Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Worldliness: How to Identify and Combat It (2)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
In last month's editorial we mentioned how the 1928 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church dealt with the problem of worldliness. It identified three examples of what it regarded as particularly dangerous forms of worldliness: theatre-attendance, card-playing and dancing. The Synod not only issued a serious warning against these evils, but urged consistories to apply church discipline, be it as last resort.

I stated that while we should have the highest respect for the intentions of this 1928 Synod, the decision made by that assembly was not wise because it singled out three particular forms of worldliness, while leaving out many other expressions of the same evil. Any catalogue of sins, no matter how long and detailed, is bound to be incomplete. The result is that people can easily draw the conclusion that as long as they avoid the things mentioned, everything is all-right with them. The fact is, however, that there are other forms of worldliness which are just as harmful to spiritual life and perhaps even more so than the items appearing on the official list.

This is especially true of sins which are not so obvious and visible and therefore difficult to identify. I'm thinking of the minister who is more concerned about the applause of men than the approval of God. I'm thinking of the elder, who with all his orthodox views, has a cold and loveless heart and does not know the meaning of the word serve. What about the lady who comes to church to show off her new hat or dress or the young man who can't make it to catechism because he has baseball practice; the newly-weds who rely on the pill to keep babies away so they can save and buy all the things they "need;" the gossip who spends hours on the telephone peddling the latest scandal; the Sunday coffee hour where the reverend's sermons are dissected and denounced; the church-consumer who flits from one preacher to another in search of someone who will tickle his fancy; the retirees who can think of little else than where to spend their next vacation. Are these not manifestations of worldliness? Yet they are seldom recognized as such because they are not on the church index.

What is worldliness? It is basically this: a state of mind in which our thinking is governed by the mind and outlook of the world. Worldly Christians are Christians who fail to realize that the whole of their thinking must be Christian and that the whole of their outlook must be spiritual. Worldliness, therefore, has to do with principles before it is concerned with conduct and activity. It is important to keep this in mind when dealing with the question as to whether the church should discipline members who engage in what are thought to be worldly amusements or practices.

The answer is not a simple yes or no. It is true, of course, that once a denomination or congregation has determined that certain things are sinful and censurable, it has to have the courage to enforce it own rules. If, as the CRC in 1928 did say in connection with the well-known trio, and as later the Netherlands Reformed Congregations have said about watching TV, these things are censurable offences, discipline would seem to be in order.

Here is precisely where the problem comes in. Here is where the shoe pinches. May the Church of Christ make such laws and bind them on the consciences of her members? The answer, it seems to me, has to be no. In this connection it is important that we distinguish between rules and laws in our Church Order. We may make new rules, but never new laws. Rules are necessary for "the maintenance of good order in the Church of Christ" (Article 1 C.O.), but human laws have no place in the church. As we read in Article 32 of our Confession of Faith, "We reject all human inventions and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the consciences in any manner whatever."

The Church Order contains both man-made rules and divine laws. The former may be altered at the synodical level (Article 87), but the latter may never be changed. Rules ought to be observed, but laws must be obeyed. So, while the rulers in the Church (the elders and ministers) may make rules, they may not make laws, for that would mean adding to the laws which Christ, our only Master, has given us in His Word. Not even when the church meets in its broadest assembly, the synod, may new laws be made which are binding on the consciences of her members.

Much is at stake here, very much. Man-made laws dethrone Christ as the King of the Church. By such laws Christ is robbed of His royal prerogative as Lawgiver.

It is possible, of course, that such laws are made with the best of intentions and that the motives are pure, as was certainly the case with the decisions of Synod 1928 when it condemned theatre going, playing cards and dancing. That Synod was wrong, however, in making this a new law. Not that those amusements were not sinful--they were and are--although some would say there is room for discussion here.

If they are wrong they are wrong, not because Synod 1928 said so, but because the Word of God condemns such practices. As someone wrote shortly after this synodical decision, "When is there a case of misdemeanour and offensive conduct in the matter of amusements? Is it when one does not heed the admonition of Synod in regard to the familiar trio? Or is it when one leads a worldly life transgressing the laws of God? Surely the latter is true. Yet many people in the CRC for many years following 1928 were afraid to go to movies, play cards or dance because their Synod had forbidden these forms of entertainment. Rightly or wrongly the decisions of Ô28 came to be regarded as prohibitions or laws which, if disobeyed, could lead to church discipline.Ó

Without intending to do so, the CRC, by identifying these three forms of entertainment as sinful, bound the consciences of her members to herself, rather than to Christ Who alone is Lord of the conscience. What happened, in fact, was that the conscience of the church was substituted for the conscience of the individual believer. Whenever this happens you have a reversion to Roman Catholicism. That church, especially during the Middle Ages, thought for the individual, prescribing in minute detail how each member was to conduct himself or herself, and thus destroyed a sense of personal responsibility.

This is always a danger whenever the Church passes laws relative to moral issues and conduct. When a Free Reformed girl on being asked why she does not dance, can only reply, "because my church is against it," that danger is present. When a young man is asked why he doesn't go to shows and can say no more than, "my church forbids movie attendance, we have an example of the same danger. What both should say is, ÒI am a Christian and I don't belong in a theatre or on a dance floor.Ó That would be an indication that they were guided by their own conscience--a conscience informed by the Word of God rather than by some ecclesiastical law.

As I. Van Dellen says in his brochure on Ecclesiastical Decrees: "The Christian must never behave in a certain way merely because the church bids him do so, but he must ever walk conscientiously in the way of God's commandments. He must leads a Christian life, not in obedience to the church, but in obedience to Christ his Lord. Virtue practised because the church commands it is not virtue. Only then is virtue virtue when it is practised because Christ commands it."

Does this mean that the Church should never do anything in the way of disciplining delinquent members? For instance, if a member of the congregation is known to frequent theatres or adult bookstores, should this just be left to his conscience? Of course not. If this is known to the consistory, he should first be warned and if his behaviour does not change, he must be dealt with in the well-known way prescribed by our Church Order.

What about TV, VCR or computers (Internet)? The mere possession of such equipment provides no grounds for discipline, for the sin is not in the device, but in its use. If, however, it is known that a certain member spends night after night watching all sorts of immoral programs, or rents X-rated videos, the consistory would certainly be within its rights to admonish that person, and if he does not heed the warnings he should be asked to abstain from the Lord's Supper which is of course the first step of censure.

Why is discipline called for here? Because in this case the individual is clearly violating the laws of God. Watching immoral films or reading pornographic books and magazines inevitably stirs up fleshly lusts and thus leads to violations of the seventh commandment.

Here is clearly a task for ministers and elders. Both from the pulpit and at family visits the subject of worldly amusements and other forms of worldliness need to be addressed. In this connection let me point to Article 55 of our Church Order. That article says, "The office bearers shall with all the possible means at their disposal counteract the effect of all heretical, revolutionary, and immoral literature and worldly amusements and in the preaching as well as in catechizing and house visitation warn against everything that imperils the purity of the Christian life.Ó

The Church of Christ has always had to deal with the problem of worldliness. The difficulty, however, has always been how to identify and combat it. I've tried to show how to do both. The key here, I believe, is to recognize that sin is never in things, but in persons. Material objects are not evil in themselves. The evil and the sin is in man, in his soul, in his spirit and in his mind. Sin is an attitude, which if not subdued, leads to an act.

Man's primary need, therefore, is that his heart be changed, for out of it are the issues of life. That's why David prayed, "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10). Once our heart is purified and our spirit renewed, our desires will follow suit. They will be refocused. Then, what we once loved we now begin to hate and what we formerly hated now becomes our delight, so that we can say with another psalmist,

Though in a lowly station,
The service of my Lord
I choose above all pleasures
That sinful ways afford.
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