“Your foundation is sliding. The cracks run all the way through.”
Those are words no homeowner wants to hear. Once the foundation goes bad, there’s little hope. I remember growing up in Colorado Springs and hearing about entire subdivisions in the foothills built unwittingly on sliding layers of clay. It was only a matter of time.
You can’t build a house designed in Illinois on the side of a mountain in Colorado. You can’t take a Victorian era Georgia mansion and set it on the shifting sands of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. A house that lasts is built on firm foundations using applied principles of home construction, structural engineering, and geographical understanding. You can’t just assume that what worked in one place will work somewhere else. You need to know the principles of home building and apply them creatively to the particular situation. Unless you just want to pretend, and you don’t really care if it all slips away.
The same is true of the church.
Jesus taught: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27). False theology does great damage. As J. I. Packer taught, “Bad theology hurts people.”1 A building built on false foundations is an invitation to pain and distress.
As we strive to build flourishing churches, we want to build from the ground up on firm Biblical foundations established in the Reformed tradition, not mimic less-established practices in hopes of repeating success. Our practices in church are built on firm theological foundations. We value Thoughtful Theology, building our practices up from the bedrock. The Lord has “set [our] feet upon a rock, making [our] steps secure” (Psalm 40:2).
Although we walk under a new banner and organize around new presbyteries and new terminologies, we are not new. Even our recent break from the largest branch of the Presbyterian Church in the United States is not an attempt to be new, but to restore our congregations to the great blue line of Presbyterian and Reformed faith and practice as it was established by the likes of Luther, Calvin and Knox. John Calvin most of all. Calvin and the other Reformers were by no means attempting to be new but to be faithful, efforting only to restore faith and practice to the trajectories set by Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Ignatius and all the great minds who contributed to the confessions of the ecumenical councils. These patristic leaders themselves hated to be called new. They were only trying to guard the faith they had received handed down from Peter, James, John, and Paul—they guarded the apostolic deposit. Even Jesus, who is the beginning and end of all we know of God, leaned back as he taught on the history of the covenant people of God showing himself the fulfillment of God’s eternal decrees. New is not what we are after.
When we say we value Thoughtful Theology, we declare our intent to pursue and defend the apostolic deposit of the gospel under the same banners and colors of faithful Christians from every age leading up to ours. We will not march out naïve as though everything we are doing is being tried for the first time, but we will listen and learn from the wisdom of those who came before us trusting their witness and confession. The pursuit of Thoughtful Theology is not an invitation into obscure Christian teachings, but a commitment to be trained in the larger tools of deep Christian thinking developed over ages of debate and exegesis of Scripture. A house can’t be built with shovels and hammers alone. It requires backhoes and cranes and bulldozers. We are committed to learning the larger machinery of theology, the bigger tools for the bigger mission.
We resist the temptation to be new. New doesn’t last very long, and it isn’t as interesting as it promises.
While we resist the temptation to be new, we engage the responsibility to be now.
Our theological underpinnings are built on firm Biblical foundations using applied confessional principles of understanding. You might think that binds us, but it actually sets us free. Faithful theology allows experimental practice. Theological clarity spawns missional creativity. If you don’t know why you gather to sing as a church, then you can’t ever consider altering how you gather to sing. You have no idea what core doctrines or essential strands undergird that practice, and you dare not touch what you do not understand. If you don’t know why you gather in a church building, you have no firm foundations for altering that building. If you don’t know why the sacraments are practiced the way they are, then you won’t be able to discriminate between dangerous deviation and a faithful contemporary expression. It takes knowing why we do the things we do as a church to be able to apply our faith to effective practice in context.
Imagine you are going in for surgery, and the surgeon says, “I haven’t actually learned medicine; I hold no degree and have no medical background, but I’ve seen this work.” Are you confident? Now imagine being that surgeon! Would you be ready to deviate from the plan you’ve seen and memorized, the twelve steps of removing the appendix? Would you feel comfortable innovating to match the situation you found once you opened the patient? No way. Stick to the plan, even if it kills this poor sap. It's all I know.
Without understanding what lies underneath our practices, the most we can hope for is mimicry—we are stuck aping the best practices of other successful church endeavors. But what we need is truly fresh growth, thoughtful and faithful application of the theology of the church to Christ’s call for us today. We want to encourage actual adaptation, genuine innovation, not empty pretense. Our people deserve better. Our Lord deserves better. The world needs the real thing, not a copy.
Being now means knowing we are not new. Being faithful to our theology allows needed innovation to occur in our practice. Being faithful to our theology does not mean we are stuck. It means the opposite. We are free. We are able to move freely across the landscape of church in America knowing what we believe, why be believe it, and feeling confident and ready to build a genuine expression of that same faith in our own place and time.
We are not new, but we are now, thoughtfully adopting the best practices of our times to be as effective as we can be with every effort for Christ.
J. I. Packer was fond of referencing a quote he claimed Charles Haddon Spurgeon would tell his students, “If in your pastorates you are not theologians, you are just nothing at all.”2 Harsh? Unfair? Pastors, if you are unwilling to be the principal theologian in your church who will take that place? Who is it the Lord will send to engage in “uncovering, explicating and communicating the reality of God as he has revealed himself in Scripture”3 if you will not take up the task?
Deeper theological thinking means greater freedom to pursue the mission of Christ to seek and to save the lost in our times. Commit yourself once again to a life of knowing God, and he will release you into greater effectiveness for his kingdom and glory.
1. Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997) p. 284.
2. Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer, p. 256.
3. Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer, p. 183.