But let me explain.
It’s certainly not because I believe the only true church is OPC or CREC or PCA or URC or some such silliness. It’s certainly not because I don’t recognize the various forms of stagnation, sectarianism, or nominalism in our circles. We have our warts and stinkers too. And to be completely clear, I fully realize that given the state of modern evangelicalism, it’s quite possible that some Joad might suddenly wake up during the seventh verse of Spring Up, O Well in the middle of the travesty that routinely passes for Christian worship in America and walk out of the glitzy “worship” center and cross the street to a Roman or Eastern service and get far more Bible, more of the holistic Christian tradition, and most crucially, more of Jesus Christ. Got that. Check. And if I ran into that same fellow a year later, while I would certainly warn him about some of the less than biblical things he’s likely to find in Rome or Constantinople. I could hardly blame him. And when it comes to homo mirage and abortion, many of our Roman brothers have stood for and with Christ with far more courage and integrity than many evangelicals who frequently have the backbone of a gummy worm.
But when it comes to Reformed types who ought to know their Bibles, ought to have a deeper understanding of God’s working in the world, I confess to be a tad bit more, well as I say, baffled. And again, let me clarify: this is not because I don’t lament some of our tendencies. We’ve frequently turned worship into an anorexic lecture hall. We’ve starved our covenant children by not welcoming them to the Lord’s table. And sometimes we’ve hiked our theological undies up to our arm pits and gone red in the face about exegetical gnats while swallowing cultural camels. Got that too. Check. But still. But still. There’s a little thing called perspective. And I’m not bringing this up to flaunt like I got the magic decoder perspective glasses. Myopia is an equal opportunity offender. Yet if the Reformed tradition has sought to do anything it’s point back to Scripture again and again. And what we find in Scripture, if we keep reading it from Genesis to Revelation, is a story. It’s the story of God’s dealings with His people, and one of the glories of reading and studying the Bible is that patterns and motifs emerge. Not only that, but a distinct image begins to emerge of what God’s faithful look like and where they come from and where they are found and how they interact with less than ideal circumstances.
We find Abraham sojourning in foreign lands, Moses leading a stiff-necked people, Samson picking fights with Philistines, Elijah praying for droughts, Ezekiel doing pantomime, and finally God’s only Son born of a teenage virgin from Galillee, a carpenter’s son, rejected, condemned, and judicially murdered. He rises from the dead, but He doesn’t walk into Pilate’s court and demand to be given a seat of honor. He doesn’t tell His disciples that once the Spirit is given they will be recognized as brilliant politicians and theologians. He says that they will be witnesses, martyrs for His Kingdom throughout the earth. And so the Spirit is given, the Christian Church is born, and right on schedule Stephen is stoned and the believers scatter. This is the way of the Spirit, and this is precisely what Stephen’s sermon was all about. Does God dwell in temples made with hands? The answer yes and no. In one sense of course not; He dwells in heaven. The earth cannot hold him. And at the same time, by the Incarnation and giving of the Spirit God does come down. His glory does sometimes fill houses and now especially people.
But here’s the thing, Protestants are accused of certain forms of gnosticism. We don’t believe (we are told) in the way God has committed Himself to the Church. We think the Spirit randomly comes and goes and so you can have a true Church for 50 years and then it can disappear for a millenium and then suddenly show back up in a dyspepsic German monk. Ta-da! And for the Spirit’s next trick, a French Lawyer will get tricked into pastoring the city of Geneva. But these are false accusations. Sure some folks might talk that way but certainly not the best of the magisterial Reformers. See, the options are not either the Spirit has fused Himself to certain forms that developed in the Middle Ages or else anything goes. The options are not the Mass, apostolic succession, and icons or else you’re condemned to sing fifty more verses of Spring Up, O Well and ordain sodomites and kill unborn babies. The Bible repeatedly shows us God establishing forms and then reforming and renewing them through the work of the Spirit raising up people within and outside the system. There are continuities and discontinuities. There is development, growth, maturity, but not a Darwinian Hegelianism, not a random, shape-shifting pandora’s box. God is true though every man a liar. He keeps His promises, but His promise to Abraham was fulfilled in Jesus. The temple became a Man. Israel became the Church. Sacrifices became praise. Blood became water. He lifts up the humble and puts down the proud. He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away. He calls Abraham and Moses and Sampson and Ruth and Elijah and Mary and Jesus and Paul. He works within the story that He is telling, and because He is a good story-teller there is suspense and surprise, but there is also fulfillment, a family resemblance. The Jews didn’t expect the Messiah to come from Galilee but turns out they should have. They didn’t expect the Gentiles to be brought into the covenant but turns out they should have. This is the way God tells His story. This is the way of the Spirit. This is the nature of the Christian Church. To demand that God be bound by forms and practices that may have been helpful during some centuries is like insisting that if the temple is destroyed His promises have been broken — and we wouldn’t be the first to accuse Him of that. But the biblical answer comes back again and again that He is true to His promises even if His fulfillment comes as a surprise.
It may come as a surprise that God is spreading the gospel all over the world by scattering the tribes of Christendom, but hasn’t He frequently done this? Didn’t He scatter the disobedient Jews all over the Mediterranean world in order to prepare the world for the gospel? Didn’t He scatter the first Christians so that the gospel might go forth? This isn’t justification for any schism; this doesn’t give heretics a free pass.
So how do we tell the difference between tumors and true growth? How do we tell the difference between the Church and the imposters? The same way Paul argued for the inclusion of the Gentiles: if the Spirit was given to them, how can we forbid them? If they are doing good in Jesus’ name, they are not against us, they are with us. If their men love their wives like Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her, if their fathers raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, if they proclaim Christ and Him crucified as the only way to the Father through the working of the Spirit, if they baptize in the Triune Name and celebrate the death of Jesus with bread and wine, if people find forgiveness and become forgiving people, if they love to sing the psalms and rejoice in their trials and care for the poor and love the truth and hate all lies and covetousness and bitterness and bloodshed of innocents — these are the fruits of the Spirit and against such things there is no law. True heretics can’t maintain biblical fidelity. True schismatics flame out in sexual immorality and corruption. Frequently, Roman and Orthodox Christians point to Paul’s exhortations to keep his traditions (2 Thess. 3:6-12), and yet rarely if ever do they explicitly note the tradition Paul insists on them keeping: working hard for their food. This is one the marks of true Christians, and true Christians Churches are full of people like that. That’s how you know Jesus is present. That’s how you know you belong to Him.