A Church at the Crossroads
For the most part, the church today refuses to behave consistently with her confessed allegiance to King Jesus. She has become so compromised, so acculturated, so fearful of men, that she will not take the steps necessary to bring about the greater reformation. When the world needs a prophetic word from the Lord, the church too often gives the mealy-mouthed words of men. When Christians should be proclaiming the crown rights of King Jesus over every area of life, we instead eat, meet, and retreat. We fear men more than God and bend over backwards to make our churches acceptable to the unregenerate. Let's face it: most Christians today have allowed their light to grow dim, and their salt to lose its savor. No wonder the world is in such a mess.
The Church and Christian Civilization
The family, of course, is the most fundamental sphere of government, and true reformation will begin with men taking dominion over their own households. But though reformation may begin with the family, it must never stop there. The church is the Bride of Christ, the divine organization given authority to disciple the nations. Before we can expect revival and reconstruction in the nation, the church most desperately needs to be reformed. It is time to re-think what we do and how we do it, and then begin creating churches that are able to stand together against the onslaught of an aggressive humanism and a collapsing social order.
Under R. J. Rushdoony's intellectual leadership, Chalcedon has laid the theological and philosophical foundations for restoring Christian civilization (foundations that men like Andrew Sandlin are committed to extending). Rush has provided the broad principles; now it is time for the technicians to take those principles and develop practical applications from them. When I moved from Wisconsin to California at the beginning of this year, I left behind a solid church, governed by godly and committed men, with strong families and sound relationships so that I could work more closely with Chalcedon. I love the folks at Lakeside Church and would never have left them unless I was certain that God was calling me to a new work.
This new work is not just to pastor another church (though Reformed Heritage is a bonny group of people), but rather to work out in detail (using the principles Rush has taught us) how to build churches that can reform the nation. We began that work at Lakeside Church in Milwaukee. Now at Reformed Heritage in Modesto, California, we are trying to build a prototype that can be used as a model for other churches across the nation. Not for a minute do I think I have all the answers (I am arrogant, but not that arrogant). Instead, by God's grace we are trying to take the best ideas that have come out of Reconstructionist thinking for the past 25 years and work to build a truly Chalcedon-type church. It is with that in mind that I offer the following description of our new ministry in Modesto.
A Chalcedon Church
Reformed Heritage began as a fundamentalist Baptist church, dispensational and pietist to the core. Under the leadership of my good friend and predecessor, Pastor "Smoky" Stover, College Avenue Baptist Church slowly came to Reformed convictions. As is not unusual, the more consistently Reformed the church became, the lower the attendance became. Most people do not want to be governed by God's law; and as Pastor Smoky taught them the historic, Reformed Faith, many people left to find churches that would tickle their ears. By the time Smoky was ready for "retirement" (i.e., that position in life where he was free to work on exactly what he wanted to!), the church had changed her name to Reformed Heritage Baptist Church and was manned by a dedicated band.
When I was asked to come on board as Smoky's hand-picked successor, there was an immediate problem. I am not and have not been a Baptist for many years. Yet the church and the constitution were clearly Baptist documents. I met with the leadership and explained the problem; they asked me to come anyway. I reminded them that as a Presbyterian and a committed paedobaptist, I would have to have the freedom to teach my convictions. They agreed. Hence I was able to move within commuting distance of Rush, Mark and Andrew at Chalcedon, while at the same time working to build on the great work Smoky had already done in Modesto.
The first challenge was to re-write the constitutional documents that formed our church covenant. Here I took a step that will undoubtedly get me into trouble with some of the brethren. We have a mixed bag in our church. All love the Reformed Faith, and all want to see our nation reformed; but not all share the same convictions on the sacraments, especially baptism. After prayer and consultation with other men whose wisdom I respect, Reformed Heritage dropped the word "Baptist" from its name, but adopted a dual sacrament approach: we would allow both professor's baptism and covenant baptism. My convictions have not changed, and my preaching on the issue has not changed. But for the sake of unity in the church, we allow the head of the household to decide which mode to use.
Interestingly enough, this is not so far off from normal practice in both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America. Neither church requires MEMBERS to affirm covenant baptism in order to be under the discipline and government of the church. The only difference is that we will allow such people to hold church office whereas historically Presbyterian churches will not. Perhaps in a time when the church has greater unity, such accommodation will not be necessary; but in this case I saw no other alternative. It took me years to come to my convictions regarding infant baptism, a doctrine I now hold to be precious and central to the covenant and the family. Can I not give my brothers the same grace God extended to me? And whether we Presbyterians like it or not, there are millions of Baptists (of every flavor) out there. It is not good to put up a barrier to reaching our Baptist brothers. The real enemies are Arminianism, antinomianism and pietism. I believe we should focus on those enemies first. As time goes on, and God gives grace, and as we win these brothers to a Reformed perspective, I believe eventually they will come to see that covenant baptism is the necessary consequence of their Faith. But they need time to make this transition. And I am a whole lot more sympathetic with a Reformed Baptist who catechizes his children, loves and serves his wife, conducts consistent family worship, etc., than with a Presbyterian who baptizes his children and then neglects them.
The second step in constitutional reformation concerned doctrinal standards. It is not enough simply to say that "we believe the Bible." Cults say they believe the Bible. The question, of course, is "What do you believe the Bible teaches?" Creeds are inescapable. While no creed can ever replace Scripture, it can accurately and succinctly summarize its message. Such creeds help us define orthodoxy in a heterodox age. I urged the church to become more consistent and adopt the Westminster Standards with exceptions being allowed for the issue of baptism. This allows us to form a direct link with the great English and Scottish Reformers. We adopted the original Confession, not the American revision of 1787.
Third, we wanted to deal with the problem of Confessional responsibility. We had two problems to face: (1) how to ensure that office holders maintained their orthodoxy while (2) allowing those who do not yet have a good understanding of the confession to be under the discipline and government of the church. We eventually decided to develop a two-tiered membership: regular members who are admitted to the Lord's Table based on their profession of faith in Christ, and voting members who subscribe to our church's confession.
In other words, when it comes to choosing church officers, affirming church policies, etc., only those who put themselves under the authority of the church's doctrine are given the right to vote on church business. It a forgotten part of American history wherein the franchise in the community was restricted to those who were deemed responsible to use it, i.e., only those who owned property, were professional people, etc. Unrestricted democracy is a modern heresy.
It causes a real problem when people who do not understand or necessarily believe in the church's doctrinal standards are allowed to vote in church business. Presbyterians have lost their churches repeatedly over the years because they compromised on this issue (note my recent review of Gary North's excellent book Crossed Fingers). Good churches get weaker over time because of new members who do not hold to the same standards. Eventually the liberals capture the powerful bureaucracy and drive the Christians out. Reformed Heritage is going to be different. If a member wants to vote in church affairs, then he must subscribe to our confession. If he cannot in good conscience do so, he may still be a member; he just won't vote on church affairs.
Fourth, we have further restricted voting to heads of households (normally men but also godly widows). Covenant theology is federal theology and the head of the household IS the family's representative. In Presbyterian churches, women and children admitted to the Lord's table are entitled to vote. This always struck me as more of a product of the Enlightenment than of historic Reformed theology. (And it keeps children away from the Lord's Table for an unreasonable time. If you admit a child to the Table, you also defacto make him a voting member in the church). Now, when there is church business to be resolved, the head of the household takes the issue to his family. They discuss it among themselves and the head of the household votes for the family. In other words, families, not individuals, vote.
Next, we adopted a new classification of membership for people who love the Lord Jesus and are committed to his sovereign care over their lives, but who are not in a position to join a local church. Associate members are those of God's people who do not live close enough to fellowship with us every Lord's Day, but who still want to be under the care of our church. Sadly, there are too many good people without a good church nearby. They either compromise by going to a broad evangelical church (and risk ungodly influences on their children), or stay home. At Reformed Heritage, we want such people to find a good church, but recognize that it may not always be possible to do so. With modern technology, we can now offer them oversight. They listen to our sermon tapes, read our church newsletter, and the elders call them on a regular basis to encourage and support them.
It is our desire that such individual households will eventually form core groups so that as God allows, new churches will grow up around them. Our goal is to get ten families together in every community to start their own church. We will help them get established, find a pastor, get through the difficult stages, and then step back and let them get at the ministry in their area. Until then, we provide oversight, accountability, teaching and discipline.
Finally, Reformed Heritage had to deal with the problem of church courts. The church at present has no desire to formally join with a traditional Presbyterian denomination for a number of reasons. But there is still the necessity of being accountable to someone other than just the local elders. Without a court of appeals, even the best intentioned elders can turn into ecclesiastical tyrants. While we do not expect any problems to come up anytime soon, we also realize that sinful men sin, and that we had better have a mechanism to deal with it.
Therefore we took a page from our beloved brother, Steve Schlissel, and adopted his decentralized Presbyterian model of church government. We are asking a group of godly, Reformed men from a variety of churches to serve as an ad hocpresbytery to help us adjudicate disputes, ordain elders, resolve conflicts, etc. The church voted to voluntarily submit ourselves to their judgment as needed. As Steve so rightly points out, this is NOT a denomination to be joined, but a mechanism to be employed. We created no heavy-handed bureaucracy to meddle in our affairs or unaccountable committees that would mismanage our finances; instead, we have courts above the local church when we need them. We can cooperate with other like-minded churches without the temptation to give up our own responsibilities.
Not for Everybody
As at Lakeside Church in Milwaukee, we changed the format of how we do business internally. If someone wants a church with lots of programs to keep him busy; entertaining worshipping services to amuse him; bland, tasteless sermons that would never offend but make him feel good about himself, then Reformed Heritage is NOT the place for him to be. We preach Christ crucified, risen, and ascended and that every area of life must be submitted to him. We start with the Christian family as fundamental to every other sphere of life. We place our time and emphasis on training husbands to be loving heads of their households, serving their wives and children by being the men God calls them to be. We build strong Christian families by requiring fathers to teach their children sound doctrine and lead in daily family worship. You won't find subsidized baby-sitting at Reformed Heritage Church. Our children are raised in disciplined homes and so learn to worship with us from a very young age.
Discover the Difference
Yet, as uncompromising as we are on fundamental Christian truths, we also believe firmly that, "by this will all men know you are my disciples, if you have love one for another." Therefore, Reformed Heritage seeks to be a caring and supportive community of like-minded families, united in proclaiming the crown rights of Jesus. As Monte Wilson said, "A church committed to both the truth and love! What a concept!" We are striving to build a covenant community where free men, self-governed under God, do not need oppressive bureaucracies neither in the state nor the church to run their lives. We expect each household to develop its own callings and ministries to neighbors, friends and family without being micromanaged by the session. This, I think, is what makes us a true Chalcedon church. We love the family, we believe in dominion, we are committed to advancing the Kingdom. But we allow no institution to claim our ultimate allegiance. Family, church and state all have their respective spheres of proper government under God's law and we recognize, encourage and support all three. This, in my humble opinion, is our Reformed heritage.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.