Intown is a church that exists during the decline and fall of Christendom in the West and is witness to the rapid decline of individual denominations and churches. As a church in that context, we live in the tension between being historically orthodox and open to reform, rooted in tradition while realizing that the church must change or die.
Christians are normally expected to choose sides and to see Reformed and Reforming as polarities rather than tensions. But in reality, the danger for a church is being committed to one or the other instead of both.
There is the Reformed danger of conservation for conservation’s sake. While being "conservative" is a posture toward scripture and theology which can be helpful, this is different from conservat-ISM. Like liberal-ISM, conservatism can become an ideology that stands above Scripture. When conservat-ISM sets in, a church or denomination exists for itself and is oriented around the goal of preservation rather than proclamation. It almost always becomes ingrown and self-serving, unable to speak into new situations, deal with new challenges, or engage its neighbors in a healthy dialogue about Jesus.
The opposite danger, liberal-ISM, is change for change’s sake, a denial of rootedness that also stands apart from and often above Scripture. In this posture, everything is up for grabs and the Church fails to be salt and light.
These two “isms” can both obscure God’s word and hinder the mission of the church.
In Matthew 15 we see the Pharisees, the ultimate conservatives, seek Jesus out in order to confront him about the fact that his disciples are breaking the tradition of hand-washing before a meal. This religious practice of ritualistic washing had been developed over hundreds of years before Jesus came and was intended to honor God and demonstrate their seriousness about Scripture. Jesus was denying that this tradition had scriptural warrant but to the Pharisees, he was being unacceptably liberal. However Jesus was being “liberal” in a sense that is very unfamiliar to us. He’s actually trying to protect the Bible from traditions that have obscured its meaning. The conservatives were vigorously conserving a tradition not the Bible itself.
So, Jesus accuses these Bible defenders of being Bible breakers!
In the ancient world, caring for one’s parents was an irrevocable duty. The Pharisees were getting around that duty by devoting their money and property to God, sort of putting it in escrow in such a way that if their parents ever needed it they could say, “that money is devoted to God.” They guarded their ritual purity in hand-washing while violating one of the most fundamental commands of all Scripture – the care for one’s neighbor (In this case, their closest neighbor - their parents). Their religious practices were detailed, exacting, demanding…and according to Jesus: fraudulent. (see: Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook)
It takes a reformer, a radical, to call them on it. Jesus is committed to the deeper truth of what the tradition was meant to point to – a heart that is devoted to God and to neighbor. In Matthew 15:10-11, “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” The source of real uncleanness is to be found not in the food that passes through the body but in those qualities which lodge in the heart.
Jesus does not attack tradition or ritual as such but the severing of practice from its essence.
So, how is Intown to be Reformed and Reforming? Reformed is a tradition within Christianity that finds its most significant theological linkage to the Reformation’s emphasis on: the authority of the Bible, the sovereignty and holiness of God, the priesthood of all believers, salvation by the radical grace of God, and the extravagant welcome of all sinners. We steadfastly believe all of these things (and a lot more!)
We are also reforming because we realize we’ve been witness to a Copernican revolution of societal change. Suddenly the Church finds itself doing ministry in an ethnically-diverse, multi-national, egalitarian, pluralistic, post-modern society where the Bible is often viewed as a regressive relic. If these challenges were just external we could plug our ears, keep doing what we’ve always done and hope our children won't be corrupted. But difficult questions, born out of this new context are coming from within the church too.
Committed Christians are asking, “What do I do with a Bible that condemns my closest friend who is gay but appears to be just fine with slavery? What do I do when I read historical accounts in the Bible that seem to be contradictory or mythical? What about evolutionary biology and modern astronomy which seem to undermine the history and cosmology of the Bible? How do I reconcile the images of a God who seems alternatively enraged with his people and eternally loving? Can I worship a God who commands his people to exterminate entire races of people?!"
It’s not just the outside world asking these questions to challenge the biblical worldview but also our brothers and sisters in the pew who are trying desperately to hold onto faith despite no longer being satisfied by traditional apologetics. How do we answer these questions in a way that captures the imagination of the skeptics in and outside the church?
Diarmaid MacCulloch, who wrote what is probably the definitive history of the Reformation says, “Self-styled traditionalists often forget that the nature of tradition is not that of humanly-manufactured mechanical or architectural structure with a constant outline and form, but rather that of a plant, pulsing with life and continually changing shape while keeping the same ultimate identity.”
This is a beautiful image of the Church, not conservative re-entrenchment, resistant to change and afraid of theological enlargement, nor is it a liberal demolition of the entire system where one’s individual religious wishes are made paramount.
Instead, the church is a plant that is flowering and growing but can’t, and shouldn’t, escape its own DNA.
One scholar put it this way, “When Reformation stops, Deformation sets in.” While we believe that the Scriptural canon is closed (there is no new revelation to be added) Scripture itself is a living document, pulsing with the life of the Spirit. Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the writers of the Bible itself but he continues to inspire interpreters to wrestle with the meaning of the text in ever-changing contexts, just as he did during the time of the Reformation and the early church. The church must learn to continue to honor tradition and the interpretive shoulders we stand upon, while also appropriating the historical, revolutionary, living truths of the gospel for new circumstances.
In contrast to much of the contemporary church that is known more for “always reacting" instead of “always reforming”, can Intown be a church that is actively exegeting the surrounding culture while seeking to creatively bring the gospel to our friends and neighbors, rather than just reacting to and opposing cultural change?
We can't simply reassert the thinking and theologizing that "worked" in a former age or in another part of the world. There is no “golden age” of the Church, and no system of theology that isn’t occasional and time-bound. We do not honor the difficult, sometimes innovative work of interpreters and theologians who have come before us by simply cutting and pasting their conclusions into our context without a fresh exegesis of the Bible itself. We are Reformed, but also Reforming!
The gospel of Jesus Christ challenged the conservatives whose theology had become self-referential and self-perpetuating and had forgotten that proper theology is always missional. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had used their theology to wall themselves off from the messiness of life and from those who most needed the gospel’s life-giving essence. But, the gospel constantly challenged, and continues to challenge our liberal instincts because it claims Jesus as THE king of world and the one true pathway to God.
As we wrap up our series on the ABC’s of Intown, this concept of Reformed and Reforming has sort of played in the background of most of the sermons. As we consider, “what now?” our mission must include a tenacious commitment to the universal truth of the gospel while simultaneously seeking to allow this truth to transform and reform everything about us - even our theology.