“Essentially” Reformed?

June 1, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Sovereign Grace Ministries describes its churches as “essentially Reformed” in doctrine.

That phrase – “essentially Reformed” – is bothersome for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it’s “junk semantics.”  The phrase is NOT a precise use of language whatsoever.  When I’ve dialogued with SGMers, both past and present, many of them really have no clue how the rest of the Reformed world defines what it means to be “Reformed.”  Current SGMers tout SGM’s supposed “Reformedness” proudly.  Former SGMers speak of it wistfully (because they’re often convinced that they’ll never find another church that is “both Reformed AND Charismatic”).

But if pressed, it’s often clear that neither the current nor former SGMer is even positive what he or she means by “Reformed.”

Most of the time, “Reformed” seems to be defined in SGMers’ thinking primarily as having to do with acknowledging the “T” in “TULIP” – Total depravity.  SGMers have been taught to be VERY concerned that humans’ innate and persisting sinfulness is properly recognized as the bottom-line truth of every situation.

But ask them about other aspects of Calvinism (like “Unconditional election,” “Limited atonement,” and the “Perserverance of the saints”) and how those do not seem to get much play within the SGM world, and you’ll be met with all sorts of disclaimers.  “That’s where the ‘essentially’ part of ‘essentially Reformed’ comes in,” they’ll say.

Basically, modifying “Reformed” with “essentially” enables SGM to toss out or de-emphasize whatever they feel led to toss out or de-emphasize…and yet still fly the “Reformed” flag, both to appeal to the “Reformed” seekers doing their research online to find a new church as well as to reassure longtime SGMers of their “sound doctrine.”

[Which begs the question – does SGM also advertise itself as “having essentially sound doctrine”? Somehow, I kind of doubt it.  :D]

So “essentially Reformed” is troublesome because it’s a very imprecise use of language that leads to little but confusion, so that people really don’t even know what “Reformed” means.

The phrase is also troublesome because it gives leaders wiggle room to teach all sorts of non-Reformed stuff and have all sorts of non-Reformed practices…and yet still keep people thinking that SGM is “Reformed,” that SGM holds to the doctrines of grace.

Um, they really don’t. Not really.  Not when the rubber hits the road.

Take the whole child baptism conundrum. SGM’s latest policy limits baptism to those who have exhibited a “believable profession of faith.”  But who gets to define what “believable” means?   Doesn’t that inevitably introduce an unbiblical and completely un-Reformed performance-based element into the process?

But oh yeah, SGM is only “essentially Reformed,” so some performance-based elements are OK…?

A funny little exercise, actually, would be to start tossing around the modifier “essentially” when discussing these performance-based elements of SGM’s actual practices (the “where the rubber meets the road” aspects of SGM life).  Why, for instance, is there no “essentially” in the phrase “believable profession of faith”?  Why not make it an “essentially believable profession of faith”?

Why not, when considering a man’s qualifications for becoming a pastor, introduce the word “essentially”?  With SGM’s stern emphasis on a pastor’s having his family “in order” – which means that his kids must perform, must behave like believers as SGM would currently define believerhood – why not instead say that a pastor’s family must only be “essentially” in order?

The bottom line, of course, is that “essentially” is not used in other contexts within SGM because it naturally leads to ambiguities.

Here is a fun little activity for all you present-day SGMers out there reading this:  today, take some time to define for yourself what “Reformed” means to you…and then do some research to discover what “Reformed” has meant to the church historically.  For extra credit, pay special attention to the aspects having to do with church governance.

© 2010, Kris. All rights reserved.