Last week I introduced you to a new book series here on URC Psalmody. The book I chose, for a variety of reasons I explained in that post, was Dr. Henry Beets’ text The Christian Reformed Church. Although Beets’s writing style is a little thick, many of his insights and commentaries are brilliant, which is why I’d like to start each post simply by summarizing some of his best points. Indented paragraphs with quotes are taken basically from the text of the book, though I’ve attempted to simplify and clarify some passages. Beets divides each chapter into numbered sections, which I’ve preserved here. In fact, I’ll probably divide up some chapters into multiple blog posts to avoid skipping any opportunities for discussion.
In Chapter 1, Beets begins by explaining the words “Christian” and “Reformed” in the title of this denomination.
First and foremost in the name of the denomination whose history we relate in this book stands the name ‘Christian.’ That signifies that it claims to be part and parcel of the visible Church of the New Testament, described in the Bible as ‘the body of Christ’ (Eph. 1:23), and defined in the Creed of the Reformed Churches as ‘a holy congregation of Christian believers.’ That word ‘Christian’ carries us back to the days of the Apostles, when the disciples of Christ were first called ‘Christians’ in Antioch around A. D. 45 (Acts 11:26).
But next to the name ‘Christian’ in the title of this denomination stands the word ‘Reformed.’ This indicates that it claims to be re-formed—formed again, made over, renovated, purified. That term takes us back to the sixteenth century, when a mighty religious movement called the Protestant Reformation took place in western Europe. That movement was designed to bring out a re-formation and purification of the Christian Church, because it was considered to have become de-formed and impure in many respects.
In Section 1, Beets says that “the Christian Church of the New Testament dates from Pentecost, A. D. 30, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles and other disciples assembled in Jerusalem.” Next, in Section 2, he points out some of the defining characteristics of the early church:
- To begin with, there was sound, constant preaching and faithful witnessing as Christ had commanded.
- There was the proper administration of the two New Testament sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper.
- Proper Christian discipline was administered to those who erred in doctrine or life.
- The worship services were markedly simple, as the believers taught and admonished one another “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).
- The early Christian church possessed democracy in the good sense, in the leadership of elders by the selection of the congregation, and in the Christian love expressed between members.
When the Roman ruler Constantine the Great openly sided with Christianity beginning in A. D. 313, the church was faced with an immense influx of unconverted people. This necessitated efforts to codify Christian truths to protect against heresy, leading to the creation of the so-called ‘ecumenical creeds’ of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), as well as the Apostles’ Creed which developed over the course of time. Indeed, great battles had to be fought to keep and defend, to augment and systematize the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Sadly, the Roman church over the course of time became disloyal to the gospel as delivered by the Bible, the creeds, and the church fathers. Each of the points mentioned above that had so clearly characterized the early church began to decay. Witnessing became a task just for the ordained ‘clergy,’ not the laity. The number of sacraments was increased from two to seven. Christian discipline was either sadly neglected, or exercised in some cases in an arbitrary and often harsh manner. The simplicity which marked the early Christian services was crowded out by elaborate ceremonies conducted by priests in ornate attire borrowed from Old Testament ceremonial law, and the congregational singing of the early church was replaced by trained choirs. [We’ll return to this point!] Instead of the early democracy there arose a vast priestly hierarchy led by the Popes, many of whom revealed themselves as ungodly men.
The entire Roman system had so mixed merit and grace, work and mercy, as to cause the degeneration of Christianity into a yoke of bondage to law and ceremony. The adoration of saints and statutes and pictures had become God-provoking idolatry, explaining to some degree the rise and progress of Islam, which wiped out many churches around the Mediterranean during the early centuries of the Middle Ages.
I’ll stop here for now, since Dr. Beets has given us plenty to chew on already. Chapter 1 continues to discuss the circumstances leading up to the Reformation and the men who promoted its central doctrines, including Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. For now, though, here are some thoughts to apply this discussion to us here in the United Reformed Churches in North America:
- (Section 1) Whatever else we may be, we are first and foremost the Christian church. This truth is a double-edged sword; it warns against allowing unbiblical practices to infiltrate the body of Christ, yet it also reminds us that we should never be Reformed to the exclusion of being Christian. May our goal always be to preserve the truth, but may we never rally around a denominational banner while forgetting whose army we are in!
- (Section 2) How do the marks of the true church which Beets describes here encourage us? For me, it was refreshing to realize that the principles we uphold in our doctrine, worship, and life did not arise merely from the “Reformed” branch of Christianity, but rather from the apostolic church itself.
- (Section 2) More germane to this blog, the congregational singing of psalms and Scripturally-sound hymns is a key characteristic of the simple, sincere worship practiced in the early church. We can be thankful that the URCNA, along with other orthodox Reformed churches, upholds this practice. Reflecting on the mention of church music in Section 3, how is the practice of congregational singing compromised in many churches even today?
- (Section 3) While we may automatically think of the Roman Catholic Church as the violator of these principles of Biblical worship, are we alert for the signs of this decay in other denominations as well, including mainstream “evangelical” churches? It’s not hard to see the parallel: in many of today’s churches, the pastor is the sole “evangelist”, the sacraments are omitted or distorted, church discipline is nonexistent, worship services become showy performances, and the elders are supplanted by monarchical ministers. Are we prepared to respond to this ecclesiastical malnourishment among our Christian friends and neighbors with the glories of true, sincere worship according to Biblical principles? And are we prepared to defend against such decay should it someday appear in our own churches?
Feel free to respond with your own reactions, thoughts, and answers to these weighty questions. I look forward with you to continuing Chapter 1 of The Christian Reformed Church next week, Lord willing.