I was intrigued by the news release, which says:
In the newly released Church Reformed, (published July 2019, Warhorn Media) Pastor Tim Bayly draws on over 35 years of ministry to address the failures of the American evangelical church. As he exposes the lies Christians have believed, he shows how the Church is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
Evangelical publishing has had a field day presenting solutions to the modern crises in our churches. As church attendance falters, books multiply—books on growth, strategies for reaching millennials, new models of doing church to appeal to youth, and on and on ad nauseam.
Too many of these models take their cue from the very trends and ideas that have caused the problems. But what if there was a way to climb out of the hole we’ve dug? What if the church found the power to attract people we thought we’d lost—just by returning to a humble, biblical pattern of church life?
Church Reformed is a call to embrace what we see modeled for us in the Bible and by our fathers in the faith across church history. It's a call to be committed to the Church that Jesus Christ bought with his own precious blood. As Tim says,
"Jesus loves the Church, and we should too."
I certainly agree that there is a veritable publishing industry built up around books, strategies and models for church growth and "getting the young people back in." I'm also of the firm belief that decline in church attendance and influence in North America is the result of demographic and cultural changes that no one model or strategy is going to reverse. So I was interested to read what Tim Bayly, who is senior pastor at Trinity Reformed Church in Bloomington, Indiana, has to say.
Bayly begins by stating that "one of the legacies Evangelicalism has bequeathed to Christians today is growing separation between becoming a Christian and becoming a member of the Church of Jesus Christ." I wholeheartedly agree, although with the caveat that I also encounter lots of people who claim membership in the Church while not having been active in the Church for years. But as Bayly says, the Church is no longer viewed as essential to Christian growth as, for instance, conferences, Facebook groups, music, podcasts, Christian books, and so on. The age-old temptation of believers - one we find reflected even in patristic writings, 15 centuries old, not to mention C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters and many other works - is to think that people will come to faith more easily if they can avoid all the drama of the Church: infighting, hypocrisy, abuse of authority.
Church Reformed is, in Bayly's words, a call to return to our Mother the Church and love her - to put it another way, to commit ourselves as disciples of Jesus to involvement in a local community of faith and to the authority, accountability, deep relationship and, yes, even discipline that comes with it. "Jesus loves his sheep. He expects His servants to love them also. How can we claim to love Jesus while turning our noses up at the smell of His flock?"
Bayly goes on to look at who is the Church, grounding his own writing in the words of scripture and the Reformers, specifically Martin Luther and the Westminster and Belgic Confessions (coming from a Reformed tradition myself, I appreciated this). He follows this with one of two very helpful chapters on sacramental theology, this section dealing with baptism, how we enter the Church. The book then moves into its second part, what does the Church do, with four devotions (found in Acts 2:44-47) that were the priorities of the apostolic church: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Each has its own chapter, with that on the breaking of bread, the Lord's Supper, being the second in the book on sacramental theology. Bayly proceeds in the book's third part to examine threats to the Church: naiveté, hypocrisy and "gathering goats." This last chapter critiques the modern Christian emphasis, at least in North America, on money and numbers as measures of church growth and "success"; "what we're really saying," Bayly comments, "is that we want to do whatever we can to add people without having to discipline, feed, rebuke, clothe or love them."
So I appreciated Church Reformed, with its grounding in scripture and the Christian, specifically Reformed, tradition, and its call to commitment to the local faith community with all its blemishes and joys. But at a few points Bayly's writing irked me. One of his main points is his preaching against schism; the local church may have many defects and sins, but the believer must remember that while the Church has never been perfect, Jesus owns her, and He is the one who says He came for sinners. Bayly says in one moving passage about the experience he and his wife had one local church, "that church was beautiful, and it was as weak and needy and sinful as we were. (It) loved us despite how weak and needy and sinful we were, and we loved her back."
But a few pages prior to this story, he writes in criticism of readers who say that "no church should ever be given up on and that's the reason you're still in your pro-abortion, pro-feminist, pro-gay church of Satan." So what is the dividing line? When is a church too "weak and needy and sinful," in his view, for followers of Jesus to continue to be members? Bayly himself admits that he and his spouse attended a church that had women elders, even though he is a strong complementarian, writing in the chapter on apostolic teaching about the issue of women elders and staff in congregations, and stating that "the real test of our devotion to the teaching of the apostles is whether we use the pulpit to call the women of the congregation to submit to their husbands."
His disdain for mainline Protestant churches is evident throughout, even for denominations that come from the same Reformed tradition. He was in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at one time, which he describes as having "deeply wicked" pastors and elders who endorse "the slaughter of the unborn" and "fornication, adultery, sodomy, and every other form of sexual perversion." Elsewhere he claims that "it is true that mainline churches have abandoned all pretense of fidelity to Scripture," and introduces his writing on prayer during worship by saying that "I'm not talking about liberal churches, but conservative congregations who would see themselves as committed to the Bible and to the Lordship of Jesus Christ."
Being ordained in what he calls a "church of Satan," a denomination with a Reformed heritage which has had women and LGBTQ people in leadership for decades and at one time saw itself as "liberal evangelical," I have to push back. Bayly may not think that mainline churches have any commitment to the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus, but I am surrounded by clergy and lay colleagues with a deep love for the Trinitarian God, who proclaim that Jesus is Saviour and Lord, and who invest many hours in studying, pondering and praying about the Biblical text so they can preach in a way faithful to the Reformers who made the sermon the centrepiece of worship. I utterly reject that mainline Protestants have abandoned fidelity to scripture - in fact, I am so tired of hearing this that whenever I come across it on social media I ask for details. Did the person making this criticism hear this directly in a sermon or read it in a publication? If so, how is it unfaithful? Are they simply repeating something they believe, or do they have evidence for this claim?
And I was struck that Bayly devotes six pages of his chapter on prayer to the elements of Reformed Lord's Day worship from the 16th century: call to worship, prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, the Ten Commandments, psalm or hymn, prayer for illumination, scripture reading, sermon and closing prayer, pastoral prayer and Lord's prayer, psalm, Lord's Supper, and blessing. He calls on modern evangelical pastors and elders to study the order and wording in worship during the Reformation and how the Reformers returned practices to those of the early Church. But who uses this liturgy today? Mainline Protestants. The service outline he presents is basically the one I use every Sunday, and very similar to that set out in The United Church of Canada's worship resource Celebrating God's Presence as a pattern of worship common to all Christians. Bayly would find that "churches of Satan" like ours, the United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other mainline churches are the most faithful to Reformed liturgical practice.
Bearing this in mind, any Christian, whether or not they are in church leadership, can benefit from reading Church Reformed in order to orient themselves to loving and participating in Christ's Body through the local church - remembering that in some instances the author assumes that his own interpretation of scripture and tradition is the correct, and only, one.