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New Horizons

Chronicles of a Reforming Church: Part 2: The Transition of the Church

Paul Viggiano

Our transition from the Foursquare Church to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church went smoothly. How could this take place without decimating the church? Every pastor has been confronted with some variation of the mighty six words that bedevil every church: "We've always done it that way." Insensitivity to that mind-set could gush members to the exits faster than an oil spill.

A pastor acquaintance had begun to embrace a Reformed understanding of the faith and the church where he served was all but annihilated. He was so excited about his new theological discovery—about the grace of God—that he thought it was necessary for every member in the church to acquiesce—and do so immediately!

When I had lunch with another pastor making the journey into Reformed theology, I questioned him regarding the inconsistent theological distinctions, policies, and staff in his church. His church was eclectic. How could he be comfortable with that? He took my words to heart. With new doctrinal epiphanies in his scabbard, he called a meeting, summarily fired staff, and removed others from positions of leadership.

That didn't seem right.

It would appear that the caboose in everybody's theological reformation into Presbyterianism is Presbyterianism. The latter pastor failed to realize that he lacked authority to single-handedly dictate the theological landscape of his congregation. There is no small touch of irony in this, considering that the very word Presbyterian refers to a form of church government.

More people have entered the doors of our church because they were disgruntled with the unbiblical ecclesiology (church government) of their former churches than for any other reason. They fled from pastors individually excommunicating people, no process of appeal, no congregational representation, no process to evaluate the decisions of the elders, no elders, the senior pastor unilaterally deciding the sanctuary needs purple carpet, etc.

Our session was encouraged by our newfound understanding of the Reformed faith as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. How would we go about sharing with our church the rich blessing that we had experienced in our studies, without obliterating the church? After all, most people do not automatically embrace Calvinism.

This became a tricky business. People don't like change. It took us twenty years of transition to become an Orthodox Presbyterian church. However, I am delighted to say that we never had anything that could be considered an exodus from the church. We've always had a slow, steady growth. I would like to credit the collective wisdom of our session, recognizing how people need to be lovingly, gently, and gradually moved from one place to another in their theological convictions. But that wasn't really the case.

There was, no doubt, a gradual and incremental transition into the Reformed understanding of the faith taking place in our church—and there still is. But the gentle, loving, gradual, and incremental nature of that transition was not the result of a conscious decision on the part of our session or on my part as the teaching elder. It was simply the necessary nature of the case. In short, our congregation was slowly transitioning into a Reformed understanding of the faith because we, as elders, were still slowly transitioning into a Reformed understanding of the faith ourselves. It was just a matter of playing within ourselves.

In sports, you coach athletes to play within themselves. You don't want a lumbering center leading the fast break with a quick guard all over him. You don't send receivers on a sixty-yard pass route if your quarterback can only throw fifty yards. You don't pretend you're R. C. Sproul if you're Paul Viggiano. As much as I'd like some credit for having the wisdom to help lead our church through this transition, the bottom line is that I just tried to avoid taking three-point shots when I was struggling to make layups. (Okay, no more sports metaphors.)

I'll conclude by highlighting the three major factors (recognized in hindsight) that yielded a rather seamless transition in our church's reformation: (1) holding to a Presbyterian form of government, (2) preaching doctrines as a blessing rather than a polemic, and (3) making sure that our secondary standards remain secondary.

Presbyterianism

If I were a younger man (and not a Presbyterian), I would say that the Presbyterian form of government rocks. I am not by nature a micromanager, so when people make suggestions for our church, I tell them that I'll take it to the session. This may initially sound like I'm blowing them off. But when they realize that their suggestions are actually being brought before the loving and prayerful consideration of eight men seeking what is best for the church, they're comforted with the knowledge that their idea has been given the thoughtful attention it deserves.

The utilization of a biblical form of church government has been a critical element in ensuring the health and well-being of our church during the major transitions through which it has gone. The biblical form of which I speak is a plurality of elders, nominated and elected by the congregation itself. I've seen churches at the mercy of a tyrannical despot wielding his authority like a teenager with whiskey and car keys. I've also seen churches with a mob-rule mentality holding grotesque congregational meetings that resembled a scene out of Lord of the Flies.

Although there is no absolute fail-safe against the sinful human nature that inevitably rears its ugly head in Christ's church, I have found it difficult for members of a congregation to indict a plurality of elders whom they themselves elected to keep watch over their souls. A church contemplating transition—whether theological, geographical, or mundane (e.g., changing the color of the carpet in the auditorium)—would be wise to consider what the Scriptures teach regarding decision making in the body of Christ.

Doctrine as a Blessing

Presenting doctrine as a blessing rather than using it as a polemic is a challenge for the young lions of Calvinism. They saunter into an unsuspecting Bible study with their antennas up for any hint of human effort in effecting salvation, which they strike down with deadly accuracy. They may win a victory, but they have unwittingly encouraged their conquered foe to quit attending that study and check out the friendlier church down the road (which has a better band anyway).

There is nothing wrong with a good, loving discussion. But to use the doctrines found in Scripture as a means to win arguments, humiliate opponents, manipulate church members, etc., is a violation of the third commandment—taking that which is holy and making it vain and empty.

It can't be the goal of the elders merely to keep telling their congregation how wrong they are. A Reformed understanding of the law and the gospel of Christ found in Scripture is pregnant with blessings. uuGood instruction closely links the truth of the doctrine and its attending blessing.

Secondary Standards

Secondary standards need to remain secondary. We should feel very uncomfortable using the Westminster Confession or Catechisms as a proof text for our theological point. It is our responsibility to make the point biblically, after which we show how the confession expresses it (generally in words better than our own).

We live in a relatively skeptical society. When a Reformed pastor starts quoting confessions or catechisms, he will often be met with a big "so what?" That's bad as an expression of disrespect for the church and those teachers whom God has raised up through the centuries for our benefit. However, that kind of skepticism can be good if the subtext is "Show me in the Scriptures."

Our elders didn't just read the Westminster Confession one afternoon and decided to make it our church's secondary standard. We read it with the Bible in the other hand—testing and examining what we were reading. This is the way we ought to approach any sermon or Christian document. We should want the people in our churches to search the Scriptures.

One thing that we observed in the Westminster Confession did reveal a shortcoming that we had as a church. We were disconnected. We had no genuine association with any synods or councils. So we started looking for a denomination. Next month I will explain why we picked the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

This article is the second in a three-part series. The author is pastor of Branch of Hope Church in Torrance, Calif. Reprinted from New Horizons, Sept. 2010.

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