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  • Writer's pictureNoah D Burnett

The Church Must Always Be Reforming

The Ongoing Battle For the Purity Of Christ's Bride

 

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” or “The Church must always be reformed” is a phrase attributed to St. Augustine in the 4th century, but has been widely used within the Reformed Protestant tradition since the 17th century. I wouldn’t expect to see many modern churches with this motto hanging next to their welcome sign on a Sunday morning, but I would expect that any church in the world that desires to be a faithful one would be actively and always reforming.


I would go further to say that if the elders of any given body are not diligently looking to sprint back into the safety and promise of the Scriptures (which is what I mean by reforming), then there is no hope, outside of divine intervention, for that body to be faithful in any capacity.


This is what the reformers knew. This is why some of them risked or gave their lives to translate the Bible into languages that people could read. They understood that if the Church had any hope, it would be found in God’s Word... in reforming itself to God’s Word.


In our day, it is not the lack of Bibles that fuels our ignorance, but a lack of our reading them. The amount of Biblical illiteracy in the Church of the 21st century is only outmatched by the Church prior to Bibles in the vernacular (or Bibles written in the common language of any given place). We have greater opportunity than those who did not have the Scriptures readily available in their native tongue. We can read and learn at our own leisure. But it seems we are in a self-created dilemma because in our leisure we do not treasure the Word as the only words to offer God’s nourishment for our life, now and the one to come.

 

Imagine this scenario:


You have believed in God your whole life. You have been told of the Gospels, of the prophecies, and of the beautiful psalms. You have loved and cherished all that you have heard about Jesus. However, you have never owned a Bible or read one for yourself. It is not even legal to translate or to own a Bible in your language.


But then, you hear of a man who is secretly translating books of the Bible, one by one, into your language. You get ahold of one of these new translations of the book of John and begin to fly through the pages. Wouldn’t you think to throw off any worldly hindrance, any noble task, any leisurely activity, and utterly devour the Word? Would you not have the desire to spend every waking moment committing to memory the treasures that are found in the rich mines of God’s self-revelation? Nothing would keep you from reveling in Christ and His Word!

 

That was the experience of thousands of believers in the early years of the 16th century. William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Wycliffe and many other reformers dedicated their lives to making the Bible accessible to the poor and lay folk. This may be the single most important thing that they did to reform the Church. Without the Scriptures regulating every aspect of the Body, we are bound to drift further and further away from true Christianity.


Knowing the Word is not something that only the reformers cherished. There were hundreds and hundreds of years of faithful Christians who dedicated their lives to knowing the word against all odds.


These people knew that if there was to be any lasting change in the Church, that the Church would need to be relying on Scripture alone for that change. I think that this type of reformation, that is, reforming the Church to what the Scriptures dictate, is exactly what needs to happen in our day. In the same fashion as the reformers around the 16th century or as Hilkiah the high priest, Shaphan the secretary, and young king Josiah did in the days of Judah (2 Kings 22-23), we must hold the Word of God out into the light for God’s people if we ever hope to see that kind of return to sound orthodoxy and, consequently, orthopraxy.


Here are some of the major ways the Church in our day needs to reform (to God’s Word).

 

1. Reforming Elders


When I use the word “elder” I am referring to any pastor, overseer, elder, presbyter, or any other person who teaches the word of God in an official office of a church. There is no functional distinction in the Bible between pastors and elders so there should be no distinction in our churches. There may be a difference semantically between some pastoral titles based on whether or not they are paid or if some of them labor more in teaching, but the baseline function of the office of elder should not be altered from its Biblical intent. Here is the standard that we must reform our elders to.


The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. 1 Timothy 3:1-7


…if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. Titus 1:6-9


So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 1 Peter 5:1-4


There are plenty of supporting texts that we can apply to the office of elder, but these are the simple and non-negotiable standards and directions for the elders of any church. If a church wants to be more faithful, then they must reform their eldership to the Biblical standard, both in letter and in heart.


Some things that the Bible does NOT say an elder must be or have:

The Bible does not say that an elder must be old.

The Bible does not say that an elder must be popular in the community.

The Bible does not say that an elder must have a college degree.

These things are standards that have been imposed onto the position by our culture. Do not bend to the world.

 

2. Reforming Preaching


This is an extremely important thing to consider when reforming a church. Preaching must be Word-centered (Christ centered). The “take-aways” of a sermon need to regularly be things that the passage labors, not the thing that the preacher has decided they want to labor. The application must be the application that the text lends, not the application that the preacher thinks “his church” needs. Give the Body sound BIBLICAL, exegetical teaching, not man-centered teaching that utilizes the Bible for ambition. Here is the standard that we must reform our preaching to.


I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 2 Timothy 4:1-5


All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17


For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12


The power of the Scriptures does not reside in the individual words or the passages on the pages, but in the original, Holy Spirit-inspired meaning and intention of the text. Preach Expositionally! Devote your church body to the difficult but eternally rewarding work of expositional preaching.


Some things that the Bible does NOT say that preaching must be:

The Bible does not say that preaching must be entertaining.

The Bible does not say that preaching must be long or short.

The Bible does not say that preaching must be motivational.

These things are standards that have been imposed onto the duty of preaching by our culture. Do not bend to the world.

 

3. Reforming Music


I could write quite a bit about this, but the main thing I want to state is that our worshiping through song should not be viewed differently than our worship through preaching. Our singing, like our preaching, must be God-centered. Worship in general is about sacrificing or giving oneself to God. We offer to Him our adoration, our attention, our praise, our finances, our everything and that is our worship. In our musical expression then, it is not what we can “get out of it”... it is not about our preferences, it is all about what we can offer up to God.


In congregational singing there is also the aspect of edification that is added to the equation of musical worship. Our songs should attribute worth to God, they should lead us to offer up ourselves to Him, but they should also build up the body of Christ. The church should be taught and encouraged by congregational singing. If this is missing in a church, there will be all sorts of dangers that will creep in. Doctrine and gospel implications will take a backseat to preference and tradition. God-centered mindsets will be traded for an earthly, self centered thinking. We must reform our music, here is the standard to which we should aim.


Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:15-21


And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:15–16


These are the only places in the New Testament that we get an explicit imperative to sing congregationally. Notice in both instances Paul is sure to mention these guidelines for corporate worship:


  1. Be Wise

  2. Be Thankful

  3. Be Spirit filled

  4. Be Singing

  5. Be Trinitarian


On top of these obvious crossovers, there is a general feeling of reverence in Paul's words. This is an action that comes naturally from the heart. Yes, it is a command, but it is a command that is joyfully obeyed. “Making melody,” “giving thanks,” “Christ’s Word dwelling richly”--all these phrases imply that it is a willing and desirable thing to sing to the Lord. Thank God for music. God help us keep our musical worship pure.


Some things that the Bible does NOT say that our congregational music must be:

The Bible does not say that congregational music must be fun.

The Bible does not say that congregational music must be what you like to sing.

The Bible does not say that congregational music must sound like what other people like to sing.

The Bible does not say that congregational music must be experiential.

These things are standards that have been imposed onto churches by our culture. Do not bend to the world.

 

4. Reforming Mission


A church that has completely separated “mission” from the day-to-day life of the body is in desperate need of mission reformation. It seems like this is the case in most American churches. They have mission boards, mission funds and mission trips (all great things to have!), but the idea of mission is something that has its own separate category… something that is a program for the church to be a part of.


“Mission” is only used once in the New Testament (Gal 2:8), so we really have to put together what it means with context from other places where we see the idea played out. There are two main types of mission we see in the NT- local, and abroad. In both of these types, however, the goal is the same: Spread the Gospel and Make disciples.


Mission happens whenever a believer, empowered by the Holy Spirit, goes out of their way to tell someone the gospel who has not already heard it. This can happen in the remote jungles of the Congo and it can happen in a brief conversation at the local coffee shop. We must not divorce these two realities. Whether we raise funds to send a missionary to a third world country or we take 5 minutes of our time to explain the gospel to a 10 year old at a family gathering: We are on mission when we find someone who doesn't know Jesus, and tell them about Him.


Mission is the intentional preaching of the gospel to unbelieving souls and It is God’s design for how people would come to a saving knowledge of Himself. If we are not on mission as everyday, ordinary Christians, then we have much to learn about what God desires of His people.


Churches should be specifically and diligently working to see the gospel advances outside of our country to unreached peoples… But if that is the entirety of their understanding of mission then God help the unbelieving person living next door.


Our idea of mission must be reformed to the following standards:


“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20


And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. Acts 5:42


So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. Acts 9:28


And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:10


How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Romans 10:14-15


Some things that the Bible does NOT say that missions must be:

The Bible does not say that missions must be abroad.

The Bible does not say that missions are service projects.

The Bible does not say that missions are feeding the poor.

These things are standards that have been imposed onto the term by our culture. Do not bend to the world.

 

5. Reforming Outreach


Outreach is usually a watered down version of what local mission should be. Just call it local mission. Reach the unreached people of your community.* See “Reforming mission”.


Some things that the Bible does NOT say that outreach must be:

The Bible does not say that outreach is a good way to reach lost people.

The Bible does not say that outreach is a fruit of a healthy church.

These things are standards that have been imposed onto church by our culture. Do not bend to the world.

 

6. Reforming Discipleship


To be a disciple means to be a personal follower of Jesus. In the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry it would have been fairly easy to identify one of these types of people because they would have been physically following Jesus. The validity of these disciples, however, was sometimes tested and proved to be false. (Matthew 7:21-23, John 6:66, Mark 14:10)


After Jesus’ ascension, it was much more difficult to fake being a disciple. For one, they couldn’t just follow Jesus around on His tour of the ancient Middle East, they actually had to devote themselves to His teachings and submit to them in order to be recognized as a disciple. There was nothing to gain socially from identifying as a disciple. There was no golden sticker for attending a Bible study or secular affirmations for being perceivably “moral”. In fact, it would have been life threatening to follow Christ in the time of the apostles, seeing how all but one of those men, most of whom were Jesus' closest disciples during His earthly ministry, all lost their lives for the sake of being a disciple.


If you were a disciple of Jesus in the first century, it was not because you completed a certain number of church programs, it was because your life had been changed by the saving grace of God.


So what is “discipleship”? Well, if a disciple is a follower of Jesus, then discipleship would be the process of making or training a follower of Jesus. Despite what we may see around us in the church today, this is not something that can happen through just classes and programs. When we look at the early church model of discipleship, we see that this "making of a Jesus follower" was steeped in relational teaching. Someone who knows Jesus well would come alongside someone who doesn't yet, and over time, would reveal to them the truth about God. They would do this by spending an unusual amount of time with each other.


We see this with Paul as he was walking alongside multiple young men in his missionary work, sending them out as he discipled them. We see it in Apollos as he was molded into a true gospel preacher by Priscilla and Aquila. And most evidently, we see it when Jesus spent three years side-by-side with 12 men, teaching them and challenging them and ultimatley sending them out to their deaths.


In the Bible, there aren’t “5 practical steps to discipleship”… There isn't a “Discipleship 101” class to attend. There were only faithful believers walking alongside new believers sharing their life with them and telling them all that they had discovered in the Scriptures. If we stray from this simplicity, we will instill in the believers around us a nominal and pragmatic approach to discipleship.


Rather than sharing life with one another, we will revert to seeing each other once a week for small group. Rather than accountability, we will maintain our compartmentalized lives and hide away the rough edges of our day-to-day from those we are in "discipleship" with. And perhaps worst of all, rather than a willing devotion to God’s Word, what often happens is our regimens begin to promote either apathy or legalism towards the should-be joyful obedience to God. (This is not to say that we shouldn’t implement discipline and order into our discipleship, just that we should be careful not to turn those into the aim of our discipleship.)


If we want our churches to thrive, we must reform our discipleship to these standards:


So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31


Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16–20


You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. 2 Timothy 2:1-2


And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. Luke 9:23-24


Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. Colossians 1:28-29


And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47


We must move towards this intentionally relational style of discipleship and away from the shallow program-heavy model.


Some things that the Bible does NOT say that discipleship is:

The Bible does not say that discipleship is a program.

The Bible does not say that discipleship ends at a certain point in one's life.

The Bible does not say that discipleship should be comfortable or easy.

These things are standards that have been imposed onto the church by our culture. Do not bend to the world.

 

Reformation Rhythms


If there is any hope that these changes in our ministries would have any lasting change, they will need to be practiced in an ongoing manner. The term “always reforming” does not mean always looking for the next problem that needs specific reformation, rather, it is a call to be consistently re-forming all of our life and ministry to the standard of Scripture.


These couple of bullet points I’ve mentioned will have no lasting effect if they are elevated for a short time until they are seemingly resolved, and then set up on a shelf as if they’ve been completed.


Your church will enter (or continue) a cycle of extreme un-health if they are not consistently reminded of why and how the Bible says things are supposed to function in the Body.


Reformation is not one and done. Reformation is not passive. We must ALWAYS be reforming, ever-searching for ways to be more faithful to Christ.


(This is especially for pastors/elders but applies to all believers): There is no time to rest this side of heaven from any good work that will purify and strengthen the people of God. Man your post, do the hard things and suffer for the truth.


Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. Hebrews 13:20-21


For Christ and His Church,

Noah Burnett

 

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