This week we asked OPC Pastor Paul Viggiano to discuss the idea of being both Reformed and normal. Perhaps that seems odd to you, or perhaps you know it’s a much needed topic for us especially in regard to communicating in love and truth to those we seek to reach. On the one hand, we are committed to not being trendy. On the other, it’s easy for outsiders to walk into a Reformed church and feel like they’ve landed on another planet….culturally. For those who don’t know Paul, he is the Pastor of Branch of Hope (OPC) in Torrance, CA which is just on the outskirts of the city of LA. Paul and his church some years back went through a process of becoming reformed in their theology and then transitioning into the OPC. That transition took time. Now, Paul (and his church) have spent years in both the evangelical world and now the reformed and specifically OPC world and we asked him to write on what is means to be BOTH Reformed AND Normal. Here’s Paul:
I don’t remember the movie, just this one scene. Some crazy general had put together an unbeatable army. With bags of confidence they were being transported, in clandestine fashion, via big silver oil trucks through the snow. A demonstration of their force was about to be unleashed.
Turns out the snow was over ice; thin ice hiding a deep lake. They never made it to the field of battle. The trucks, and the indomitable, well-trained soldiers inside, crashed through the glassy, frozen veneer to repose insignificantly on the bottom of a nameless body of water. The power was never delivered.
We are often reminded of the power of God in that great flagship passage which ignited the Reformation.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16, 17).
The gospel is the “power of God”. In this gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed.” Of course, all of this assumes that it is actually delivered. Later Paul will write that “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:16b). The apostle will appeal to the very poetic words of Isaiah and Nahum that we might appreciate “How beautiful are the feet” (Romans 10:15) of those who bring this message. Again, this beauty and power assumes the truck makes it to the battlefield-the battlefield for the souls of men and women.
What is the thin ice on which the beautiful feet might unwittingly slip (or crash through)? As we rumble down the road of evangelism, are we reformed Christians aware of attributes in our own personalities which might unnecessarily impede a listening ear, losing a redemptive opportunity or potential convert?
At times I do enjoy the poetic tones of the King James Version. Other times those 1611 words just don’t fit well into the 21st century vernacular. The word peculiar comes to mind. In 1 Peter 2:9 Peter tells Christians they are a “peculiar people.” Some of us in the Reformed community run with that. We understand peculiar to mean odd or strange when it actually meant to be owned by someone-in Peter’s meaning, owned by God. Have you noticed the reformed community has become peculiar by the new definition over the old?
Who knows what it would have felt like to sit in a pub with Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger or Calvin? I’m guessing in many ways they may have fit right in. These reformers, who carved out western civilization as we know it, had the ears of the people-all kinds of people. So whatever oddities or peculiarities they possessed, it didn’t unnecessarily disenfranchise them. It didn’t unnecessarily remove them from their culture. The operative word here being unnecessarily. No doubt they had run-ins with their culture as Jesus clearly taught good Christians would. But it was a result of the message, not the personalities of the ones delivering it (with the possible exception of Luther).
Paul seemed acutely aware of this in his own ministerial pursuits. Paul was raised in the confines of a tight religious cultus (see Philippians 3:4-6) and became cognitive of how that might not bode well in his quest for souls.
I think it is fair to say that Paul realized that he might be perceived by others as odd. He sought to avoid being peculiar in the wrong way. He reckoned it an act of love and ministry to make the necessary and, likely, uncomfortable adjustments to accommodate those whom he sought to win. Without compromising theology or ethics, Paul sought to “become all things to all men, that [he] might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b). Simply put, Paul considered his audience. Were they Jews, Gentiles, strong, weak, mature, learned, uneducated, etc.? In short, Paul wanted to be appear as normal as possible to whomever he was engaging.
To be sure, once the message is delivered, we must be ready for a variety of responses. It may be received joyfully or thought foolish. But Paul (and I think we are meant to follow his example) didn’t want his social proclivities to cloud his ability to interact.
How did he pull this off?
To become all things to all men requires some understanding of what constitutes a culture. We need to know what people are like. There is little doubt that Paul had an existential advantage in grasping the Jewish culture. But what were some earmarks of the Gentiles, the weak, the uneducated, etc.? He must have been a bit of a student. How did they dress? What form of greeting did they use? What did they eat? What caught their interest? What did they do for work? Who were they reading and how were they being influenced? What were some social norms or faux pas among these various recipients of Paul’s ministerial efforts?
Paul didn’t merely learn; he was also willing to quote if appropriate. In Athens Paul references the influential poet, Aratus (Acts 17:28), who just happened to get something right. It makes you wonder what kind of impression this had upon the philosophically driven Athenians. A modern-day Aratus might be a Bob Dylan or Billie Eilish (if you’re reformed you may have to Google her).
Discarding unnecessary impediments to ministry, such as ignorance of cultural norms is not always easy. We need to know what lines should not be crossed ethically or theologically versus cultural elbow room. I recall one of the first times I publicly shared the Gospel. One of my ministerial partners landed on me with both feet because of my posture. I leaned against a pole while preaching in a gym. My friend viewed that as highly disrespectful! He was from Wheaton. I was from Southern California. At the time we were in Southern California. Most people from Los Angeles wouldn’t give my stance a second thought. Nor is it addressed in Scripture to my knowledge. But I learned one thing: if you ever preach in Wheaton, watch your posture!
The list of issues to consider in our effort to be all things to all men without compromising ethics or theology is virtually endless. How do we dress? Are ties necessary no matter where our mission work might be? Sport coats? If you’re a pastor or evangelist in the Pacific Islands is a Hawaiian shirt acceptable or preferable? Is it permissible to utilize some form of slang in your presentation? Would it sound forced if you did? Would we be found phony trying to be hip? Indeed, seeking to be all things to all men is a formidable task. There is no chapter on it in the Westminster Confession and I don’t recall a class in seminary entitled Normalcy 101.
Being born and raised in Southern California and pastoring a church about three miles from where I went to kindergarten, I feel comfortable in my culture. But when I ministered in China, I read numerous books on that culture and interviewed numerous people on what to pursue and avoid. Frankly, I feel the same when I go to Texas or the deep south. I find myself doing a lot of watching and listening. Sometimes I feel the same way at presbytery, even in Southern California. Our own presbytery can feel like an embassy for the Midwest.
It’s been said that the gospel is offensive enough without our adding to it. We should make every effort to assure that if someone is offended, it is an issue which needs to be worked out between them and God. It should not be due to our own lack of willingness to get out of the way because we’re married to our own cultural habits or tendencies. We should be savvy when it comes to our environment and be as invisible as possible when it comes to distracting from the message.