REFORMED and REFORMING


Two years have passed since the Lord, by His providence, brought Pilgrim Covenant Church into existence as a branch of the Body of Christ. It is time again for us to reflect on how the Lord has kindly and gently dealt with us over the past year.


When we first started, we introduced ourselves with the following words, which I now quote in full for our instruction and reminder:

Pilgrim Covenant Church is an independent, Protestant and Reformed,—or perhaps better: Reforming,—church which is firmly committed to the teachings of the Scriptures, which we believe to be the all-sufficient, inerrant and infallible Word of God; and the Westminster Standards, which we believe to contain the most accurate doctrinal summary and exposition of the Word of God today. Accordingly, we are determined to preach and practise the Word of God accurately, uncompromisingly, and with a clear conscience, even though such preaching and practices may be unpopular and offensive in these days of apostasy and individualism (see 2 Timothy 3:1–5; 4:1–4). In other words, we are determined to remain faithful to God, even at the expense of slow numerical growth. We take this stance not because we wish to be controversial but because we desire sincerely to please our Holy and Covenantal God, and also because we are deeply concerned for the many who may perhaps be perishing in self-delusion (Matthew 7:21–23; cf. Hebrews 3:2–5), having been taught only the gospel of easy-believism, rather than the Gospel of Christ which exalts the sovereignty of God and acknowledges the total depravity of man.


Naturally, this dogmatism does not mean that we are not firm believers of genuine Christian unity, love and meekness. Christ teaches us that we are to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34–35; cf. 15:12, 17; 1 John 4:7, 11). As such, we do seek to fellowship with and, as providence allows, perhaps even work with or be united in some way with any church or denomination which is true and obedient to the Word of God, especially such as are honestly holding on to the Reformed Creeds, be it the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, or the Three Forms of Unity,—all of which we believe to have great consensus in doctrine. Neither do we despise believers or churches which are not persuaded of the Reformed Faith, but are constantly determined to conform to the Word of God as the Lord our God grants light. But, remembering that love “rejoiceth in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6) and that “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Proverbs 27:6), we seek always to tell the truth with love and meekness even when the truth hurts.


Neither do we mean to say that we are a perfect church. “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (WCF 25.5). And we are humbly aware that there are definitely areas where we,—individually and corporately,—must yet be brought into conformity with the Word of God. It is our prayer that the Lord may not only grant us unity of faith, but grant us that we may be constantly and willingly reforming to His Word as He gives us understanding of His revealed will—Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformada(a church must be Reformed, and always reforming)!


Two years have gone by since those words were penned. I trust that we have not moved from that position, individually or corporately. But declaration is one thing whereas practice is quite another thing, so that while we may assent to what is said and affirmed, we may find it difficult to live it out in practice.


One thing which some of us have difficulty, interestingly, is the fact that we call ourselves a reforming church (while others call us a reformed church). We have written about the Reformed Faith, but what do we mean when we say we are reforming? What are the implications of being reforming? What should we expect in a reforming church? These are some questions which we must answer as we head into another year together as a branch of the Body of Christ.


What a Reforming Church is Not?


In the first place, a reforming church is not one, which changes her doctrine and practices with the time. God does not change (Mal 3:6). The Lord Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Heb 13:8). The Word of God is “settled in heaven” (Ps 119:89). The way of the Lord is perfect (Ps 18:30). How then can the essence of a church of Christ change with time? Yes, the circumstances of worship and church government may change so that we may worship in different buildings, and deacons may be involved in different kinds of waiting upon the tables. But in the main, because the Word of God is sufficient (2 Tim 3:16) for all doctrine and significant practices of the church, the church must remain faithful to the Word. She must tenaciously hold on to Sola Scriptura and not be tempted to modify her doctrine and practices just so as to move with the times or to attract the present generation (cf. 2 Tim 4:3–4). So it would be wrong for a church to have choreographed worship experiences, which include drama and dances, just because that will pull in the crowds. So it would be wrong for the church to appoint women elders just because times have change and there are many capable women in authoritative positions in the work-force.


In the second place, a reforming church is not one which changes her doctrine and practices according to the membership composition of the church. A social club may evolve in this way. But a congregation, which acknowledges Christ as Head, cannot possibly develop in this way. The Apostle Paul says: “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). To change the doctrine and practices of a church according to the contour of the members in the congregation is to be men-pleasing and, if adopted as a corporate philosophy, makes the church no more a true church of Christ.


It is in recognition that man,—even regenerated man,—has a proneness to veer from the strait and narrow way, that the early Church Fathers and the Reformers wrote and made use of Creeds and Confessions. When a church subscribes to a Confession, she acknowledges the work of God’s Spirit, that He has so illumined the minds of His saints in the past, that their consensual judgements and interpretations of the Scripture are correct in the main, or at least probably correct in the areas which may lend themselves to disputations.


When the framers of the Westminster Standards developed the documents, they were in fact expounding Scriptures by laying down what they believed each of them and their posterity ought to believe concerning God and what duty is required of them. Matters of indifference were simply left out of the Standards because they were regarded as things for which godly believers may agree to disagree. On the other hand, the statements in the Confession and Catechisms are intended to be anchors and nails fastened on the wall so that the church may not drift and be tossed to and fro at every wind of doctrine, interpretations and fancies of men, that are bound to arise in each generation.


In the third place, a reforming church is not one that is becoming more Scottish Reformed or more Dutch Reformed. It is true, no doubt, that the best of the conservative Reformed traditions are found in the Dutch Reformed churches which subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity, and in the Scottish and paleo-Presbyterian churches which subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. However, every church should not only be Reformed, but reforming. The Scottish and Dutch churches are also in need of reforming. Churches based on the Three Forms of Unity have split because of infiltration of Arminianism, and a refusal on part of the body to recognise the malady and reform back to the old paths (Jer 6:16). Others have split because of a deadening encroachment of hyper-Calvinism and antinomianism, which again is not corrected because of a refusal to be reforming. On the other hand, churches, which are based on the Westminster Confession of Faith, have suffered from legalism on the one hand, looseness in worship and doctrine on the other hand. These things, if not detected and dealt with humbly with a reforming attitude, would by and by lead to deadness or apostasy in the church.


Therefore we must never set as our goal any of these church traditions. Thus, for example, we must not regard ourselves to be reforming just because we are not keeping the Lord’s Supper twice a year during the communion seasons as with the Scottish church, nor do we have any reason to reform in that direction. Similarly, we must not regard ourselves to be reforming rather than Reformed because we have not begun preaching from the Catechisms in our evening worship as according to the Dutch churches, though it is a helpful practice which we may adopt. But neither, indeed, should we think that we have move up a notch in the Reformed ladder should we adopt these two practices. Ultimately, to be Reformed is to be Biblical, and Christocentric.


What It Means to be Reforming?


A reforming church is one that seeks to be more and more biblical and true to Christ in doctrine and practices. Corporately, it means correcting our practices and doctrines when we are convinced that our practices are not in conformity with the Word of God. Thus for example, when a church, which has women preachers, becomes convinced that the Word of God forbids women from public preaching, she should repent and cease to allow women on the pulpit. In the same way, a church which becomes convinced that the Scripture allows only inspired Psalms in worship should expunged all uninspired hymns from her worship. This was what happened in the congregation of Pastor Malcolm Watt in Salisbury, when they became convinced of exclusive psalmody.


On the other hand, at the individual level, to be reforming is to be constantly transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). Thus, a reforming church is also one in which every member is constantly seeking to grow in conformity with the Word of God. This must be our prayer for one another. And knowing the deceitfulness of sin, not only must the pastor seek to remind the congregation of our duties, but we must individually exhort one another and provoke one another unto faith, love and good works.


A reforming church may, moreover, be one which is working towards conformity with the confessional Standards that has been adopted by the church. A church, which has publicly adopted a Confession, ought to honestly hold to the Confession. Much confusion and questions of integrity have arisen in some churches because the practices of the church are contrary to what is stated in the Confession. Thus, for example, if a church which holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith should hold a food and fun fair on the Sabbath, contrary toWCF 21.8, then what is there to prevent a couple of the church from filing for divorce for reason of incompatibility, contrary to WCF 24.6? Under whose authority should the church decide that WCF 21.8 is in error and therefore can be violated, whereas WCF 24.6 is valid and cannot be violated? The result of such inconsistencies is confusion and sometimes the persecution of those who seeks to uphold what they perceive to be right according to the Confession. “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps 11:3).


A confessional church should be honest to her Confession. A reforming confessional church is also one, which is growing in conformity to her Confession. But of course since the Confession is subordinate to the Scriptures, in the case where the church is thoroughly convinced that the Confession has error, then she should amend the Confession or even jettison it altogether.


Implications and Expectations Relative to Reforming


Would not a reforming church be very unstable? Would it not make the members very unsettled? I believe it is inevitable, for we are all by nature resistant to changes. But then, no child of God should resist changes when convinced about what the Scripture teaches. If Christ is our Lord and King, how could we resist His commandments?


But the problem is that every congregation comprises numerous members who will almost always differ in maturity and convictions. Whose view and conviction then should determine whether a church should reform in her doctrine and practices in matters that are not clearly spelt out in the Confession? I believe it should be that of a plurality and consensus of the elders and pastors in the church. This is why it is important that the church calls only men who are faithful to the Word (2 Tim 2:2; Tit 1:9) to be elders in the church.


But would it not be very unsettling for the rest of the members of the church, who may not have the same convictions? Yes; and for this reason, the Session (or Presbytery or otherwise) of the church must implement changes that have corporate bearing very sensitively. We must not pour new wine into old wineskins. We must know the state of our flock (Prov 27:23), and resist being lords over God’s heritage (1 Pet 5:3).


On the other hand, the members in the congregation must learn not to be contentious and divisive, but strive to build the unity of the church in faith and love. Thus, for example, members in a church, who are convinced that mothers should stay at home to look after the children, should be careful not to sound imposing on members who are not yet convinced. When the writer of Hebrews urges us to “provoke unto love and to good works” (Heb 10:24), he is in some sense telling us to “spur or stir up one another” or to “irritate one another” (cf. Acts 15:39). However, he also teaches us to “consider one another,” which means that we are to know one another’s situation and be very gracious towards one another (cf. Mt 7:1–4; Phil 2:3–4).


Conversely, in a reforming church, where there are many different levels of conviction, it is sometimes necessary for members of the church to employ the Romans 14 Principle. According to this biblical principle, we should avoid doing anything, which stumbles another brother even though it may not be sinful to do so. Thus Paul says: “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (Rom 14:21). Now, Paul is referring to matters of doubtful disputation and matters of indifference, such as eating and drinking. But be careful not to restrict what he writes only to things for which there are no specific moral instructions in the Word of God. The fact is that even in eating and drinking, the Bible does give instructions, such as 1 Timothy 4:3 which makes it sin to command abstinence from meat. Paul was, rather, speaking about our conscience and personal persuasions (see Romans 14:5, 23). Thus a member of a church, who is not convinced that it is wrong to watch television on the Lord’s Day, should nevertheless refrain from doing so if he knows that his actions will stumble another.


It is my prayer that none of us be discouraged rather than be provoked unto love and good works by well-meaning brethren who have keener convictions. At the same time, it is my prayer that “stronger brethren,” so to speak, may not be discouraged by constantly having to give in to “weaker brethren”; but rather that we will all search the Scripture to see what the Word of God requires of us. Remember that while the stronger brethren-weaker brethren tension exists, it is very likely that one party is sinning either by antinomianism or by legalism. So let us seek to be fully persuaded in our own minds; and let us deal as charitably as possible with one another. This is the beauty of a reforming church. Her beauty will be greater for sure when all her members “come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). But we must not despise the day of small things (Zec 4:10). Rather, we must rely humbly on the Spirit of Christ to build the church and to help us to be faithful and fruitful members in the church.


Nevertheless, as always, in a church that is reforming, there will be, along the way, some who for various reasons find the changes or the rate of change in the church unbearable no matter how necessary the changes are from a biblical standpoint. These may become disenchanted and leave the church. It is my prayer and hope that none of us in this present congregation will be thus affected. But I would urge anyone who may be feeling “left-behind” because the church is reforming to be in close communication and prayer with the Session of the church.


Conclusion


It is a natural human tendency to resist changes. But we also have a sinful tendency to wander from the truth of the Word of God, and therefore it is necessary that we remind ourselves of the rightness of changes as long as they are changes, which reflect greater fidelity to the Word of God.


Most of us come from churches which have veered away from Reformation principles, so that many of us, especially when we first joined the church, found the practices in the church to be innovative and queer, rather than biblical and confessional. I trust that we are increasing in mental assent and heart conviction on the practices and doctrines already in place. I trust that if you have been experiencing difficulties that you sought to have your doubts clarified biblically. Now the question is: How much more changes are still in stall for PCC?


This is a question hard to answer. In the first place, every believer must know how far we fall short of the standards of God’s Word and so seek to grow in conformity with the Word of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit. So we must pray that we will be better parents, better officers of the church, better witnesses for Christ, better Sabbath-delighters, better covenant-keepers, etc. But, are there any more changes on a corporate level? Well yes, a church must not only be Reformed, but reforming. What reforming changes may we expect in the coming year? Well, to be honest, I do not know. We may amend our Constitution slightly, such as to allow those who would like to refrain from voting (on account of ignorance or conviction) to do so. But, otherwise, it appears to me that our practices are more or less in conformity with our Confession of Faith, so there is no immediate urgency to rectify anything. But would the Lord, by His providence and illumination of His Word, teach us that we are wanting in any area? I do not know. But I trust that we will not be hasty to implement anything without regards for the state of the church and the feelings of the members.


Let us pray that the Lord will grant us yet another year of building up one another, of witnessing His grace and power, of being His witnesses, of strengthening of the inner men, of conversions and additions. Let us thank Him for His unwavering faithfulness in the year past, and let us look to Him with renewed confidence that He will build His Church; and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Let us pray for another year of God-pleasing rather than men-pleasing (Gal 1:10), but let us pray also that love and truth will prevail in this church, so that the Name of Christ is exalted through her.

J.J. Lim