We, reformed Christians, often pride ourselves in our ecclesiology – our theology of church. We believe we have sound teaching, sound practise, sound (biblical) songs, sound church order, sound church discipline, a sound record of caring for those in our church and we may even be officially using the ESV (the Extremely Sound Version!). Many times we have good reason to be thankful for our churches and we should be grateful to God that we are not caught up in the latest Christian trends or spiritual sensation.
However, there are at least three great dangers we face in our reformed churches. We see the reality of these dangers in the Corinthian church. The Corinthian church was a very reformed church – how could it not be – the great Apostle Paul was its planter. Reformed theology did not originate from the Reformation in Europe, but had its foundations in the writings of Paul and other New Testament authors – not to mention the teachings of Jesus Christ himself. What then are the dangers?
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! (1 Corinthians 4:8)
Paul is being very sarcastic in this verse. The Corinthians thought they were spiritual kings who had “reached it” in their Christian lives and experience. They thought they had all the answers, all the gifts, and all the spiritual credentials. But Paul rebukes them and reminds them that not even himself, the Apostle of Christ, has all their alleged spirituality! Paul in the rest of chapter 4 reminds them of how he was often beaten and hungry and treated like scum. Paul goes on to show them that theirs is a false spirituality based on arrogance and wrong understanding of the gospel.
Are we not guilty of a spiritual superiority complex when we look down on other Christians perhaps of non-reformed traditions or other Christians who might not have TULIP memorised? We might even look down on other Reformed Christians who we consider not reformed enough! Do we not have to humbly kneel before God and confess that any spiritual understanding we might have comes from him and admit that we actually deserve much less than whatever we have? Do we think we’re kings?
2. Unrepentant sin
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)
Another great danger we face is the love of sin. In the Corinthian Church there were those who were living in deliberate, on-going sexual sin (1 Corinthians 5). They may have had the right theology but when it came down to it they treasured their sin more than Christ. I can picture them singing sound, biblical, reformed songs on Sunday (with raised hands) and then on Monday sneakily having an illicit sexual liaison. It’s more common than we think.
Are we not perhaps guilty? Do we hate sin enough? Does our reformed theology of unconditional grace drive us to minimising the offensiveness and stench of sin? Does the practise of repeating the prayer of general confession1 every Sunday seem tedious to us because we prefer to think of ourselves as “King’s kids” and “Victors in Christ”? Of course, we are the afore-mentioned, but nevertheless daily and weekly, privately and corporately, confession and repentance is a godly discipline for the Christian, lest we become like the self-righteous Pharisees.
3. Loveless knowledge
And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8:11-12)
Many in the Corinthian church had a good theological system and understanding. They knew that God had created all animals and that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without a problem; whether it was halal or kosher did not technically matter. Yet others in the church thought they were committing idolatry by eating the meat and therefore these Christians were greatly offended and made to falter in their faith by all this well worked out “knowledge”. Paul rebukes these theologically sound Christians for their loveless knowledge and states that if eating meat would cause a Christian to falter he would not eat meat to all eternity.
A mark of a mature Christian is not that they have “knowledge” and can answer all the questions at Bible Study, but that they act in love towards others. The evidence of a mature Christian is not that they can quote the chapter and verse or know the original Greek word, but that they are other-person-centred in their lifestyle and attitude.
We reformed types sometimes pride ourselves in our humility and look down on churches and Christians that have not yet “arrived”. While I think that Reformed Theology is true to Scripture and gives us the only correct understanding of God and ourselves, we can miss the boat entirely by not packaging and presenting our Reformed Theology in love (1 Corinthians 13). Knowledge without love only puffs up.
1. Example of a general confession:
Almighty God, heavenly Father, we confess that we have failed you in our thoughts and words and deeds. Because we are sinners by nature we have strayed from your ways and not only have we done wrong but we have failed to do right. Lord, you alone can forgive sin, have mercy on us, pardon our sins and help us to serve you not only with our lips, but with our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.