The Lynden Church Paradigm (3):  Reformed Clubbers See Part 1 & Part 2

In the Western corner of Washington State, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, is the small town of Lynden.  Lynden is a good old American town of hard-working, honest people, predominantly of Dutch decent, who place great value on family and community.  But there is something else about Lynden that makes it worth considering.  At one time, Lynden held the world’s record for the most churches per capita and per square mile. Within city limits there are dozens of churches.  This is a remarkable phenomenon when considering that the population is only around fifteen thousand people.   As a pastor in Lynden, I have often thought that Lynden provides a unique study in American suburban Christianity.  What happens in a church environment where dozens of churches merely blocks from each church are each searching for identity?  What becomes of the message and witness of the church in this environment?  And what dangers occur among the churches? 
If you were to survey the church landscape in Lynden, certain kinds of religious extremism have occurred.  In this post, I want to outline the particular problem of legalism.  I have been spent considerable time reflecting on the problems of the mega-church model (see links above), but I also recognize that there is a problem in the opposite direction with Reformed churches who are failing to properly minister the gospel.
 This is my third part in the Lynden Church Paradigm series, and my goal is to provide an honest assessment of the Reformed problem.  This post will interact with the legitimate concerns against Reformed churches that have been raised. 

In my seven years of ministering in Lynden I have been shocked over how much antipathy there has been toward Reformed churches.  It took me more than a few years to get a handle on why the reaction has been so strong.  The sad reality is that many people in this community have witnessed fighting, church splits, abuses, hatreds, contentions, jealousies, all undergirded by a hard kind of legalism that shows nothing of the joy of Christ.  Yes, it’s a strong statement, but it’s a sad thing for me to admit that some of the ugliest forms of Christianity I have encountered come out of Reformed churches.  It’s no wonder you have a huge separation that has occurred here among the churches and deep antipathy for anything with the name Reformed.   While I cannot accept what many Christians have proposed as the answer to this problem (see part one and two) I do admit that we as Reformed churches should take a serious look at our ministries and understand what is a fair criticism.

The New Testament contrasts two very different kinds of ministries.  In 2 Cor. 3 the apostle Paul says that we are ministers of the new covenant.  The contrast the apostle is making is between the new covenant, and the particular phenomenon of the giving of the law on Sinai—that which he labels as a ministry of condemnation.  These differences are vital to understand.  The contrast is important because each kind of ministry produces its own kind of fruit in its recipients. Nothing exposes this stronger than when Jesus came upon the Jewish community of his day.  This community was under the “ministry of condemnation”, and the bad tree was bearing bad fruit.  The Jewish community was a legalistic, self-righteous, club only for those who conformed to the Pharisaical interpretations of the law and the super-imposed tradition of the elders.  No one could enter the club until there was complete conformity.  

Full of self-righteous pride, the Sanhedrin condemned everyone else except themselves. So bad was the problem, that the Pharisees condemned Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands properly before eating bread (Matt. 15:1ff). This certainly was a "practical" ministry, it was practically killing the people. The Sanhedrin did nothing but fight over the minutest points of the law, and their whole shepherding of the people proved to be nothing but a heavy handed yoke to their own destruction.  There was no joy, no confidence, no hope, no freedom, only sorrow and guilt—tragic byproducts of a ministry that kills.
The problem outlined above explains Jesus’ crushing approach in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus was unleashing the full weight of the law upon a community whose minds were blinded to the need for a perfect righteousness. The apostle Paul summed up the whole problem by saying, “For they [Israel] being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:3-4).”  When Christ ministered his righteousness to weary souls, it not only loosed them from bondage but it ministered a joy that was complete. 

The contention of this post is that the root problem as to why there has been an antipathy to anything Reformed is because many Reformed churches have failed to communicate what kind of ministry they are ministering to the people.  When the above distinctions are absent, the ministry of condemnation becomes the de facto ministry of the given church.  This kind of ministry is concerned only to bring people into conformity with the law of God by laying the heavy, fearful burden of its yoke upon the people. This does nothing but kill people without making alive.  The goal of Christian ministry has been forgotten.  Consider Calvin’s summary of gospel ministry. 
Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favour by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace.
Calvin here notes that the principal object of all ministry is to lead people to confess sin and receive the free grace of forgiveness offered in the gospel.  All other pagan religions focus merely on correcting the behavior of individuals. 

If the ministry in question has not made clear that its primary aim is to minister forgiveness and the righteousness of Christ to struggling sinners, the consequences are severe.  I say this because Reformed churches are the most effective churches in preaching the full weight of the law.  I’m not talking about law-lite, or the practical tip stuff of the evangelicals.  I’m saying that when Reformed ministers forget that the primary (certainly not only) aim of all preaching to bring about forgiveness, they are better than most at unleashing the full weight of the law upon the people to their own hurt.  Certain kinds of bad fruits follow from this kind of imbalance. In these environments, the church becomes its own kind of club. To really belong, one has to adopt the fine interpretations of the law as the church authorities have defined and forced them, above and beyond their own confessions.  

As these particular distinctives are pounded into the people, the propaganda produces a guilty hold over the people.  The people are brainwashed that if they depart from the tradition of the elders on any point of their tradition, they are departing from the only true church and endangering their souls before God.  And if this kind of intimidation doesn’t work, when exposed, these groups love to retreat into a kind of martyr complex as the last ones standing on the truth, or the last “seven-thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal”. 

The pastors, however, are not alone to be blamed in these scenarios.  As the fine points of the law are over-emphasized, this produces a kind of self confidence in the tradition itself and the people tend to become proud in their obedience. The law no longer becomes a rule of gratitude for the believer, but instead a rule of self-promotion.  I have noticed that the sermons in Reformed churches which receive the most approbation are sermons from the Ten Commandments, particularly the fourth—“thou shall keep the Sabbath day”.  While preaching the law has an important place in Christian preaching, an imbalance and  highly polemical approach tends to produce a different kind of disobedience.  As the pastor rails against those who are breaking, for instance, the fourth commandment, the churchgoer develops a confidence in his own conviction and good record of keeping that commandment. Without realizing it, the pastor is actually presenting to his people a strategy for the promotion of self-righteousness.  The law has not been used to lead people into confession and forgiveness of sin, but instead it has become a mechanism for either church or self-promotion.  

All of this creates a kind of perfect storm that results in a lot of division and fighting.  This makes sense, when the gospel is assumed or missing from the proclamation, and the heavy hand of the law is used to justify one’s own position to the condemnation of everyone else, this tends to arouse the works of the flesh in the people. The apostle makes this case in Romans 7:8, that the law, when used to promote self-righteousness, actually has the effect of arousing all manner of sinful desire. As the works of the flesh are aroused in this way, the ministry is actually moving the people to the inevitable consequence of division since mutual love and unity is only promoted by those who have been deeply touched by the love of Christ in the gospel. 
Ultimately, I believe this is what many people have reacted to among some of the Reformed churches in Lynden.  The fighting at times became so bad, that many people ended up walking away from the church altogether, or they jumped to the opposite extreme. All doctrinal conviction and restraint were abandoned as they desperately latched onto to anything that didn't remind them of the past: discipline, commitment, doctrine, catechism, structure, evening worship, ties, coats, organs, as everything became governed by how it makes one feel in reaction to the legalism.  This I will address in the next post. 

But this is enough to say that the Reformed clubbers have done considerable damage.  We need to be honest about some of the criticisms that have been made against Reformed churches.  Reformed churches would do well to consider whether their history of ministering to God's people has promoted the fruits of the spirit or the works of the flesh.  If the later is what people have experienced, it’s no wonder there has been such a reaction against Reformed churches.  We have a rich heritage in the Reformed tradition of the doctrines of grace—it’s time to preach them again. Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel, said the apostle.  Woe to the Reformed churches if they bury the very gospel they once uncovered. 


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  2. Wow! After reading this I can see how many people feel that a lot of Reformed churches have become very legalistic. It is unfortunate how many people feel would consider leaving the church because they feel they don't "belong in the club." I know several people who feel this way. Something we need to remember is that it isn't the 'legalities' but our hearts that God looks at.

  3. I would say that many Reformed churches have what I call a "shadow confession," which consists of things that are not expressly stated in or a necessary consequence of the confessions, yet are demanded of members with unwarranted dogmatism. I have seen how this has discouraged potential and perhaps even long-term members. Even though the Gospel itself may be faithfully preached, why demand more than the apostles demanded of the early church or what is expressly stated in the confessions? How does this promote the cause of the kingdom? Is there no room for freedom of conscience in these matters? Finally, if we're going to pile on more and more requirements, where does it end?

  4. thank you--with all my heart. I've seen this, been there and done that and know of many, MANY who suffer prolonged problems because of this type of spiritual abuse--and I sadly know of many who don't even realize they are NOT receiving the gospel but an emphasis on this and that and majoring on minors. God bless you and keep preaching. You've spoken the truth--in love.

  5. Greetings Brother,
    I have shared this series of posting links with my fellow ministers in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand. By God's grace, we do not have the plurality of Reformed denominations that exist in the USA and elsewhere in NZ. Nevertheless, tensions exist within us and we need to heed this warning while seeking to be faithful to the Lord. May the Lord bless your labours in His service.

  6. Hi Andre, thanks for the encouraging words. Hope the posts help us all to be faithful ministers of the gospel. I wrote the above post knowing that we can easily fall into this trap. What a priviledge to herald the forgivness of Christ, we should never forget that great purpose. Blessings in your ministry in NZ.

  7. Dear Anon, I've seen the fruits of this stuff too, the damage done takes years to recover from, thanks for your words.

  8. Dave, the thing that drives me crazy is the martyr complex these groups develop. "Unwarranted dogmatism" pretty much sums it up. Your questions are really fair!

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