March 17: How To Reform the Church

Continuing our brief series on the “TR” controversy in the 1970s, this was the second article published on the pages of The Presbyterian Journal.


If you want your people genuinely Reformed, deal gently and in the Spirit

How To Reform the Church


The author is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss.

Nearly everywhere in the South in the two main Presbyterian denominations can be found many men whose chief desire is to reform their denominations and their individual congregations. They want the Presbyterian Church US or the Presbyterian Church in America to be confessional Churches, subscribing to the Reformed faith as it is presented in the Confession and Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly. More than they want a “broadly evangelical” or “conservative” Church, they want a Church which strives for purity in doctrine and practice—the Reformed faith.

The desire itself is to be heartily commended; in fact, the wish is entirely Biblical. How this can be accomplished, however, is a question which demands careful thought and close attention. Viewpoints vary, and much damage can be done in and to congregations and denominations if care is not used.

I think the Church can be reformed without needless division and hurt if we avoid two extreme positions in approaching the problem.

Certainly we cannot demand and should not expect immediate reformation, separating ourselves from all who fail to heed the call to reform. Many times in youthful zealousness, young pastors see their task to be the overnight transformation of their congregation from “conservative” to “Reformed” Christians.

The change would be a good one, of course, but no one should expect the transformation immediately. Just as people cannot be forced into receiving the Christian faith, they cannot be forced into embracing the Reformed faith or be given the ultimatum, “Shape up or ship out.”

On the other hand, a person true to the Reformed faith cannot be content to sit back and not seek the reformation of the Church, content merely with a congregation of “evangelical” members. If the Reformed faith is the purest form of Christianity, then all of us must seek its infusion into the people of God.

A study of Church history and the Scripture suggests two basic ways a reformation of the Church can be accomplished.

First, the reforming of the Church must be done by a gradual process of education. For example, let’s say most PCA members are very conservative but not Reformed in theology and practice. This was characteristic of these members long before they left the PCUS. On the whole, these people were not concerned with gaining an understanding of the Reformed faith; they were caught up in the battle in which lines were clearly and easily drawn: conservative versus liberal.

To put it as some see it, the situation is this: As a result of the theological climate during past generations, many Presbyterians just do not know the teaching and practice of the Reformed faith. They must be taught. But they must be taught slowly. One does not stuff a 12-ounce sirloin down the throat of a babe, and many members are babes regarding the Reformed faith. Some may even be hostile at first, choking on the Reformed teachings. Yet this is no reason to separate from them or to write them off as wild-eyed Arminians.

Hence I would plead with those who are and will be in teaching positions to learn to be patient, to be gentle, to love as you have been loved. Teach the congregations the Reformed faith; they need it, but give them a spoonful at a time.

Second, we who claim to follow men like Calvin and Kuyper have too often forgotten their great emphasis upon the work of the Holy Spirit. To reform the Church, we must pray that the eyes, ears and minds of our people will be opened so that God might convince them of the truth of the Reformed faith. To use Kuyper’s example, we must pray that the Spirit of God would produce that beautiful music upon the harp of the Reformed faith.

We must pray for ourselves, that God would grant us patience, love and concern, that He would teach us to lead our people gently, that He would grant us discernment as to where our people are and how we should lead them.

With these two thoughts in mind, the Church may indeed be reformed.

There is no need for bitterness, hatred and distrust to arise in the Church. PCUS and PCA congregations can become Reformed congregations in doctrine and practice. This will not happen if the babes are forced or ignored. They must be nurtured and taught slowly, with love. We must pray for and with them that the Holy Spirit will bring about this transformation which is reformation.


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