We just finished week two of our seven-week sermon series called “Beyond Labels: Who Is New City?”. The truth is we must go beyond labels because labels can carry all sorts of meaning that are unique to a particular person. Even this meaning is subject to change. Thirty years ago the label “Grandpa” conjured up images in my mind of an elderly, kind old man with, well, grandchildren. Today it conjures up the image I see in the mirror every day. In this sermon series we’ve been using a rubric for understanding who we are as a church. In short, New City Church is…
- catholic, not Catholic
- reformed, not Reformed
- baptist, not Baptist
- presbyterian, not Presbyterian
- orthodox, not Orthodox
- charismatic, not Charismatic
- Christian, not christian
In each of these capitalization matters. New City is catholic, but not Catholic. We embrace our catholicity by welcoming and receiving all true followers of Jesus regardless of their particular faith tradition within Christianity. We are not, however, Roman Catholic. While we welcome and receive true Christians who are Roman Catholic, we ourselves are not capital-C Catholic. As we saw this past Sunday, New City is reformed, not Reformed. That is, we seek to remain rooted in Scripture, even as we are informed by church history. History informs us but it does not control us. As errors had crept into the church the Reformers sought to reform the church by returning to the Scriptures as the final source of faith and practice.
New City is reformed but not Reformed for to be Reformed is to embrace Covenant Theology, which began in the late 1500s. Given the lateness of this theological framework in church history, while it may be a useful tool for understanding the whole of Scripture, it cannot be binding on Christians, just as Dispensationalism, which developed in the early 1800s, cannot be. Both may be useful but neither can be binding.
I was asked about this last week prior to the sermon on being reformed but not Reformed. Specifically, I was asked to address the issue that has been called “Deconstruction”. Deconstruction has both a technical sense and a more popular sense. French Philosopher Jacques Derrida developed deconstruction as a philosophy, primarily directed toward a theory of literary criticism. Given that most who use the term have never heard of Derrida, it is doubtful they use it in this technical sense.
At a popular level the word often defines a process by which a person who was raised in a particular Christian culture begins to examine his or her own faith and seeks to dismantle it so as to remove the cultural parts that are not necessary to true Christian faith and thus rebuild true faith. It is often used pejoratively by some who hear the label and assume to deconstruct is to destroy Christian faith. This is why we must go beyond labels!
Years ago, before we launched New City Church, I was given the advice that a local church should rewrite its statement of faith once per generation. Let me explain this. A creed is ancient and universal. A creed, whether the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, states what all Christians at all times in all places have believed. Statements of faith or confessions are recent and local. Unlike creeds, confessions are particular to a group of believers in a given time and place. They express unique positions on a number of secondary matters. For example, all Christians at all times in all places have believed Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead” (from the Apostles’ Creed). What is the manner of his coming? What is the general timeline of his coming? There has never been universal agreement in the church! A confession details what a particular church or a particular group of churches believes whereas the creed states what all churches believe.
Because there has long been diversity within secondary matters, the possibility for error creeping in has always existed. If these errors are not confronted, they will grow and build up over time. This is what happened in the church in the West and is what led to the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers were not trying to split the church; they were attempting to reform it from within. It was only when doing so from within was no longer possible that they did so separately.
Last Sunday we saw this with the doctrine that claims Mary, the mother of Jesus, remained a virgin. This idea was introduced in the “Gospel According to James”—not to be confused with the book of James!—and began to be repeated by others. Hippolytus refers to Mary as “ever-virgin”. The cultural pressures of the day made this error appealing to many for the church highly regarded virginity and believed it a better state than marriage. A man named Helvidius sought to correct this false understanding that had crept into the church, for Mary, believed to have remained a virgin, was said to be a model for unmarried women. He wrote, “Virgins and married women are equally glorious”. Sadly, the culture emphasizing virginity won and eventually Mary’s perpetual virginity was dogmatized by Rome, which means Rome claims it is a necessary teaching that is essential to the Christian faith.
It is important for each generation of believers to seek to correct the errors of the generation(s) that preceded it. Let me give a more recent example. In the years after World War II, we saw the rise of the so-called Cold War. While we often remember the six-million Jews killed by the Nazi regime, Stalin killed more than 20 million Russians after the war in an attempt to eliminate opposition to his power. Because the Soviet Union had become the enemy of the United States and because the USSR was officially an atheist regime, many American politicians sought to rally American opposition to the USSR by asserting the US was the opposite of the Soviet Union. Whereas the USSR was atheist, we put “in God we trust” on our currency in the 1950s and created this notion that America had been founded as a Christian nation—despite the fact that just 17% of those in America in 1776 attended church. In short, the World War II generation began conflating American patriotism with Christian faith. To be an American was to be Christian—or, to use the rubric I outlined earlier, to be lower-case c christian.
This generational error was not corrected. The following generation embraced it and further extended it, resulting in much of the political partisanship we see today. How many times have we seen on social media that one is not a Christian unless one votes for a particular candidate or at least for a particular party? Rather than correct—reform—the error, it has been elevated to the level of creedal importance. We’re witnessing the rise of those advocating for Christian Nationalism, the idea that the government should enforce Christian views and/or ethics by legislative force, as if there were a “Christian” view on, say, tax policy or foreign trade.
The gospel of Jesus is that God in Christ through his Spirit is transforming the entire world. He does not do this through government fiat. He does not transform the world through legislative decree. In his own sovereign wisdom he lifts up nations and brings down kings, but his means of transforming the world is by changing the hearts of men and women, by replacing their hearts of stone and giving them hearts of flesh, by writing his law on their hearts and giving them his Spirit, and by causing them to walk in his ways in newness of life. This does not happen because you fill in a little circle with ink at a ballot box. It comes about as God’s people faithfully live for him and proclaim the gospel of Jesus through their words and deeds.
In the late 1600s a slogan was published in a book in the Netherlands. This slogan—ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda—became popular among Protestants. It means, “the church reformed, and always reforming”. There are things we should not change. The faith we have received as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are not subject to change. Our practice, however, must be examined and reformed wherever necessary. The distortions that we introduce due to our cultural perspectives and biases must be exposed as additions to our faith and not elements of our faith. Faithfully following Jesus requires that we seek to root out error that inevitably creeps in as any particular generation is blind to its own biases.
Earlier I said that I was advised years ago that a church should rewrite its statement of faith once a generation. This is not because what a church believes changes but because culture changes and what a church needs to emphasize changes. For example, if this were 1923 and New City were writing a statement of faith, to indicate we held to the faith once delivered we would include something to the effect of, “We believe the miracles of Jesus were real, actual miracles”, because many in 1923 were claiming otherwise! However, no one in 1923 would have had a line stating, “We believe Jesus is the only way to God”. Of course he is! We’re Christians, after all!
Today the status of miracles as miracles isn’t really debated, but is Jesus really and truly the only way to God? There are those who say exactly that. Today the very concept of absolute truth is questioned so a church that wants to indicate it holds to the historic Christian faith might need to have such a declaration in its statement of faith. Every generation must strive to be faithful to the Scriptures.
Rightly understood, deconstruction is good, actually. If we understand it to mean the clarification of what is true Christianity and what is culturally captive “Christianity”, then let us all continue to deconstruct what is the true Christian faith. Far too many use the word to mean destruction, however. In the process of rejecting cultural errors introduced into the Christian faith, they end up destroying any semblance of faith they once had. To be truly reformed requires we continually examine ourselves and our cultural moment and cling to what it true and hold loosely—or even let go—what is merely cultural and not true Christian faith. What is remarkable to me is the more we focus on what is good and true and essential to our faith, the more we will focus on the Lord Jesus. By focusing on the good and true essentials of the faith, we will seek to make much of Jesus, even if our particular tribe may not benefit. In the words of John the Baptist, he must increase; I must decrease. This is the goal of true deconstruction.