A Primer on Reformed Theology – And How it Relates to the Subject of Abuse
I was raised, for the most part, in Independent Bible churches and in Conservative Baptist churches. Bible churches are typically not part of a formal denomination, though they may be members of some kind of fellowship of churches. Some Baptist churches are independent while others belong to a denomination such as the Conservative Baptist Churches of America or Southern Baptist Convention. Both Bible churches and Baptist churches share the same commitment to the self-governance of the local church. There is no denominational hierarchy such as a presbytery in the Presbyterian denominations.
But generally there is still another distinction between Bible or Baptist churches and Presbyterian or Reformed Baptist churches, and that difference concerns theology. Generally you will find that independent Bible churches or Baptist churches embrace a “Bible only” theology. That is to say, they usually do not have a particular, historic, confession of faith such as the Westminster or London or Savoy Confessions. They hold to a normally brief statement of faith to be found in their church constitution. I suppose this distrust of the confessions may have grown out of the battle between liberalism and fundamentalism in the early half of the 20th century.
The confessions of faith that grew out of the Protestant Reformation set forth a theology known as Reformed Theology. In contrast, many Bible churches and Baptist churches adhere to what we can call dispensational theology. Not all of them. But probably the majority. You might call dispensational theology “Left Behind” theology because it is the system embraced by the pre-tribulational rapture, Left Behind book and film series.
Hang on. I promise this has a direct bearing on the subject of abuse.
I am a Reformed Baptist pastor. My confession of faith is the London Confession that was published by English Calvinistic Baptists in about 1689. It really is the Westminster Confession of Faith (the confession of the Presbyterian church) with just a few Baptist “tweaks.” It specifies believers’ baptism, for example, rather than infant baptism. So I embrace Reformed Theology. I did not always. I was trained in dispensational theology, although the irony is, I didn’t know that I was for a long time! I went to Multnomah School of the Bible, then to Multnomah Biblical Seminary (Portland, Oregon) because I wanted to study the Bible. But the background of that school is the dispensational theology of Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas (Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Waalvord, etc). It was only in later years of my pastoral ministry that, as I preached a detailed sermon series through Romans that I realized the deficiencies of dispensational theology and came to understand that Reformed Theology was and is a more biblically accurate theological interpretation of the Bible.
Let me list just a few points at which I believe Reformed Theology is more biblical than the dispensational system:
1) Dispensational theology separates God’s program of salvation for earthly, national Israel from his program for the Church. To be sure, dispensationalists vary widely among themselves, so it is hard to make generalizations. But historic dispensationalists taught that there are two programs of salvation. One for national Israel (the Law) and one for the Church (Grace). God’s primary program is for national Israel, for the Jews, while His plan of salvation for the Gentiles (the Church) was a kind of after thought once the Jews rejected Christ.
2) Reformed theology understands that God has one plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. That there is only one Israel and that is the Church. We are all sons of Abraham by faith, we all are circumcised (in the heart) by faith, every Christian is a Jew by faith, there is only one tree in Romans 11 and that is the Church. We do believe that one day there will be a great revival among the Jews (see Romans 9-11), but the result will be that those believing Jews, as always, will be grafted into the one tree — the Church, just like every other Christian.
3) Reformed theology believes that there is still a role for the Law in the life of the Christian today. While we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone through God’s grace alone, the resulting work of the Spirit in regenerating the Christian is to write the Law of God upon our heart. The Christian therefore loves God’s Law and obeys it (though imperfectly) because he/she loves the Law he once hated. Our obedience to the Law is not to earn merit before God (that has already been accomplished by Christ), but for the glory of God whom we now love. So while the Christian is not “under the law” as a covenant that defines his relationship with God (we are in the New Covenant which is of faith, not works), the Law is still applicable to us. This means that every Christian will evidence the fruit of obedience to the Lord, and anyone who professes to be a Christian but who walks in disobedience habitually and without repentance, is a liar. They do not know Christ.
4) Dispensational theology on the other hand has no place of the Law in the Church. They would accuse Reformed folks of being legalists here. And herein is the root of what has been termed “The Lordship Salvation Controversy” we heard so much about back in the mid 1980’s. To his credit, John MacArthur Jr (a dispensationalist) took up his pen and opposed the antinomianism (anti-Law) teaching that was coming primarily out of Dallas Theological Seminary. That teaching said that repentance was not part of the gospel because it is a work. Therefore, to preach faith and repentance for salvation is to preach faith plus works, a message that the dispensationalists claim is a false gospel and anathema. A person, they claimed, is saved only by believing in Christ and that even if a person never bowed their knee in obedience to Christ as Lord, nevertheless they can know Him as Savior and thus they are a Christian! No kidding! That is what those guys were writing in their books (The Hungry Inherit, by Zane Hodges or So Great Salvation by Charles Ryrie). They said that a person can be a Christian, but not be a disciple. Everyone who believes in Christ is a Christian and saved, but not everyone is a disciple who obeys Christ as Lord. Why? Because there can be NO Law at all allowed in the New Testament in the thinking of the dispensationalist.
Do you begin to see how this applies to all the troubles abuse victims suffer at the hands of their churches?
You see, the evangelical church was largely taken over by dispensational theology. Still is, though there is a resurgence of Reformed theology now. And understand, dispensational theology is a newborn. It did not come into existence until the latter half of the 1800’s. Reformed theology is the original. Dispensational theology is the newbie. But the latter is what most Christians today seem to believe.
So let’s get down to the application. If a person can be a Christian yet never obey the Lordship of Jesus Christ, never show any outward fruit of being saved, then we no longer have any means of evaluating a person’s claim to Christ. And that means that abuse victims are going to be guilted and shamed if they dare imply that their “Christian” abuser is no Christian at all! On the other hand, Reformed theology says in agreement with the Apostle John, “If a man says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar.” Reformed theology says that a REAL change occurs when we are saved. That we REALLY are given a new heart. That we REALLY are made into a new creation. Not just “judicially or positionally in God’s eyes” but REALLY! And if that change is not evident, then we have every right to judge that a person is not a Christian.
Reformed theology, you see, (yes – call it Calvinism) is the abuse victim’s friend. Are there Reformed churches that handle abuse cases horribly? Absolutely. But that is not because of the theology they claim to embrace. It is because they do not understand either abuse or their own doctrine!