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Just before Jesus was taken up into heaven He told His disciples: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Witnessing about who Jesus is and what He taught was to be cross-cultural. As His disciples faced new social and cultural changes, they were expected to hold fast to truth and righteousness so as to be bright lights of His kingdom all over the world.
Today, rapid changes are taking place throughout the world in which we must carry out the Great Commission. The world continues to be marked by men who are “lovers of themselves,” “lovers of money,” or “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3). These tendencies of fallen human nature constantly discover new ways to manifest themselves in each society of the earth. There remains a critical need for Jesus’ witnesses to be counter-cultural where sin abounds.
So rapid are societal changes in America that few are even aware of the radical pressures brought to bear on Christians and their churches. In the last fifty years, even the sense of belonging to a community has largely disappeared. The attractiveness of rural areas draws Christians to want to raise their families where lovely homes can be built near fields and streams. But jobs are to be found in places sometimes hours away from such homes. At the same time, a “satisfactory” church may be found that requires an hour or more of commuting in a different direction from the workplace.
Since there has often been inadequate planning ahead for these consequences, there are far fewer believers who can attend the worship services of the church on a regular basis. To do so would simply demand more hours on the road than there would be in the assembly of the saints. Churches cancel prayer meetings because today it is impractical for most to attend. Thus, instead of two or three sessions of being taught the Word of God, the number is reduced to once per week. This is at a time when we stand in need of more preaching, not less. All the while children are being trained by experience and parental example that to see the church for an hour or so per week is normal.
Some will supplement their spiritual diets by listening to favorite preacher(s) on CDs, iPods, or online. Their exchange of ideas with other believers is frequently on blogs or via other faceless computerized contacts. These habits are sometimes replacing the “assembling of themselves together” (Heb. 10:25) as Scripture commands. But electronic transmissions cannot duplicate the Holy Spirit’s presence in a congregation of saints. Additionally, there is a withdrawal from important aspects of pastoral care and exhortations.
Such isolation and lack of witness in one’s community was not commonplace fifty years ago. It is more difficult to be witnesses with a life spent in a home that is little more than a bedroom and a computer room with perhaps a one-family school room, while at the same time spending countless hours along the highway commuting here and there.
Another change, of which many are unaware while it presses in upon us, is the immense variety of teachings within evangelical circles. Because various doctrines are taught by Christians, it is often thought that it is of little consequence which set of doctrines we believe. Desiring unity among the shrinking number of Christians in our nation, we do not wish to discuss conflicting teachings among “us.” It is too satisfying to swell our numbers by being very inclusive. With this laissez faire attitude, the very doctrines we have claimed to hold precious have often been given up.
Roman Catholicism has long claimed to follow other authorities in addition to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Contrastingly, Protestantism in the days of the Reformation planted a flag inscribed with “Scripture alone.” It is essential to the very nature of our Protestant heritage that every article of Christian faith and behavior must be established on the basis of the teaching of Scripture. First Timothy 3:17 teaches that Scripture makes men of God “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” This foundation stone of Protestant thought was courageously confessed by Martin Luther in the famous words: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Today, however, If numerous charismatic Christians hold to sources of revelation other than the Bible, yet profess to be Protestants or even Reformed Protestants, many embrace them as though “Scripture alone” were a non-essential element of our theology.
Another theology, developed centuries after the Reformation, is “dispensationalism.” During their grapplings with Rome in the sixteenth century, the Reformers insisted that salvation comes to fallen sinners by faith alone in Christ alone. With the advent of dispensationalism, some evangelicals began to teach that at other times throughout history a different way of salvation was offered, one that was based upon works and not focused on Christ. Many today even teach that the Jews may be saved without either faith in Christ or baptism into His church. Only for Gentiles is the way of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Yet again there is acquiescence with those who hold such teachings and call themselves Reformed or Protestant even though these teachings are alien to the Reformation. Is this issue a minor difference to put aside so that we may have wider Christian fellowship and cooperation?
We begin to ask just what the defining principles of the Reformed tradition are. What are the vital issues to which we witness?
The churches are not only losing their witness by adapting to newer trends among “evangelicals.” They are also morphing into conformity with the world. Nothing less than church order is being restructured to please the ever-more insistent voice of feminism. But the apostle said, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). Large “Reformed” denominations are now making women “deacons,” as did liberals years ago. When these changes have occurred within churches in the past, the next thing to follow has always been the acceptance of women as elders.
When secular attitudes mean so much to the Reformed church in Europe and North America, those with positive attitudes toward homosexuality will begin to pressure the church as well. The pattern is to first fall silent on Genesis 19, Romans 1, and 1 Corinthians 6. After all, there is still so much of the Bible to teach, so why not drop the notes sounded there? Will there be a witness to homosexuals for good? Or will there be a cowering before the demand of our society over this issue also?
There is constant change within and around the churches. Huge shifts occurred between the years 1875–1930, as liberalism swallowed large sections of once Reformed churches. From 1950 to the present time came a revived teaching of Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, and the glory of God alone. Will this remain our stand? Already concessions are being made.
What will the future hold? Will we be witnesses? How much of Jesus’ person, work and teaching is vital to us? To our church?
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19). And sometimes the churches too will despise our stand.