Smorgasbord Christianity

Most of us at one time or another have eaten at one of the restaurants containing a table displaying a variety of foods from which each patron selects wllatever appeals to him and ignores the rest. Listening to a speech the other evening suggests the observation that the view of the Christian faith and the Christian church prevailing in our circles increasingly begins to resemble such a smorgasbord.

Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, speaking at the Oakdale Park CRC in Grand Rapids, was giving us, in interesting and sometimes entertaining fashion, his evaluation of the AACS movement. That evaluation, he explained was based on the historical observation that there have long been in our Reformed circles, and continue to exist to the present, three distinct, fundamental patterns of life. These he characterized as (1) Pietism, (2) Doctrinalism and (3) Kuyperianism. One belongs to one or the other group depending on whether he stresses: (1) personal piety, (2) pure doctrine, or (3) the reformation of society. The speaker stated that his grandfather was a Kuyperian, his father was a doctrinalist and his grandmother was a pietist. He himself was a Kuyperian. Being a Kuyperian he felt a kinship for the men of the AACS who are also Kuyperians. Although he had some serious criticisms of the AACS movement, especially because it really denies that the word of God is God “speaking” (and uses some deplorable tactics), he felt that these diverse patterns of life have been with us for a long time and we ought to become more tolerant of such differences and learn to live amicably with one another.

(In obvious harmony with this viewpoint is the leading role Dr. Wolterstorff has taken in the organization within the last year or so of the “Church of the Servant” a new congregation of people who wanted to establish a pattern of church life different from any they found in the existing area churches.)

How shall we evaluate the trend, ably advocated by the speaker, and followed by an increasing number of people throughout our churches, toward making of the church a collection of diverse patterns amid which everyone is free to choose what he likes—a smorgasbord?

We ought, first of all, to recognize that there is a great deal of legitimate variety in real Christian life. That is in part traceable to the extreme variety in personalities and abilities as the Lord has created and allotted them. This has not always been recognized and Christians have had to be reminded of it. We recall the Apostle Paul’s reminder to the church at Corinth. In that church “contentions” arose as Chris· hans began to follow too exclusively one or another individual leader, saying, “I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas . . . .” (I Cor. 1:11,12). The Apostle had to correct such “childish” behavior by reminding the Corinthians that all these men were servants of Christ, “each as the Lord gave to him” (3:1, 4, 5), and that the church must learn to appreciate and profit by the labors of all of them because what was being accomplished was not really the work of men but of Christ (verses 6,21). We must learn to appreciate more fully than any of us does the vast range of God’s gifts. “Wherefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; whether Paul; or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (21–23). We must all learn to appreciate more broadly; and, as the Apostle Peter teaches us, all even became “good (or, literally, beautiful) stewards of the manifold (literally, “many-colored”) grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).

Doesn’t this teaching of the Bible seem to support the view proposed by Dr. Wolterstorff and others, what I have called the “smorgasbord” view of the church? It does not. In fact, it really opposes choosing between such party patterns. Consider for a minute the three patterns into which the speaker divided the church, (1) the pietists, (2) the doctrinalists and (3) the Kuyperians, from which each presumably may choose for himself which emphasis he prefers. Does the gospel ever permit any Christian to make that kind of choice? Doesn’t every Christian have to stress piety or godly living, whether he likes to do so or not? The Bible enjoins us to “follow after . . . the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). That “pietist” emphasis may become unpopular. The CRC may even eliminate it from her new form for public profession of faith as it drops the promise “to forsake the world, to mortify your old nature, and to lead a godly life,” but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the Lord has now made this an optional extra that one may choose or pass up at will. A Christianity without a real concern for holy living, the Lord says is a fraud. Abraham Kuyper repeatedly warned very sharply against any kind of “Kuyperianism” among his followers that would lack this indispensable personal piety. (Preface to Pro Rege, vii; cf. also E Voto, I, pp. 262–264.)

Similarly, we must ask whether the Bible permits any Christian to refrain from stressing “sound doctrine.” Paul had to warn Timothy (and us) against this very tendency to downgrade doctrine, “I charge thee in the sight of God, and Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will tum away their ears from the truth, and tum aside unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:1–4). In that situation it is not enough to Ie.we room for some “doctrinal” emphasis, in case somebody still wants it, with the notion that Christians are at liberty to take it or leave it. A Christianity without the “sound” (literally “healthful”) doctrine is sick or dead.

In the same way we need to ask whether the Bible gives us any choice regarding whether we will or will not bring the faith of the gospel into practice in all the different areas of public as well as personal life. Christ commanded the church to go into the world evangelizing, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).

Paul in preaching “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” “shrank not from declaring” “anything that was profitable” and “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:20,21,27). The gospel as the Lord gave it and as the apostles preached it encompassed the whole of life so that every Christian is enjoined, “Whether . . . ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

The notion that we are at liberty to select some part or pattern of the Christian faith that happens to appeal to us and ignore the rest, in the way one selects dishes in a cafeteria, is a radical misunderstanding of that faith. It dismembers, and if carried through, destroys that faith just as effectively as trying to dismember our bodies would do. Paul points out in Ephesians 4 that we must aim at the complete development of every Christian. The church offices are designed to help us attain that purpose, “till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Paul labored “to present every man perfect in Christ” ( Col. 1:28).

B. B. Warfield writing of this biblical wholeness and comprehensiveness of the Christian faith (which is what he meant and we mean by the word “Calvinism”) described the real situation in this way: “There are not many kinds of theism, religion, evangelicalism, each with its own special characteristics, among which men are at liberty to choose, as may suit their individual tastes. There is but one kind of theism, religion, evangelicalism, and if there are several constructions laying claim to these names they differ from one another, not as correlative species of a more inclusive genus. but only as more or less good or bad specimens of the same thing differ from one another” (Calvin and Augustine, p. 492).

Our view of the Christian faith and the Christian church must not be permitted to degenerate into such a smorgasbord of human options from among which we choose according to taste. One can only hold such views to the extent that he no longer sees or hears the larger calling and commands of the church‘s Lord. These one-sided emphases and errors are the results of our ignorance and sin. “We know in part.” The Lord by His word is delivering His church from these weaknesses and sins. We must have our weaknesses and errors corrected and grow toward a mature Christian faith and life by obeying His word.

Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.