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New Horizons

Chronicles of a Reforming Church: Part 1: The Transition of the Elders

Paul Viggiano

Circa 1992, I took a deep breath and set to preaching through the book of Revelation—how difficult could it actually be? I raced along swimmingly for about four or five chapters (really only three) before I was greeted by a conscience-condemning experience right in the pulpit. The convicting episode had to do with me allowing a commentator to have more influence over my opinion than he should have.

Commentaries are valuable tools. Consulting a commentary is like having a conversation with an erudite scholar holding well-thought-out biblical convictions. But when you get right down to it, it's still just somebody's opinion. I was preaching on a passage that I didn't truly understand. I figured this commentator, since he wrote a book, must have had a better grip on the issue than I, so I just took his word for it.

I quoted the verse in Revelation and then the commentator for the explanation of the verse. In set the guilt. The commentator's opinion didn't make sense when I read it in my study, and it didn't make sense (at least to me) when I read it from the pulpit. What do you do in the middle of a sermon when confronted with the sad reality that you don't know what you are talking about?

I cancelled the rest of the sermon and explained to the congregation the values and dangers of commentaries, using what they had just witnessed as a supreme example (of the danger). I then introduced the closing hymn. Church ended early that day. Sadly, no one complained—at least for a while.

Within a couple of weeks, a man and his wife approached me, wondering how I couldn't see how obviously correct the commentator was in his interpretation of the passage. "I'm not saying he's wrong," I explained. "I just don't see how he makes the connection." The man's wife responded with a commentary of her own: "That's because you're a blockhead!" Granted, but even blockheads are dependent on sound reason—within the boundaries of our limited blockheadedness.

I didn't have an alternative opinion—I didn't even know that one existed. I just didn't see how the commentator's statement made sense of the passage. The man and his wife decided that our church needed help, so he made flyers explaining that our church was a cult and I was the cult leader.

I didn't like that.

Were We a Cult?

One of the great side effects of an accusation like this is that it really motivates you to study. There is nothing like being called a cult leader to awaken you from your theological slumber! But since it takes more than a few weeks to master theology, we still needed to deal with the looming accusation of being a cult.

We had an elders' meeting to discuss the issue. "Brothers," I submitted, "we've been accused of being a cult." After allowing time for eye rolling and frustrated exhaling, I decided to put a challenge before our elders: "So, how do we know we're not?"

After all, we were a nondenominational church called Branch of Hope, located in Torrance, California. I'm pretty sure that every church in our section of the Yellow Pages had cultic affiliations. I didn't think we were a cult. But just what were we? Where did we stand in the history of the church? We believed the Bible was God's word, but everybody said that—even the cults. This short stint in Revelation forced our hand. It would appear that eschatology, though perhaps not a central article of faith, exposes what's under one's theological bonnet—it certainly did for us.

There we sat in our elders' meeting, trying to figure out why we weren't a cult. We had all been Christians for years. We had degrees from Christian institutions, and some of us had served in full-time Christian ministries, but the answer was not immediately forthcoming. One elder then made a recommendation, something I'd never heard of. "Maybe we should consider becoming confessional." "Great!" I thought. "He wants us to become Roman Catholic." Where would we put a confessional? I didn't know the script. Father Paul? I think not.

"No," he explained with great patience, "maybe we should think about studying and adopting one of the ancient confessions—they're kind of like extended statements of faith, but they've been around for hundreds of years, withstanding the scrutiny of the ages. They're generally utilized as a test of orthodoxy." He had our attention.

Discovering the Westminster Confession of Faith

Somehow we came across G. I. Williamson's commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Fortunately, you don't have to be a genius to recognize genius. We all recognized the genius of the Westminster Confession. We felt like the Israelites who wept at the reading of the law after the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. There was a collective, "Who's been hiding this from us?"

Embarking upon a study of the Westminster Confession of Faith was a rich pursuit for the elders—all of whom felt some of the pain of the cult accusation. We were already Calvinistic with respect to soteriology (salvation), but that was about where our Reformed distinctives ended.

We gradually began to feel the muddy puddle of errors in which we stood—theological positions we held by default because we had never heard or read the alternatives. Popular theology churned out by famous authors, rather than well-formed creeds and confessions, had won us over. We were almost all dispensational, antinomian, baptistic, evidentialist, soft Pentecostal, nonliturgical, nonregulative, etc. In short, we were stuck in a quagmire of theological confusion.

I remember, as a child, riding with my family through Nebraska (I think) and noticing huge fields of what looked like weeds. My father told me it was wheat. To me it looked like it was growing wild. As we drove on, my father said, "Look now." From the different vantage point, I was able to see the perfect rows of plants—the orderliness of the farmers became much more evident. There was a similar experience in studying the Confession.

As we studied the Westminster Confession and other Reformed confessions and catechisms, we began to see the order of God's Word much more clearly. We didn't have to ignore last week's passage in order to make sense of this week's passage. The consent of all the parts of Scripture and the scope of the whole (which is to give glory to God) was jumping out at us. This gave me a fresh appreciation of the importance of teachers. We all thought we were simply Bible-believing Christians, but when it got right down to it, we held views fed to us by the religious media—radio, television, and publishers had become our teachers.

Our elders were now, for the most part, on the same page. It wasn't as if we had a thorough understanding of the Confession, but after a couple of years of study, it certainly was assuming a proper place as a secondary standard for us.

The Rest of the Church

But what about the rest of the church? Our roots were Foursquare—a charismatic denomination started by Aimee Semple McPherson. We had a couple hundred members (we didn't really have membership—but if you were in the church directory, you had achieved membership) who might not be as thrilled about this epiphany as the elders.

Most of our church members, like our elders, had viewed the religious media as their de facto doctrinal authorities. This became apparent to me when I disagreed with a position held by the well-known and highly marketed Kay Arthur. A woman approached me after church to lovingly chastise me for disagreeing. Her words were telling: "Pastor Paul, I think you're in rebellion." I was in rebellion against Kay Arthur! There was a huge task ahead of us. How would we go about sharing the rich blessing that we, as elders, had experienced in our recent studies, without decimating the church?

This article is the first in a three-part series on the transition of a congregation from the Foursquare Church into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The author is pastor of Branch of Hope Church in Torrance, Calif. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2010.

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