I have discovered that many of the big churches in Korea and as far as I know the vast majority of English language congregations in and around Seoul are non-denominational or ‘independent’. This means that Korea is something of an ecclesiastical adventure for me, since I am ‘confessional’.
I am ordained by the Presbyterian Church in America (‘the PCA’). The fact that ‘I am PCA’ signals to people that theologically I am Reformed (or ‘Calvinist’). I have discovered all kinds of sorry misconceptions of what that means. Just a couple minutes of googling will correct most of those, because the doctrine of the PCA is written, published, and accessible to all.
That ‘I am PCA’ also signals that I believe that the Bible says pastors should be men. Note that this does not mean that men should be pastors. Most men should not. I understand this to be the instruction of Scripture. I also understand it to be an unpopular position, and in our culture in particular possibly an offensive one. Sometimes what the Bible teaches meets this sort of resistance in the world, so I am not worried about it.
The fact is that in the first place I went confessional because all of my friends did. I did what everyone around me was doing. But since I touched down in Korea nearly three years ago, I have had to think about it a lot. The result is that I believe I now have some pretty good reasons to be confessional.
The theology of the PCA is the teaching of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. This means that PCA pastors are under the doctrinal care and discipline of those documents, written in England in the 1640s. That sounds specific, maybe even narrow. So let me put it another way: that means that PCA pastors are students of Augustine and Calvin and untold Reformation era pastors and theologians, and hundreds or probably thousands of pastors and theologians who have labored to systematize the teaching of Scripture so that the saving truth of the Bible could be protected, preserved, and proclaimed faithfully for generations upon generations—indeed, so that lesser men such as I could explain the gift of salvation accurately and preach a faithful sermon now and again. And all this is now administered by active PCA elders, holding each other accountable in matters of belief and conduct.
Being part of a confessional denomination, therefore, means being part of something bigger than myself. I am pretty sure that some folks in my community equate ‘Reformed’ with ‘arrogant’. But the fact is that to be confessionally Reformed is to be humble and modest and to say that my greatest accomplishment will be merely to be faithful to Scripture and greater exegetes and theologians than myself. My ministry should be nothing but the active, biblical-critical gratitude of a shepherd-servant of the Christ of Scripture. Anyone can say ‘same here’, but confessional ordination means that this is formalized, documented, and overseen. It is not just self-description.
By comparison the non-denominational church is a confessional, ecclesiastical drop-out, with a theological ceiling is no higher than its own weekly teaching. A church’s doctrinal statement is its theological world. If a church has a statement of faith that you can absorb in a few minutes, then there is little reason to expect that church to lead its congregation in deep, long-term growth. The Christian who desires to know more, which should be every Christian, feels that the only way to do so is to go to seminary—which should be only a few Christians. Folks wanting to learn do not learn at church, so they begin mistakenly to feel called to ministry, and without wise oversight the pattern repeats itself.
I have also found that doctrinally minimal churches seem always to be looking for causes, themes, and exciting events—I suspect that this is because they have so little to say theologically. Exegesis of Scripture, where it happens, has no theological storehouse to draw from and must fall back on moral platitudes or favorite issues. Or it may just be a weak bit of marketing not caused by those shortcomings but perhaps inviting them.
The gospel is simple, in a way, but it is rich. It is so rich that the entire Bible is nothing but exposition of the historic outworking of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ. The entire Bible is, at the end of the day, explanation of Jesus Christ. That does not mean that the Bible is repetitive and boring; it means that the riches of the grace of God in Christ are unsearchable. And as John said, infinitely more could have been written. As one theologian said, through the church God gathers the church. A rich confession is documented room to grow in the truth and knowledge of God—room for both the pastor and the congregation. It is not narrowness or limitation but guidance and provision for greater participation in the grace of God in Christ according to Scripture. The cause is the glory of God according to His grace is Christ; the theme is the salvation from sin and just divine response accomplished by God in the Son and applied by His Spirit; the exciting event is the preaching of that accomplishment and of the coming consummation, the bringing of more souls from darkness to light, and the growth of the church in knowledge and holiness. When all of this is reshaped to emphasize one benefit or duty or another, the faith once received is distorted. This kind of theological ‘independence’ fails in both being and making disciples of Christ.
The doctrinal standards of the PCA—what I believe—can be googled. They are publicly available. No secrets. What I believe, confess, teach, and preach, may be examined in light of Scripture at any time by anyone. And I welcome that sort of scrutiny—not because I have so much confidence in myself but because I value correction according to Scripture and the common cause of biblical faithfulness.
The independent church with a minimal statement of faith keeps its theology undefined, unstated, unclarified. Since it is nowhere written down, it is much more difficult to examine it or test against Scripture or against the great teachers of the church. The theology of the non-confessional church is secret—and so probably unstable and subject to change. It is unformed, and so is likely to include untold errors and unbiblical oddities.
But the theology of the independent church is not untested. It certainly is put to the test, and often. Though is not open for public theological discussion, still it is tested out weekly—week after week—on the souls of the congregants. One theologian wrote:
“A mutilated gospel produces mutilated lives, and mutilated lives are positive evils.”
“Whatever the preacher may do, the hearers will not do without a system of belief; and in their attempt to frame one for the government of their lives out of the fragments of truth which such a preacher will grant to them, is it any wonder if they should go fatally astray?”
But even if those fragments happen often to be more faithful than confused, one can hardly laud the good fortune of happenstance. Even if occasionally that theology is more truthful than misleading, to shrug off coolly the stuff of historic Christian wisdom as regards the teaching of Scripture is a method never worthy of commendation.
At the end of the day I am not sure why anyone would want to be ‘independent’ of the greater body of Christ, to be cut loose from the communion of the saints, the wisdom of the ages, and the discipline of greater teachers. When all the parts are working together, the church grows together into its head, its author and perfecter.
On the other hand English-speaking congregations in Seoul are heavily transient. Foreigners, it seems, either do not stay long in Korea or do not invest much in their churches while they are here. Or both. That represents a special set of challenges for churches, but I still do not see that mirroring this transience doctrinally is the right strategy. I do not see that this is the instruction of Scripture, nor was it the approach the apostles took in their day.