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“1My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?,” (James 2:1-4; NASB).
On occasion, we at CredoCovenant have written articles debunking the propriety of what can only be defined in our cultural moment as ethnic partiality. This term seems most fitting for a couple reasons. First, since the modern notion of racism—as many in our day define it—is foreign to the pages of Scripture, it is necessary to find a term (partiality) that describes that sin so that it can be properly rebuked and genuine repentance can be made evident to all. Second, some in our day have applied to the modern concept of racism the extra-biblical, Marxist notion that only those in power can be racist and, therefore, regardless of how ethnically partial a person may be, he or she cannot be labeled a racist. For these two reasons, I have largely expelled the terms race, racist, and racism from my vocabulary and replaced them with two terms that truly do strike at the root of sin, sin that can be objectively defined and rebuked and of which one can satisfactorily repent: ethnic partiality, or ethnic favoritism.
However, today, in posting about social partiality (I used the term clique-ishness actually) in general on a social media website I was asked what I think to be a very important question for Reformed and Reformed Baptist pastors to consider. My social media friend asked:
“Would a nonclique-ish person find a warm, accepting body of believers in your church even if they don’t hold to Federalism as strongly as some? I ask because some seem to place their favorite confession on the same level as scripture and can be quite legalistic about it. Thus a basis for shunning and a superior mindset. Just wondering.”
A pastoral response to such questions requires some nuance here, so I have decided that a blog post is better suited for answering this question than most social media platforms. For many, the fact that I did not simply answer yes or no might be cause for alarm but, pastorally speaking, the heart must be addressed both on the part of the church and on the part of the individual member / visitor. We must recognize that there can be both favoritism and perceived favoritism. There can be both an improper clique-ishness and a proper guardedness in the face of open division.
In reference to the church, I would be very concerned to hear from anyone that our church is clique-ish in any way. I have heard people make remarks about churches, remarks that should give the pastors pause: “Oh, that’s the Family-Integrated Church. I don’t have a family. I’m good.” or “Oh, that’s the head-coverings church. We don’t believe in that.” or “Oh, that’s the hipster church. I wouldn’t fit in.” or “Oh, that’s where all the rich people go. I don’t feel welcome there.” The list goes on. I do not mean to sound haughty in saying this, but I have found Reformed Baptist churches to be some of the most diverse churches in regard to these distinctions, and many others, because they center on their confession of (or testimony to) what Scripture teaches and not these other cultural, preferential, and petty distinctions.
The question arises, then, what about doctrine. Can Reformed Baptist churches be hotbeds of doctrinal cliques. They certainly can, and it is something that they should be very careful to guard against. Subscription to the Confession does not mean that every member has to hold to it in every nuance. For the doctrinal integrity and safety of the church, office-bearers should be required to hold to the church’s common Confession of Faith. The bar for membership, however, is much lower.
What, then, are the criteria for membership? That they be Christian (Trinitarian, Protestant, believing, and repentant), that they be teachable, and that they be peaceable. These are the only criteria for membership, and they should be the only criteria for fellowship as well. As such, churches must labor to foster an environment that is welcoming to all who meet these criteria even down to the way that they speak among themselves about people who disagree with their Confession. This can be a very difficult culture to amass within a church with such well-defined doctrinal statements, but churches must labor toward these ends nonetheless.
Church Members and Visitors
A further question that must be asked in response to this inquiry is what the proper expectation of individual members and visitors ought to be. In this case, I must put myself in the shoes of a man who is seeking a church. Let’s say that I am in the military and I am stationed for three years in a small town where there are no Reformed Baptist churches and the church that holds to a Confession most closely to my own is a Presbyterian church.
The first question I must ask, were I to consider joining this church, is in regard to my own humility. Am I humble enough and teachable enough to sit under teaching that disagrees with where I land on very important matters of doctrine? On the other hand, do I have the fortitude to sit under doctrinal teaching that does not align with my own beliefs and avoid sowing division and discord among the brethren? If I have not wrestled with these questions, I will certainly find myself in open disagreement with the teaching before long in which case I have no right to accuse the church of being clique-ish. Rather, I must recognize that I am the one being unteachable and divisive.
I have known many mature brothers to sit under teaching with which they disagreed and keep their tongue for the sake of unity. Did they think themselves to be outcasts or marginalized in any way? I hope not. The Confession is not meant to work that way. It is not meant to force everyone to agree or leave. Rather, it works as a safeguard to keep office-bearers from teaching every form of error and heresy under the sun. You may not agree in-full with the Confession of your church, but most likely there are several others that don’t either. What you do know is that what will be taught from the pulpit is tightly guarded by a Confession that was not developed merely by your pastor during the three years he was at seminary, and it was not merely something put together piecemeal within the last decade and agreed upon locally within your one church. Rather, it was compiled by dozens of divines upon the foundation of Scripture, accounting for the testimony of centuries of church creeds and councils, and subscribed to by thousands of churches from the late Reformation period until today.
In conclusion, any church that uses its confession as a means of clique-ishness should be ashamed. Confessions are meant to unify, not divide. They are a litmus test for office-bearers, not for members. Non-Calvinists, for example, will not always be enthralled at the teaching from the pulpit or in the discipleship class. However, they will know beforehand what to expect and, insofar as they remain teachable and peaceable, they should be welcome at the table of fellowship.