What Does It Mean to Be “Reformed”?

If you are an ethnic minority, and self-identify as “Reformed,” chances are you haven’t always identified with this label. If you’re like me, equally likely are the chances that when you “became Reformed,” you were unnecessarily flamboyant and obnoxious about it! How many times have you met another believer, and asked him or her, early on in the conversation, “So, are you Reformed?”

We’ve all done this, and we’ve all heard a variety of responses.

Some responses entail what the person believes:

  • “Of course! I totally affirm the 5 solas.”
  • “Yes, I believe in God’s complete sovereignty and the doctrines of grace (TULIP).”
  • “Yes, dispensationalism is whack! Not all Israel is Israel. Amill all day, baby!”
  • “Yes, I subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards.”
  • “Yes, I love it when my pastor sprinkles babies!”
  • “Yes, the seeker-sensitive movement and the emerging church need to be put down!”
  • “Of course, Christ-centered expository preaching > moralistic topical preaching!”
  • “Yes, complementarianism for life!”

Some responses entail who the person identifies with:

  • “Yes, I love John Piper, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, John MacArthur, and even Mark Driscoll!”
  • “Yes, I love Calvin.”
  • “Yes, I love Bavinck.”
  • “Yes, I love Hodge.”
  • “Yes, I love Karl Barth!”

Other responses entail where the person worships or studied or what community they identify with:

  • “Yes, my church’s denomination has the word “Reformed” in it.”
  • “Yes, I went to Princeton Theological Seminary.”
  • “Yes, I went to Calvin Theological Seminary.”
  • “Yes, my church belongs to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).”
  • “Yes, I went to Westminster Theological Seminary.”
  • “Yes, I went to Covenant Theological Seminary.”
  • “Yes, I went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.”
  • “Yes, I went to The Master’s Seminary.”

Sometimes there’s that awkward response:

  • “What is Reformed theology?”

But, in my humble opinion, the best response is:

  • “What do you mean by that?” or…
  • “Sorta…It depends… Do you mean with a capital ‘R’ or a little ‘r’?”
  • “I’m Reformedish, depending on who’s asking.”

In my experience, there are those who have a black and white definition of “Reformed,” and those who see being “Reformed” on more of a spectrum.

Some, who prefer a black and white definition, want a confessional definition of “Reformed.” Unless you subscribe to the Reformed confessions, you aren’t “truly Reformed” (TR). Examples of people who tend to think this way are R. Scott Clark, Carl Trueman, and DG Hart. However, most of the ministers in my own local presbytery have exceptions with regard to the Westminster Standards. Dr. Vern Poythress, himself, has over 90 scruples. Does this mean that even ordained ministers of the PCA are not Reformed? DG Hart would probably say that they weren’t, but should we agree?

Others have a black and white definition that is broader and more inclusive. They follow the definition of “Reformed” that you can find in Wayne Grudem’s sytematic theology. Basically, according to Grudem, to be Reformed is to be a Calvinist (however you define that). In this camp you would find men such as John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and their New Calvinist progeny. This significantly broadens the definition of “Reformed,” and tends to shift the focus onto soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Ecclesial concerns regarding church government and liturgy are pushed aside, and core doctrines, such as the Trinity, are assumed at best, and opened up for discussion at worst.

And then there are others who see being “Reformed” as on a spectrum ranging from, perhaps, baptistic 4-point Calvinist to cigar smoking minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). This is where I find myself. I’m a spectrum guy. Though under care in the PCA, I’m no expert on the Westminster Standards, I prize my evangelical identity more than my presbyterian identity, and would probably even feel more at home in SBC churches that sing some Hillsong than in OPC churches that sing only unaccompanied psalms. I’m Asian, only drink a little, don’t smoke, and couldn’t grow a beard if I tried. So…sort of Reformed… ish… I imagine that this is the experience of many ethnic minorities who didn’t grow up in a “Reformed” church.

While RM highly regards the confessional nature of the Reformed tradition, insofar as we believe that the Reformed creeds and confessions (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Three Forms of Unity, and the Westminster Standards) represent the central teaching of Scripture, RM praises God for the recent “Reformed” resurgence, or the “young, restless, and Reformed” New Calvinist movement, apart from which many of us on the margins of Western theological discussion might never have been introduced to the deep riches of Scripture.

RM makes no authoritative claim on what it means to be Reformed. However, seizing the opportunity of our contemporary evangelical context regarding the various definitions of “Reformed,” we hope to open up charitable dialogue amongst all who self-identify as “Reformed” in order to benefit from the multiple perspectives of Christ’s church. Sorry for disappointing you by not giving a definitive answer to the question I posed in this post’s title.

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Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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