What the Reformed Can Learn From Other Evangelicals

This is an excerpt from a debate on the regulative principle between John Frame and DG Hart in 1998. And of course I’m quoting John Frame!

  1. I do think that American conservative Reformed churches in recent years have not been very strong in evangelism. There has been all too little practice of it, and the theological reflection about it has been mainly negative: “don’t do what the Arminians do, especially Finney.” Jack Miller, PEF, and EE represent a few encouraging signs in this respect.

2. Reformed churches, in my experience, have done a very poor job of discipling adults who are new converts or who come from non-Reformed backgrounds. People like this typically have huge problems in their past, and often they haven’t a clue about how to study the Scriptures, raise their kids, develop godly habits. Often the big evangelical churches are better than we are at discipling, in my view.

3. I would also say that Reformed Christianity is rather narrow in its appeal today. We seem only to be able to reach people of the white middle-to-upper class, people with some college education. We have not reached minorities, the poor, the uneducated. That should be a special concern, because in Scripture the church is ethnically and socially universal, and it has a special concern for the poor. Again, there are a few exceptions to this general rule: CUTS inPhiladelphia, books of George Grant and others. But I still don’t see us on the whole making much of an impact. Groups like the Salvation Army and Victory Outreach have much thinner messages than we, but they have done far more good in poor communities. We can learn from them.

4. For all our Kuyperian talk about bringing the Word to bear on all areas of human life, we have not addressed issues in our society very often or very effectively. The strongest Christian movements influencing public discussions in politics, ethics, etc. are Charismatic (Christian Coalition), Fundamentalist (Falwell, Dobson, Bauer, et al), Roman Catholic, Lutherans (Wurmbrand et al) and Anabaptist (Sider and others). These leaders are sometimes dependent on Reformed scholarship, but the Reformed haven’t followed up on their insights. One bright spot: World Magazine. We need to learn from Christians outside our tradition in the practical work of communicating our ideas to the public.

5. Part of the problem in all these areas is that Reformed Christianity has been too intellectual in its emphasis. Zwingli actually eliminated music from the worship service and turned the service exclusively into a teaching meeting. Other Reformers did not follow Zwingli’s lead in this connection, but they were all very scholarly people, and they put a great emphasis on learning as a necessity for pastors. So many Reformed people have taught the “primacy of the intellect,” the notion that God’s truth always enters (and should enter) us by the intellect, before it affects the will and the emotions. Van Til differed with Gordon Clarkon this, and I follow VT’s lead. Not only does the intellect affect the will, but the reverse is also true: the will often directs the intellect, as when the unbeliever suppresses the truth. Among intellect, emotions and will, none is higher than the others. All of these fell together in Adam’s transgression; all are redeemed together in Christ. That is to say that our sin, salvation, decisions and knowledge pertain to the whole person, not to isolated faculties.

So I think we need to put much more emphasis on will and emotion in our preaching and worship. In these respects, we need to be much more like Scripture itself. In my view, the charismatics err on the other side, but we can learn from them. And we should be less shy about appealing to the will. Scripture calls on people to make commitments, decisions if you will. In Scripture, God pleads with sinners. We, however, tend to just state the truth and wait to see how people respond. Here I think the Arminians are actually closer to the truth than we are.

I think Reformed people greatly err when they criticize EE for emphasizing decisions. That criticism is hyper-Calvinistic, rather than Calvinistic. Man does have an important responsibility to respond to the Gospel. Demanding that response is part of the gospel. Such human responsibility is not at all antithetical to divine sovereignty. Man cannot respond apart from grace, certainly. But scriptural preaching of the gospel does not tell people to wait passively for God to do something. Rather, it tells them to repent, believe, and be baptized.

Reformed intellectualism can be countered as we open ourselves to listen to preachers like Billy Graham. Graham sometimes says Arminian things and worse; he also says Calvinistic things, sometimes. But he has a wonderful ability to speak with crystal clarity to people of all backgrounds. And yes, I believe that he preaches the gospel. I would not hesitate to take an inquirer to hear him. Graham might say some things I would disagree with, but I think he will usually communicate more truth to my unbelieving friend than would be communicated by the average Reformed preacher. Why can’t we teach ministerial students to preach like that?

Another remedy for hyper-intellectualism: coming to realize that at bottom it is a form of pride. The hyper-intellectualist looks down his nose at younger or less educated people and senses no obligation to minister to them.

6. And as you might guess I fault traditional Reformed worship (as practiced today) because it has an inadequate vocabulary (musical and otherwise) for expressing joy and for edifying  people of all sorts.

7. I think we do a fairly poor job at evaluating ministerial candidates and preparing them for the ministry. Our seminaries give them a good academic preparation: the intellectual area, again, is the Reformed strength. But most of Paul’s qualifications of elders are qualities of character, and the responsibilities of pastors require interpresonal and counseling skills of a high degree. We don’t have very good ways of evaluating men in the non-academic areas, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, helping them to grow. I’m inclined to think (1) we should not ordain any elders under thirty (maybe 35), (2) that everyone seeking ordination undergo assessment, such as PCA missions agencies (MTW and MNA) require of missionaries and church planters, (3) there should be a multi-year internship before ordination and supervised ministry for those newly ordained. Here we can learn from Episcopal churches, black churches, Reformed Baptist ministerial academies, Latin American “street seminaries,” etc.

8. I also think that the demand for doctrinal precision in conservative Reformed circles has become rather unbalanced, so that the matter of church unity gets short shrift. Earlier in this debate, when I spoke of unity, Hart berated me for advocating “unity at the expense of truth.” Of course I wasn’t advocating that. But that’s what tends to happen in our circles when the subject of unity comes up. Unity always gets trumped by a concern for doctrinal purity, with the implication that we shouldn’t ever seek unity.

And often our concern for doctrinal purity is distorted. Think of all the controversies among us in recent years that have divided congregations and presbyteries and created parties within the church, pitting us against one another: the incomprehensibility of God, apologetics, the millennium, preterism, Christian liberty, counseling, subscription, Psalmody, contemporary worship, redemptive-historical preaching, theonomy, Shepherd’s view of justification, six-day creation, cessationism, common grace and now (God help us!) the alleged necessity of subscribing to the Scottish national covenants. Only a few of these issues involve differences over the confession, but in all these areas there have been parties contending with one another, sometimes very ferociously, sometimes dividing churches and presbyteries, with people even trying to hinder ministries that hold the contrary view. We seem to have no conscience about calling one another terrible names, if they are on the other side from us of one of these ideological divides.

Some OPC people voted against union with the PCA because the two groups had different home missions practices, or because the PCA operates a denominational college.  I don’t object to people presenting their views in these areas and seeking to persuade others in the church. I do object, in most of the above issues, to making them tests of orthodoxy, reviling those on the other side, and denying encouragement to ministries on the other side. This constant battling embitters fellowship and weakens ministry in all areas of the church’s life. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” We need to remind ourselves that love (not only the traditional three marks) is a mark of the church: John 13:35.

9. In our circles, pastors have almost no pastoral care. That can lead to shipwreck in the ministry. The idea of presbytery as the pastor’s local church becomes quite meaningless when presbytery meetings consist entirely of business, or, even worse, consist largely of partisan battles. We can learn from Baptist, charismatics, and others with association-type polities, where much time at ministers’ meetings is spent in prayer and edification, and where people do not look down their noses at touchy-feely emotional support.

10. I think that dispensational fundamentalists do a better job at teaching Scripture to their kids than Reformed churches do. In my view the teaching of Scripture should take precedence over the teaching of catechism.

I could say some more things, but I think I’ve given you a “few examples ,” probably too many. I do love  Reformed theology, but I don’t believe that Reformed churches have always been the best churches. We need to do a lot of growing, in many areas. That’s why I think the idea of making Reformed tradition normative (in addition to the confessions) is entirely wrongheaded.