As we celebrate the Reformation this coming week, I am reminded of a phrase that I have heard over the years from reformed people – “we are reformed and always reforming.” Early in my ministry I was greatly supportive of the phrase. No church is perfect. There will always be areas that a reformed church needs to reform to become more biblical. This makes sense especially when you understand that one of the hallmarks of the reformation was the absolute authority of the Scriptures to govern the church. Tradition is not to be an authority in a reformed church. Our authority is the Word of God.
But as the years went on I discovered that those who espoused the idea of “always reforming” were often reforming the wrong things. Their idea of reformation was to change the meaning of biblical texts and the theological understanding of the church. Too often it seemed to me, their idea of reforming the church was to modernize the theology of the church to better conform to the current standards of culture and society. So, reforming churches reformed their view of Scripture (no longer inerrant) and their view of the roles of men and women in the church. Then they changed their views of sexual sin and determined some sexual sin was to be tolerated because society concluded the person was made with a bent for such sin. What was being reformed was the clear teaching of Scripture!
I still believe we who are reformed need to be open to ongoing reform as congregations. But we have to be more careful about defining what it is that we are willing to reform. Biblically reformed churches cannot be willing to reform our theology. If we hear people talk about reforming our confession or catechisms we need to be immediately suspicious. I do not believe our standards are inerrant; only Scripture is without error. But the faith that the church has held for centuries should not be easily changed.
What should be reformed is the way the church communicates and ministers the unchanging message the Lord has given to us. Paul told the Corinthians his own ministry model – “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Paul’s gospel never changed. But the way he presented it depended on his situation and audience. The way a church does ministry must be flexible and a biblical congregation needs to be willing to change non-essential practices (and even likes) in order to reach its community. We need to take the unchanging Word of God and present it to our culture and our community in ways that are effective. The church can’t be effective if we pretend we live in Geneva in the days of Calvin rather than the Silicon Valley in the 21st century.
We are reformed and that will not and should not change. We will not reform our theology. But, by God’s grace, we need to be reforming the way we present God’s Word to our community. May God give us such grace and may he use us to bring reformation to our valley as lives are changed by the unchanging gospel of life.