In my labors as a pastor one of the things I learned about people is that they often take great pains to create camouflage for themselves. Like lizards changing the color of their skin so they can hide from predators, people in the church will create camouflage so that others in the church, especially elders and pastors, don’t see the problem areas in their lives. Two examples can hopefully illustrate this point.
The first involved a family that made great vocal claims to being very Reformed. They knew Calvin, the confessions, and were big on letting the session and me know this. They also made a big deal about ensuring that everything that we did was uber-Reformed. They didn’t want to engage in anything that the broader Evangelical church might do. One such thing that they avoided like the plague was Sunday School. Sunday School, I was informed, was an Arminian practice and they therefore did not want to participate. I was somewhat perplexed and told them that I doubted their assertion, but more to the point, I as the pastor taught the adult Sunday School class, usually either covering the Westminster Standards or a book of the Bible, and our children’s Sunday School classes were taught by godly church members with a catechetical-based curriculum. These details didn’t matter. Sunday School wasn’t Reformed enough.
The second example comes from someone who made similar claims to being uber-Reformed. I was repeatedly informed about how long his family had been in Reformed churches—for generations, even back to the “old country.” This family called me and wanted to meet. I agreed to a meeting and brought one of my elders with me. What was the purpose of the meeting? They wanted to complain about my preaching—there were a number of problematic elements such as mentioning the fact that liberal scholars believed that Jesus didn’t create a miracle when he fed the 5,000 but that he stood in front of a cave opening with his large flowing robe and had his disciples toss previously hidden loaves of bread out from behind him all in the effort to convince the doltish masses that they were witnessing a miracle. I mentioned this to show the extreme and silly lengths that unbelievers sometimes go rather than accept the witness and authority of Scripture. Needless to say, my use of such an element in my sermon was “not Reformed.”
Just to be clear, I’m fine with people disagreeing with certain practices in the church. I’m also ok with people criticizing my preaching. As a pastor, you have to accept these things very quickly—disagreement and criticism. But in both of these cases the families were hiding things—in the first there was gross immorality and in the second there were massive marital problems. Both families left the church and within months, both families imploded—both marriages ended in divorce. In the case of the latter, as Reformed as they claimed to be, they ended up attending a non-Reformed church. In both cases, I believe that the families put up smokescreens. They tried to prove to others around them how Reformed they were so that people wouldn’t notice their big problems.
The Pharisees had a similar M.O. They made a big issue of tithing their “mint and dill and cumin” but “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). They stood on street corners and prayed very publicly so they would be seen (Matt. 6:1-2). They did many of these things for show so they could hide their sinfulness.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every person who makes a big deal about a particular doctrine or conviction is blowing smoke. But I am saying that many who do so are creating a smokescreen to hide their sin. Whether you’re a pastor or not, keep this in mind. Be observant. Don’t be fooled by the smoke. Know when you’re watching a big-budget movie with lots of special effects but no plot or decent dialog. And don’t be fooled into thinking that you can pull this off yourself. Yes, you may fool people for a time, but sin is like sewage. There is only so much that your life can handle before the drains get clogged and the sewage spews into the streets for all to see. Moreover, in the end, our all-knowing and all-seeing triune Lord knows and sees all who we are, whether before men or hidden in our closets. Live life, therefore, in the knowledge that you do so coram Deo—in the presence of God. Do not change your conduct and appearance for the sake of men. To do so is not only deception but implicitly means that you consider men more important than God, the one who always sees you. Live life consistently—in the pursuit of righteousness and holiness both before God and men.