Upon conversing with dozens and dozens of Jakartan Christians, the church situation here, at least on the level of perception, presents to us a stark choice between attending a church which values core biblical doctrines in the place of a warm community, on the one hand, and a church which values community without a biblical doctrinal foundation, on the other. There seems to be, in many minds, few churches that represent how a loving community must come from a solid doctrinal foundation. An experience that I do not see (as starkly) in other countries.
One side of the pole values (selectively) key biblical doctrines as the core of the Christian identity. This camp of churches argue that biblical knowledge must be the foundation from which worship arises. They know their bible verses, their church history, and their systematic-theological categories. They can quote Calvin as often as they could quote Paul. Yet as sound as the preaching and the teaching might be, the perception that is produced by this camp is a total rejection of a community of warmth – the refusal to prioritize friendships, fellowship, and organic discipleship. This group, perceived by many, seems to associate ‘having fun’ in church as a sign that the church lacks seriousness in a rigorous love for God. Fun is liberalism, and Christianity is “serious.” This camp functionally maintains that pastors are of a higher status in the eyes of God over Christians who engage in other so-called ‘secular’ vocations. Laughter is seen with a suspicious eye, gloominess the preferred atmosphere, and fellowship a second-order priority. This group is seen to be bashy, bible-thumping, and egg-heady, lacking relational and social astuteness. They love to, in the words of one of my mentors, “burp” the gospel (and other Reformed doctrines) to the persons next to them. They feel better, but the other person is immediately offended – not because of the offense inherent in the Gospel, but because of the unaffectionate move of the Christian. This group knows their Bibles, but they would hardly know the persons next to them in Sunday service week by week. They are often described as prideful and angry.
The other group, however, is the exact opposite. This group loves to have cook-outs, throw birthday surprises, and having fellowship, emphasizing the passages in the book of Acts in which the church shares meals as one loving unit. They are typically welcoming, embracing, and friendly. Though the church may number into the thousands, small groups and other means of fellowship facilitates much friendship to grow in the congregation. Everyone relatively knows each other, and they actually meet to talk about life, movies, and all the daily things that every normal person would talk about – they do not meet just to discuss ministry. However, this group fails to see the need to even know their bibles at all. They are unclear of what it means to be in a church or to even be a Christian – is God here to address me in my sin? Or is he here to make me comfortable, happy and rich? Who knows – maybe it’s all of those things. Who is Christ? What in the world is a creed? What books are in the Old Testament? Ask any of these things to the groups in this latter church and we will often receive back glaring looks or even offended faces. This group views doctrine with heavy suspicion, sharing a mystical tendency. They often separate the Holy Spirit from the Scriptures, and equate the work of the Spirit with that subjective “voice” or feeling they get at times. Contrary to their thinking that they don’t have any doctrines, they actually believe in a whole lot of doctrines, and perhaps about 90% of them are faulty – doctrines that they have learned more from Oprah (and Schleiermacher’s imprint in culture), than the Bible. Their pastors untrained businessmen who “know Jesus” but not the Bible.
Of course these perceptions are simply that, perceptions. Whether or not they are fully accurate is not what I’m aiming for – but these perceptions exist for a reason, and are even often validated as corresponding to reality. The bifurcation, though, certainly baffles me. The churches that stand in the middle is few and far between, much less the churches that stand for both doctrinal purity and a community of fellowship.
And that third way is exactly what we need.
Reformed theology is a theology which seeks to stand under the Bible. Its a theology that argues that the God of Christianity is a big God who is in control of absolutely everything and who nevertheless stoops down to relate with humanity. Reformed theology argues that every person – Christians included – would be under the wrath of God, and it teaches a radically low view of the human ability to do any form of good. Hence, Reformed theology, by entailment, emphasizes that nothing could be done by any human being to merit any divine favor whatsoever. The Christian is the one who has faith in a Christ who totally saves – and that faith itself is viewed not as a product of the Christian’s will, but as a result of divine election which produces the desire. The Reformed doctrines are crafted, according to Scripture, to render us dependent upon the Lord, to produce further humility, compassion, and love to our fellow non-believers because the Reformed are supposed to understand that, were it not for the love of God, they really are no better than anyone else. Everyone is in the same depraved boat. The Reformed Christian knows that he is a sinner above all else, and that Christ is all in all. The Reformed Christian knows that in union with Christ the whole church must work as a whole body in love and in truth. Reformed theology and a community of love go hand in hand. The theology is the foundation, the love as the organic implication. So why this stark perception?
The Reformed knows that we will only fail to love if we proclaim a God who is much less than the God of the Bible. The Reformed knows that the only way to love well is to remind others of the reality of the wrath of God which hangs over every person apart from Christ. The Reformed knows that without this reality the crucifixion of Jesus Christ becomes incomprehensible, and the love of God would become cheapened. The Reformed knows that what is loving is to teach the whole counsel of the Word of God, and that the doctrines that come from that Word must be the foundation for the church (2 Timothy. 1:8-13). Why all of this must be put in place of a warm loving community continues to baffle me, for such a community to exist truly, in a Christian manner, must exist because it is nurtured by this fountain. We argue that fellowship grounded in vagueness is itself not a truly Christian fellowship. But that fellowship itself must exist as a vindication of the truth of that which is taught in the Scriptures.
The oxymoron, therefore, is not between Reformed theology and a loving community. The oxymoron exists when a Reformed people fails to become that loving community.
I’ve seen it happen.
The oxymoron also exists when a vague, faulty doctrine creates a “loving” community.
To the one side, then, let’s show that organic connection between sound doctrine and a community of humility and love. To the other, let’s show how the fellowship they have already so cultivated can only be truly maintained when biblical doctrine is the foundation.
Perhaps what some need to do is to cultivate this in an already existing church from one side or the other. Or perhaps, simply, what is needed is a new plant in an ever-growing city.