When Preference Becomes Precept
Jeffery J. Ventrella
I remember my first visit to a Reformed church all too well. There I was, very wet behind the ears. Searching the Scriptures had convinced me that the "doctrines of grace" truly summarized the gospel, and I desired with all my heart to worship the sovereign God.
So I searched for a church that confessed these great Reformational truths. I found one. Upon my arrival at the small church, I was "greeted" by a nerdy guy carrying a stack of books. What he lacked in social skills he made up for in aggressiveness. He approached me quickly and started the interrogation: "Are you new here?" Obviously I was. "Do you study theology?" When I said yes, his breathing became labored and he started to sweat. Then came the coup de grace: "Are you infra- or supra-lapsarian?" I replied, "Neither; I'm vegetarian!"but my humor was lost on this poor fellow.
Just What Is Hyphenation?
This story illustrates a sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing phenomenon in today's conservative church circles: the resurgence of the hyphenated church. A hyphenated church is one which, whether officially or unofficially, judges the orthodoxy or at least the "real maturity" of people on the basis of their adherence to a preference that has been elevated to the status of an essential precept. It becomes a litmus test within the congregation.
I speak of a hyphenated church because the "insiders" in it think of their preference as if it were actually appended to their name: "Trinity Church-KJV Only," "Grace Reformed Church-A Politically Active Church," "New Life Community Church-A Homeschooling Fellowship," etc.
Ecclesiastes informs us that "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9). Therefore, we should expect to see such sectarianism periodically. Scripture tells us that there were factions in Corinth that were evidently hyphenated (1 Cor. 3:4), and there were the Judaizers in Galatia. They had added an extrabiblical standard for evaluating spirituality.
Hyphenation has resurfaced again, even as we are seeing a resurgence in churches teaching the doctrines of grace. This is not surprising, for as the church grows, the devil groans.
As numerous children of God have experienced the Spirit's revitalization of their faith, the hyphens have arisen to muddy the waters. Again, hyphens are preferences that have been anointed as precepts, deviation from which leads to disfavor or even discipline. This hyphenation has become a new legalism. Here are some modern-day examples:
This hyphen has lately been gaining ardent supporters. The debate over Bible translations is certainly not new. Although some people have characterized the Greek text used by the KJV as the "ecclesiastical text," the church has in its history recognized a number of textual families.
Since the KJV was not published until 1611, its use could not have been essential to a Christian confession before that timeand thus cannot be essential for us today, either. Furthermore, there are actually two "authorized versions" of the English Bible: the 1611 edition and a later Cambridge edition.
Classical Christian Education
In recent decades, God has granted his church a new interest in rearing covenant children. Many Christian parents have recognized that covenant faithfulness necessitates removing their children from the godless secular schools. Home education and private Christian schools have become common.
Some folks have determined that a particular method of nonstatist education is preferable to others: "classical" education based upon the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic).
But here come the hyphenaters, demanding that their classical approach be used, usually including the teaching of Latin. There may be nothing wrong with this preference, until it is made an ingredient of orthodoxy. Put differently, would you consider yourself a Christian if your children did not attend a classical school? Some advocates of this hyphen would be hard-pressed to answer yes.
Ironically, it was just this scholastic approachwhich imported the philosophical paganism of Greece and Romethat ultimately produced the humanism of the Enlightenment. Who is to say that the reinstitution of this same approach will not lead to the same mistakes? We should not endeavor to re-create the schools of the 1450s any more than those of the1950s.
The "home-everything" hyphenaters usually insist that a family committed to real godliness should have lots of children. Certainly our culture is wrong to reject Scripture's teaching that children are the Lord's blessing. Nevertheless, Christians should not simply advocate whatever the world rejects.
What if the Reformers had simply rejected whatever Rome did, and then did the opposite? They would then have rejected infant baptism, the Trinity, the Nicene Creed, etc. That would have been disastrous, but often Reformed churches today use that very reasoning on the subject of worship: "Since the charismatics use overhead projectors, we must reject them."
Similarly, one cannot determine ethical duties merely by reversing pagan practices: "Pagans drink alcohol; therefore, Christians should not drink alcohol." What then becomes of the Lord's Table? The issue of birth control is far more complex than simply concluding that the admonition to "be fruitful and multiply" requires prolific procreation. It is true that many Christians have swallowed the world's nonsense when it comes to so-called "family planning." The danger of this hyphen, however, is that it establishes judgmentalism within the church, which can only increase when this preference is made a precept.
Many Christians have neglected their covenantal responsibility not to be part of the world. But God has been merciful and gracious in reorienting many believers and transforming their minds. One area in which the world and Satan have certainly undermined godliness is that of dating. Enter the hyphenaters.
"Dating" now becomes an evil which is to be replaced with "biblical courtship." What this exactly connotes is not clear, since even the proponents of courtship do not agree on its details. Do these rules apply to all youth or just young ladies? Just when is the jurisdiction of the young woman's father terminated? What role do the church's elders play in this process? Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith, 24.5-6.
What is clear is that a broken courtship is not considered to be a divorce, which might transgress God's law and thereby preclude a subsequent marriage. Thus, courtship is not really being treated as a betrothal would be (as in Matt. 1:18-20).
Please do not misunderstand. I fully intend to instruct my four boys regarding biblical headship, the honoring of one's (or someone else's) future spouse, the unholiness of emotional involvement without marital commitment, the unwise (and perhaps sinful) practice of serial relationships, and so forth. But this instruction does not need to be called "courtship" to be biblical.
In fact, whether one calls a godly approach to impending matrimony "courtship" or "dating" is somewhat arbitrary. A better understanding of the seventh commandment's prohibitions and requirements would do much to purify guy-girl relationships without hyphenating the church. A man is not prevented from lusting after a woman merely because he "courts," rather than "dates," her. Moreover, one man's (presumably sinful) dating habits could well be another man's (presumably pure) courtship habits. Courtship is really intended to be nothing more than godly dating.
Another hot area for the hyphenaters centers on the Lord's Table. The notion here is that the covenantal head of the household functions as a priest of sorts. He (1) determines who in his covenantal unit may partake, and (2) distributes the bread and wine to those persons. Often, this practice includes serving very young children.
At the outset, it should be noted that this preference prefers error. Paedocommunion is unconfessional. See, for example, Larger Catechism 168-175. Now it is certainly possible that the Westminster Divines were mistaken in their understanding of the Lord's Supper. But, until the church reassesses this doctrine and the Spirit grants a more biblical consensus, this preference ought not to be practiced and certainly should not be elevated to being a precept. Rigorous debate, yes; practice before consensus, no.
Furthermore, both aspects of this practice undermine the authority of the elders. While the family and its head may certainly recommend a member to the elders for examination and possible admission to the Lord's Table, the keys of the kingdom belong to the church and its leaders (Matt. 16:19). The family, though covenantal, is subordinate to Christ's lordship (Matt. 10: 34-37). Christ's lordship in the church is expressed by the rule of the elders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-5).
Moreover, the Bible teaches that there is only one mediator between God and man: Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Because the elders rule in Christ's name, they represent him in their serving of the communion elements. There is no room for the priestly mediation of the head of the household. Only the ordained servant should distribute and administer the elements of bread and wine. Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.3-4; Larger Catechism, 169.
Thus, paedocommunion is a preference that is actually a perversion of the Westminster standards. Again, the Confession could be mistaken, but until the church is granted a different consensus on this issue, we should adhere to our present confessional standards and reject this divisive preference.
Other potential hyphens have also entered today's Reformed churches, such as Y2K preparation and preterism. Whenever we are tempted to make a preference into a precept, we would do well to consider Ephesians 4:1-3: "Walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (NKJV).
Mr. Ventrella, an elder at Sovereign Redeemer Fellowship (OPC) in Boise, Idaho, teaches ethics and apologetics at Bahnsen Theological Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 1999.