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A Big Tent

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   October 7, 1996   |  Type: Articles

The Republican National Convention recently met in San Diego and one of its dominant themes was that the Republican party is a big tent. The convention stressed that the party had room for women and minorities as well as men, for pro-choice as well as pro-life voters. The speakers emphasized that the convention was reaching out to be inclusive and tolerant. To insure that tolerant spirit certain members of the right-wing of the party, like Pat Buchanan, were not permitted to speak.

No doubt the Democratic National Convention will also declare that it is a big tent. And it will probably not permit any pro-life member of the party to speak.

Perhaps a political party should practice such politics of inclusion. But should a church? Should not a church stand uncompromisingly for the teaching of the Word of God? Should it not encourage preaching that is clear and faithful to that Word?

The Christian Reformed Church seems determined to be a big tent today. That tendency was illustrated powerfully by two answers in the "Q & A" section in the August 12, 1996 issue of The Banner. One question asked if Roman Catholics now accepted the truth that salvation is by grace through faith. The answer was that they did. The authorities cited were the editor of The Banner and one book by a Roman Catholic author written in 1981.

That one book notes that Roman Catholicism is "characterized, therefore, by a both/and rather than an either/or approach." This judgment is certainly correct. Rome in many ways has sought to include and combine a wide variety of elements in its understanding of Christian truth and life. It is a "both/and" denomination. The only ones Rome seems to exclude from its big tent are those who insist on an "either/or" approach. Protestants were anathematized by the Roman Catholic Church at its Council of Trent in the sixteenth century for teaching that Christians are justified by grace alone through faith alone.

Has Rome changed its position on justification? What evidence would demonstrate that it has changed? One cannot prove such change by citing one or two Roman Catholic authors. One author cannot speak for Rome unless he is the pope. (Just as neither Robert Godfrey nor George Vander Weit can speak officially for the CRC!) Rome's position can be known only through the official teachings of its popes and councils. No pope or council has withdrawn the anathemas of Trent. Rome's official position is still both/and: salvation is by free will and good works cooperating with grace and faith. The Protestant either/or is still condemned.

The answer in "Q & A" is not primarily troubling, however, because it gives false information about Roman Catholicism. It is troubling because it reflects that the CRC too has become a big tent. The CRC - at least as represented in many articles by its leaders and in decisions by its synods - increasingly takes a both/and approach to Christianity. Think of these examples: according to The Banner both Protestants and Roman Catholics agree on the essentials of salvation; according to synod both those in favor of women in office and those opposed read the Bible correctly; the CRC both opposes abortion by synodical decision and permits faculty at its college to support abortion. The only folks who do not seem welcome in the CRC big tent are the either/or conservatives.

The size of the CRC tent is even better illustrated by the other answer in the same "Q & A". The questioner asks if it was appropriate for a women to perform the role of Jesus in a dramatization of the crucifixion performed during a communion service. The answer basically says that casting a woman in such a role may not have been wise or tasteful, but was not morally wrong. The questioner is advised: "Put your gnat strainer away, my friend, and let's get on with it. Such occasions call for much forbearance."

What is stunning about the question and the answer is how far both are from the historic principles of Reformed worship. Neither suggests that having anyone play the role of Jesus in a drama during a worship service is wrong. Worship is assumed to be both drama and sacrament, both theater and preaching.

These inclusivist assumptions violate our Reformed heritage and the teaching of our Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism in its own Q & A 96 explains the second commandment: "That we in no way make any image of God nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word." Worship may do only what God has commanded. Has he commanded drama for the worship of his church? Is the portrayal of Jesus in a drama in a worship service really different from having an image of God there?

The Catechism goes on to make clear that teaching aids like images (and drama) are not permitted, Q & A 98: "But may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned? No, we shouldn't try to be wiser than God. He wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word – not by idols that cannot even talk." The Catechism is an either/or document. Preaching is the means of teaching, not images or drama that the "wiser than God" think will be more effective in communicating God's truth.

Is it fair, however, to link drama to images? Yes, it is. What substantial difference is there between a wooden image portraying Christ and a living image portraying Christ? No one believes that either image is actually Christ. They are only helps to knowing and serving God, right? But precisely this is forbidden according to Q & A 97: "Although creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if ones intention is to worship them or to serve God through them."

Now some might ask if drama would be legitimate in a church service if Christ were not portrayed. Could not drama be a form of preaching? Did not the prophet Ezekiel use drama in his ministry? The answer must be that drama is not legitimate in worship. Drama in worship is an invention of man, not a divine commandment and therefore must diminish rather than enhance the divinely appointed means of grace. Actors cannot really be preachers in worship because they have not been called and ordained by God and his church to that office. Ezekiel's actions were not part of public worship and were the response to specific commandments from God. They were part of God's judgment on a people who would not listen to the Word, not a form of entertainment. To generalize a principle from Ezekiel's actions would be like justifying images in church because Moses once used a bronze serpent.

Faithfulness in worship and the avoidance of idolatry is a very serious matter in the Catechism. Indeed, it is a salvation issue! Remember Q & A 94: "What does the Lord require in the first commandment? That I, not wanting to endanger my very salvation, avoid and shun all idolatry, magic, superstitious rites, and prayer to saints or to other creatures." Is not drama in worship a supersititious rite?

The best authority available to us on the meaning of the Catechism is the commentary written by its principal author, Zacharias Ursinus. Listen to Ursinus on worship and the second commandment. He warns solemnly: "We are, therefore, prone by nature to the sin of idolatry....” Human, even Christian, instincts cannot be trusted on the matter of worship.

For Ursinus idolatry is not only the worship of a false god, but also the false worship of the true God: "the other species of idolatry is more subtle and refined, as when the true God is supposed to be worshipped, whilst the kind of worship which is paid unto him is false, which is the case when anyone imagines that he is worshipping or honoring God by the performance of any work not prescribed by the divine law. This species of idolatry is more properly condemned in the second commandment, and is termed superstition, because it adds to the commandments of God the inventions of men. Those are called superstitious who corrupt the worship of God by their own inventions. This will worship or superstition is condemned in every part of the word of God." If drama is an invention of man rather than the command of God, it is superstition. And if it is superstition, it endangers the salvation of the worshipper. Here the either/or of the Catechism is clear. Here is the spirit of genuine Reformed faith. Does it fit in the CRC big tent or would Ursinus be told that he is straining at gnats?

Imagine for a moment a communion service in which Christ's crucifixion was acted out. Suppose no attempt was made to be realistic (no pounding of nails, no blood, no bodies lifted on crosses), but rather arms were simply stretched out and some conversation between Christ and others at Calvary was acted out. If it were done effectively, would not its visual power and emotional impact completely overshadow the communion? How can bread and wine compete with the action and dialogue of a good drama? Communion, after all, is not a drama. Its meaning is not in any dramatic actions. Communion is not the reenactment of the Last Supper. Communion is a covenant meal where the congregation takes the divinely appointed elements to commune with the living Christ. By the Word and sacrament Jesus comes to his people and blesses them. Drama would not enhance that occasion, but would only be a distraction.

Drama would also diminish preaching. Preaching may have some dramatic qualities, but the preacher is not acting. He is appointed to speak the Word to the hearts of God's people. The simplicity and straight-forwardness of preaching must not be compromised by activities that may claim to be interesting and effective, but are only the inventions of man.

Ursinus rightly observed " ... images have never resulted in any good to those who have had them." Neither the images of the Roman Catholic Church nor the dramatic liturgy of Eastern Orthodoxy have made those denominations more biblical, but rather have contributed to superstition and corruption. Drama will have the same effect in Protestant churches. The inventions of men are not wiser than God and will not help his people more than God's institutions.

Today American churches are experiencing the results of their worship inventions. The divinely appointed means of grace, preaching and sacraments, have been sadly affected by the experiments of these times, which range from drama to extravagant cantatas to holy laughter. Preaching has been perverted often to a combination of comedy, moralism and psychological tips. The sacraments are largely ignored in terms of being a central spiritual benefit for the people of God. The CRC seems bent on following the worship practices that increasingly prevail in the American churches generally.

A still deeper question must be asked of the CRC big tent. Are developments like drama reflecting a church that is God-centered or man-centered? Some will answer that the CRC needs to be both. Again it is both/and, not either/or. The true Christian wants to be God-centered alone in worship. The true Christian wants God's will above everything and so carefully and thoroughly searches the Scripture to determine God's will. Q & A 94 on the first commandment concludes: "In short, that I give up anything rather than go against his will in any way." A passionate, biblical desire for God's ways seems sadly lacking for too many in the CRC.

Reformed churches must be big tents in the sense that they welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, ethnic background, or sinful beliefs or lifestyles that they want to put behind them. But Reformed churches, especially in their worship, must not seek to satisfy unconverted desires for entertainment and self-gratification. They must teach, worship and live according to the Word of God alone. It is not both-and; it is either/or.

Previously Published in The Outlook, October 1996 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. Used with permission.

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