformed through practical experience.”
Be a principled pragmatist in this sense.
Applying principles requires wisdom and a degree of flexibility. It’s easy to theorize but often hard to realize your theories. It’s as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a planned until he gets punched in his mouth.” What looks perfect on paper, might not work at all in reality. You tend to take a more humble approach after reality lands a few good left hooks to your jaw.
It is easy for pastors and other men to act in an intemperate manner in dark days like ours.
Compromise is widespread in the Church. And the reformers are few.
Thus, a man can feel overwhelmed and embattled. In such a state, it's not hard for a zealous man to lash out against compromise but do so in a way that causes as much harm as good.
A desire for reform must be regulated by charity, patience, and the bond of peace.
Calvin, writing on the moderation of discipline, writes:
"...nor must pastors themselves, when unable to reform all things which need correction to the extent which they could wish, cast up their ministry, or by unwonted severity throw the whole Church into confusion."
In a similar vein, Augustine write:
"Every pious reason and mode of ecclesiastical discipline ought always to have regard to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
This the apostle commands us to keep by bearing mutually with each other.
If it is not kept, the medicine of discipline begins to be not only superfluous, but even pernicious, and therefore ceases to be medicine."
Cyprian, again, says much the same:
“Let a man then mercifully correct what he can; what he cannot correct, let him bear patiently, and in love bewail and lament.”
The prophets suffered. The apostles suffered. Christ suffered.
Do you want reformation?
You want to see change in the real world?
You are going to suffer both in little ways and big ways.
Don’t be a whiny embittered visionary dreamer who only criticizes those actually doing something. Build where you are with whatever you got.