Social class or the Gospel: pick only one (part 1)...
(Tim: This article originally appeared in ClearNote Fellowship's newsletter. If you'd like to be added to our mailing list, please send us an e-mail.)
Each time we sat under the ministry of our much-loved Iain Murray at the old Banner of Truth conferences, the Bayly brothers could predict at some point during the Q & A sessions Murray would strike a plaintive note, asking, “Why is there no evangelism in Reformed churches?” After a while, we realized it wasn’t a question, but a lament.
No one ever suggested he was wrong. The question brought on a guilty silence.
But if Reformed congregations don’t have new births, why aren’t our churches dying? Some pollsters even say the Reformed slice of the conservative Christian pie is growing. Doesn’t this prove Reformed men have changed their priorities and are giving themselves to evangelism--that we're all missional, today?
Sadly not. Our converts have simply moved up the social register. To keep our pews filled, we depend upon men and women raised in Christian homes getting their graduate degree and trading in their parents’ Arminian church for a more respectable Reformed congregation...
The Wesleyan or Southern Baptist moves up to Presbyterian. And there in his new Presbyterian church, our convert finds the accoutrements of his new social class wonderfully reassuring. It’s the church’s zip code, the minister’s Genevan gown or collar, the frequent repetition of those peaceful words ‘providence’ and ‘sovereignty,’ the high priority placed on the education of the congregation’s Covenant children, the preacher’s thoughtful message and splendid vocabulary, and of course the high classical style of music.
There's a quote I'm fond of that does a good job of summarizing that genre of books and articles that argues these matters of taste aren't taste at all, but doctrinal orthodoxy: "All an Englishman's preferences are a matter of principle." The quote is best pulled off with a fist hitting the table to emphasize that word 'principle.'
So are there any preferences in Reformed preaching and worship, or is it all principle?
Thinking class-wise, Reformed church culture is easily understood through the lens of the aversion to risk characteristic of the upper-middle class. Our converts don’t take pride in the foolishness of the Cross so much as the wisdom of Calvin and their senior pastor’s earned doctorate from somewhere across the pond.
But this is to flip on its head the focus of the Reformers who, recalling the Apostles were “uneducated and untrained men” (Acts 4:13), boldly returned the text of Scripture and the liturgy of worship to the vernacular—what was then called “the vulgar tongue.”
How have we arrived at this place so far removed from the repudiation of highbrow culture and the utter lack of pretension that characterized the preaching and worship of the Apostles and sixteenth century Reformers?
Speaking specifically of the music of our worship, Reformed pastors would do well to consider whether it isn't time to stop despising the musical vernacular of our own day. There may be some congregations where musical archaisms have put down such deep roots that it would split the church to turn the clock forward, embracing the musical vernacular. But I'm betting use of the amplified instruments, tunes, and vocabulary of the common man in worship won't happen in most of our Reformed churches for the same reason preaching against the heresy of egalitarian feminism doesn't happen. Elisabeth Elliot put it well some years back when she said the problem with the church today is that "it's filled with emasculated men who can't bring themselves to say 'no' to a woman."
Thus, when we set the musical forms and instrumentation of our other six days a week beside the musical forms and instrumentation of our Sunday worship, we find our Sunday worship to be cloyingly feminine, an historic specimen best suited to be trotted out by the curator for occasional museum exhibits.
Rest assured, though: I'm not saying this of any person or any particular church. I hope no one will take anything I’ve said personally. I’m only offering a thought; making a few suggestions; quoting Elisabeth Elliot.
Really, I love everybody.
But because I love you, brothers, please listen: We must stop trying to kill two birds with one stone. Either we seek to make men into disciples of this Jesus Who chose tax collectors and fishermen to be His Apostles, or we make men into disciples of these archaic liturgies and exquisite musical forms that have evolved across centuries of Western culture. Yes, they're true and good and beautiful. But what is the cost of making them the focus of our churches' culture?
We can be evangelists for a social class, or for the Kingdom of God—one or the other. But not both.
If Reformed churches are to recover Gospel evangelism, Gospel worship, Gospel preaching and discipleship, we’ll have to leave Jerusalem for Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.
We can't cling to dietary restrictions when we enter the household of Cornelius.
Christ has declared all things clean and the Holy Spirit inspired His Word to be written in Koine Greek, the common language of the street.
Although our beautiful wives and loving mothers are wise in many things, they must not be allowed to set choose our pulpit, to dress our preacher and pick his words and illustrations, to choose the color of the sanctuary and sew beautiful icons on banners, to push our sons and daughters forward for a command recital on their violin during the offering; they must not be allowed to choose the church's musical style and instrumentation.
For the love of Jesus, we must bust our churches loose from the natural aversion to risk that marks the effeminate.
In the house of God, men who make their living with their hands rather than their mouths; men who have served in the military, who burp and have gas to pass and want to stay home and bale hay Lord's Day morning because rain is coming; those men need to be pursued. And pursuing those men will require us to silence some of the weaker and less sanctified women and the husbands who follow them three steps behind.
There's no better place to start than our preaching and music each Lord's Day. Think about manhood and follow this advice my Dad gave me when I was ordained back in 1983: "Go for the men and the women will follow."
He's right. It's the voice of experience speaking. But also, the voice of the Word of God.