Our Stance with the World: Anabaptist or Reformed?

The question of how Christians are to relate to the unbelieving world (including unbelieving culture) is an ancient one.  However, it’s always relevant.  Every generation has to struggle with this question anew.  I remember my own struggles with this question after becoming serious about the gospel and serving the Lord.  As often happens, for a time I went to some extreme positions.  I eventually came to realize that my views were more historically Anabaptist than Reformed.  The historic Anabaptist stance with regard to the world is one of flight or complete separation.  The Anabaptist view says that the world is evil, and therefore the church must have nothing to do with the world.  The Reformed view, historically, has been one that recognizes the need for the church to be in the world and to engage the world.  The idea of communities of faithful believers almost completely isolated from unbelievers is an aberration in Reformed thought and practice.  It’s an idea that is typically Anabaptist, not Reformed.

The classic expression of the Anabaptist view can be found in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527.  The Lutherans and Reformed were not the only ones to write confessions.  Anabaptists did as well.  You can find the full text of the Schleitheim Confession here, but I just want to quote the first paragraph from the fourth section.  This gives the gist of the Anabaptist view:

A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them (the wicked) and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who (have come) out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.

Those who know their Bibles will recognize the language.  The Schleitheim Confession is paraphrasing various Scripture passages here.  The point is that there is an absolute antithesis between the believing and the unbelieving.  Therefore, believers can have nothing to do with unbelievers.  Christians must be separate in every way, withdrawn from the world.  Moreover, the Confession states that Christians can also have nothing to do with whatever unbelievers produce in terms of culture.  Unbelievers only produce abominations and Christians should flee from these wicked things.

The Anabaptist view, while sounding biblical, misses two key biblical distinctions and one key biblical principle.

Reformed theology maintains the biblical notion of the antithesis.  There is belief and unbelief, good and bad, darkness and light, etc.  The Bible is clear on that.  However, and this is what the Anabaptist view misses, there is a distinction we make between what is true in principle and what is true in practice.  In other words, in this world, there are inconsistencies that exist on both sides of the antithesis.  Regenerated Christians still have the remnants of a sinful nature with which they have to wrestle (Galatians 5:16-17).  Also what we do as Christians continues to be stained with sin.  On the other side, however, unregenerated unbelievers also have their inconsistencies.  Confessing total or pervasive depravity does not mean that we believe non-Christians are all as wicked as they possibly could be.  In Romans 2:14, Paul writes of the Gentiles who outwardly “by nature do what the law requires.”   Their law-keeping does not please God or earn anything before him, but yet they do what Reformed theology has termed “civic good.” The unbelieving nurses in the neo-natal ward taking care of premature babies are doing a good thing, and in so doing, they are inconsistent with who they are in principle.  In principle, they are thorough-going rebels against God and everything good.  In practice, they show love to tiny human beings.

A second key biblical distinction missed by the Anabaptist view is between being in the world and being of the world.  “Being in the world” means that we inhabit the same space as everyone else.  We are not to be separate from the world in the sense of cutting ourselves off from the world.  But “being of the world” would mean that we are indistinct from the world.  If we are of the world, then we belong to the world, and we are no different.  A Christian living in the world must and will stand out.  This is because we are like our Saviour.  He said of his people, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16).  Yet Jesus lived in this world.   He was sent into this world (John 17:18) and lived amongst us.  He did not cut himself off from unbelievers, but went out and engaged them.  He interacted with sinful human beings like the Samaritan woman in John 4.  Christians are to be like the Saviour to whom they’re united.  Not of the world, but definitely in the world.

The key biblical principle lost in the Anabaptist position is that even with unbelievers and what they produce, truth, beauty, and other virtues are sometimes in evidence.  Christians do not have a monopoly on producing “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Phil.4:8).  In fact, sometimes what Christians produce in terms of cultural products falls far short.  Some of the worst literature ever made has been created by Christians — a notorious example is the Left Behind series.  Sometimes unbelievers produce music, literature, or film that leaves us in amazement at the skill and creativity involved.  Yes, they can produce junk too.  And certainly, they can and do bring out culture that accentuates and celebrates human depravity as well.  Yet the Apostle Paul recognized that unbelievers can say things that are true and beautiful — he quoted from Aratus and likely Epimenides in Acts 17.  Epimenides makes another appearance in Titus 1:12.  Paul was obviously familiar with pagan poetry, and by quoting it, confirms that there are times when unbelievers get things right.  This is not only borne out in Scripture, it’s common sense.  Unbelievers can and do produce remarkable things in science, art, music, literature, and so on.  Only a fool would deny it.

The Anabaptist view leaves one with at least two attitudes towards the world.  The first is fear.  We must fear the world and everyone and everything in it.  We must always be afraid of being contaminated or compromised by the world.  The second attitude is arrogance.  We are the righteous and they are the unrighteous.  We shoot prideful glances at them from our holy ghetto.  As a result of both attitudes, the lost continue to be lost and the moniker “frozen chosen” becomes well-earned.  By contrast, the Reformed position seeks to inculcate discernment, humility, and love.  In our churches, families and schools, we aim to teach people how to discern the good, the true, and the beautiful.  We teach believers how to appreciate these things no matter from whence they come and to build on them.  We want to teach humility — so that we recognize our own inconsistencies and failures to live up to what we confess.  Finally, when it comes to the people who make up the world, we want believers to love their neighbours.  We shouldn’t be afraid of them, but love them and engage them.  Don’t flee from them, but pursue them with a heart of compassion.

Although it’s the easy route, world-flight is not the Reformed way.  The harder route is the one to which we’re called.  It’s the route where we have to think hard about things.  It’s the route where we have to love people.  It’s the route by which God will be glorified, both in terms of our cultural mandate, and in terms of the Great Commission.

Admitting Guests to the Lord’s Supper

In the broader Reformed/Presbyterian context, it is common to fence the Lord’s Supper with a verbal warning only.  Typically that means that the minister makes an announcement inviting any guests to participate who are communicant members in good standing in an evangelical church, or something to that effect.  For some years, this was one of the sticking points that obstructed the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Eventually, an agreement was reached which paved the way for full ecumenical relations between the CanRC and the OPC.  You can find that agreement here.

Last week, amongst the Canadian Reformed Churches, a Classis Central Ontario was held.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was on the agenda.  We find this reported in the press release (find the full document here):

The Classis ad hoc committee submitted a report on the Lord’s Supper admission as mandated by CCO June 10, 2016. The report, which included an appendix from Burlington Fellowship, was deemed admissible. A discussion ensued. Classis having reviewed the committee report, decided that Burlington-Fellowships practice of inviting guests with only a strong verbal warning from the pulpit is not in line with the Church Order.

I mention this without any further comment at this time, except to say that I agree with the classis decision.


Bible Study Resources

Open Bible

A while ago, I received a request to provide a list of some trustworthy online Bible study resources.  The background to this is Reformed people venturing out into cyberspace to research passages, only to be led off the track by resources that are not faithful.  I replied to this request and thought it worth sharing here as well.  The list below does not imply my endorsement of everything published on each of these sites.  While all of these resources come from a Reformed orientation (all of them are managed by confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian believers) they still need to be used with discernment.  We ought always to have the spirit of the Bereans, testing everything against the Scriptures to see whether these things are really so (Acts 17:11).  Here’s the list:

  • http://theseed.info/ — presently has 1384 Reformed sermons on a wide variety of Scripture passages and Lord’s Days from the Heidelberg Catechism.  This resource should get more attention as a Bible Study aid.
  • http://www.ligonier.org/ — the teaching ministry of R.C. Sproul.  
  •  http://thirdmill.org/ — has heaps of resources, both regarding Scripture and theology.  Some are at a seminary level, but I think a lot of it will be accessible to regular folk.
  • https://www.monergism.com/ — a comprehensive collection of older Reformed writings, including commentaries.
  •  https://reformedbooksonline.com/ — includes links to dozens of online commentaries.  Run by a couple of my acquaintances from the US, both solid men.    

I know there are only five links there, but in those five links are thousands of pages of biblical exposition and other study aids.  Enjoy!

The Glorious Gospel of Imputation


I love Starr Meade’s book of family devotions based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  To catechize our children during family worship, we’ve been using Training Hearts, Teaching Minds for many years.  In fact, we’re on our second copy of it — the first one just fell apart after some years of heavy daily use.

Tonight at our church catechism class, I have the joy of teaching Lord’s Day 23 again.  Lord’s Day 23 deals with justification, God’s declaration that we are right with him on account of Christ’s righteousness.  Included in justification is the crucial notion of imputation.  Our sins are imputed or accounted to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed or accounted to us.  This goes to the basis of our justification.  Starr Meade has an excellent illustration that explains the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience, his obedience to the law and his suffering obedience.  I plan to use this illustration tonight with my catechism students:

Imagine that you need a great deal of money for something important.  However, not only do you not have a great deal of money; you are deeply in debt.  Along comes your friend who has worked hard for years to build a big savings account in the bank.  He feels sorry for you and offers to pay your bills.  Now you are no longer in debt.  This is something like Jesus paying for our sin by his death on the cross.  Now we no longer owe God anything for all our sins against him.

However, just because your friend paid your debt does not mean that you have solved your problem.  You still need a great deal of money and you have absolutely none.  So now your friend does something else for you.  He has your name added to his bank account so that now you can use all his money.  This is something like Jesus living a life of perfect obedience to God in our place.  He is the One who is righteous.  He is the One who did the obeying, but all his righteousness is credited to us.  God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours. (Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, 111-112)

To put it another way, through Christ we don’t merely have our slates wiped clean of all our sins.  We also have our slates filled with all of his God-pleasing obedience in our place.  This, and this alone, makes us acceptable in God’s sight.

Predestination in Mission


For Reformed people who care about sharing the gospel (which should be all of us!), it is probably a given that election/predestination is not something we incorporate into our gospel message.  We do not go around telling unbelievers about the doctrine of unconditional election.  Instead, we generally recognize that this doctrine is revealed in Scripture for the comfort and edification of believers.  The common way of thinking is that this doctrine is for those already in the church, not for those we are trying to draw into the church.

That way of thinking can be partially credited to 1.14 of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons of Dort say that the doctrine of divine election “should be taught in the church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place…”  For a long time, I have understood this to mean that election/predestination would never have a real place in our missionary message.  By “missionary message,” I mean everything connected to the good news as we communicate it to the unregenerated.

My thinking on this has been upended by Tim Keller.  In his book Center Church, he stirs up a lot of thought in the area of contextualization (see here for some of my work in this area).  This has to do with the communication of the gospel in cross-cultural ministry.  In chapter 10, he discusses “active contextualization”:  entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners.

When it comes to challenging and confronting the culture, Keller relates a discussion he once had with a Presbyterian missionary to Korea.  This missionary was working amongst Korean prostitutes and was not connecting with them.  He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners.  Nothing he said engaged them.  He decided to try something radically different.  He would begin with the doctrine of predestination.  Keller rightly notes that this doctrine is a challenging one for Western hearts and minds.  Westerners value democratic and egalitarian notions.  Many in the West do not want to hear about a sovereign God who chooses some and passes by others.  But what is true for Westerners is not necessarily true for Asian prostitutes in the mid-twentieth century.  Keller writes:

So he told the prostitutes about a God who is a King.  Kings, he said, have a sovereign right to act as they saw fit.  They rule — that’s just what kings do.  And this great divine King chooses to select people out of the human race to serve him, simply because it is his sovereign will to do so.  Therefore, his people are saved because of his royal will, not because of the quality of their lives or anything they have done.

This made sense to the women.  They had no problem with the idea of authority figures acting in this way — it seemed natural and right to them.  But this also meant that when people were saved, it was not because of pedigree or effort, but because of the will of God (cf. John 1:13).  Their acceptance of this belief opened up the possibility of understanding and accepting the belief in salvation by grace.  They asked my missionary friend a question that a non-Christian in the West would never ask:  “How can I know if I am chosen?”  He answered that if as they heard the gospel they wanted to accept and believe it, this was a sign that the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts and that God was seeking them.  And some of them responded. (Center Church, 126)

So there are times, places, and cultures where it might be effective to use the doctrine of predestination as a missionary starting point.  It’s not that this doctrine is the complete message.  Rather, it’s a starting point to bring unbelievers onward to the full gospel of salvation in Christ.

But then what about the Canons of Dort?  Does this approach contradict 1.14?  No, it doesn’t, because 1.14 doesn’t say that this doctrine should only be taught in the church and that it may never be used elsewhere.  There’s indeed room in the Canons for a wise and creative adaptation of this doctrine to the missionary calling of the church.  Because of the pervasive influence of Western culture, perhaps the contexts where this could be done are increasingly few and far between, but missionaries should definitely be open-minded to the possibility that this Presbyterian missionary’s approach could work elsewhere.