The following article on Pilgrim Covenant Church of Singapore appeared recently in The Straits Times newspaper:
“The church sings psalms from a 1650 Scottish hymn book in a room without adornment. There are no instruments.
Pastor J. J. Lim, 46, exhorts the congregation of 150 at Pilgrim Covenant Church, perched on stackable plastic chairs, to obey God rather than bend to modern society’s norms and noise.
In 1999, the former software engineer founded the church, which desires to live right by being rooted in Biblical truths. ‘We are taught how to worship in the fear of God rather than merely for carnal enjoyment,’ he says.
‘We are taught how to respect and obey our civil authorities. We are taught to do good works and how to deal with disappointments in life. We are taught how husbands and wives ought to relate to one another.’
Such an emphasis on upright living flows from searching the Bible and the Reformed statements of beliefs, mainly the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is regarded as an accurate summary of the Bible covering all aspects of church, society and family life. ‘It teaches us who God is, and what duty God requires of man. It points us to the Holy and Sovereign God, and to Jesus Christ our Saviour,’ Pastor Lim explains.
Reformed churches are a spectrum of Protestant denominations established in 16th-century Europe. They were part of the Reformation, a radical time when reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin opposed the doctrines and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Theologian Simon Chan of the Trinity Theological College notes: ‘Reformed churches are a mixed bag ranging from purists like the Bible Presbyterians to the majority of Presbyterians in Singapore who are quite indistinguishable from other ‘mainstream’ Christians.’
Some Reformed churches want to return to the ideal of John Calvin’s 16th-century Geneva, where he was influential as a church reformer. ‘It presupposes that that period was the unsurpassed high point of the Reformation.’
Core Reformed beliefs include the sovereignty of God, and that salvation depends on God’s grace and not man’s merit or effort.
At Pilgrim Covenant Church, roots and anchors are important. Says its deacon, Dr. Fong Chee Wai, a biomedical scientist in his early 40s: ‘We live in a world that is changing constantly – our physical, social, economic and cultural environment evolves so fast due to Singapore’s openness to the world.
‘However, it is important that we hold firmly to our Christian values and principles, and not let our secular life dictate our worship and view of God.’
Sometimes, the pervasive sense of roots slips into speech. Pastor Lim prays in Elizabethan English with words like ‘thee’ and ‘thy’. When asked, he smiles good-naturedly and says he grew up in a Bible Presbyterian church that used the King James Bible translated in 1611. ‘We naturally speak in King James English when we address the Lord. But that is not essential. Prayer is an outpouring of the heart. I relate to God as sovereign, before whom I show deep reverence.’
Members of the more back-to-roots Reformed coterie know what to say when fellow Christians think their churches are strict or boring. Student Sarah Lim, 15, who attends Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church, says the Reformed life is ‘invigorating and passionate’ – whether she is studying the life of unrelenting reformers or bonding with friendly church mates of all ages over sports, picnics, and Bible study.
Certainly, Mr. Jeff Low, 26, from Pilgrim Covenant, leads a life steeped in beauty. The administrator of a contemporary Western art gallery is trained in classical guitar. His repertoire runs from classical to Spanish flemenco, and he has danced the tango for years.
While music is his passion, he can appreciate singing without instruments from the 1650 Psalter or hymn book. Unlike modern versions, it contains only biblical psalms arranged for singing.
Dr. Fong Choon Sam, dean of academic studies at the Baptist Theological Seminary, discerns both roots and constant reform within the movement. ‘In their time, reformation ideals were radical and almost anti-institution,’ he says.
But there is a Reformational saying that ‘the church is always in reform’. So the younger generation is taking this up, and saying the modern church needs reform all over again. ‘So yes, there is a need to return to some old things.’
Meanwhile, Pastor Lim prays that more Singaporeans, always busy, with no time to reflect, and seeking instant gratification even in church, will ‘return to the old paths’.
He says: ‘Unless we return to God for stability, we are essentially left with shifting sand.’
by Lee Siew Hua
ORIGINS: The first Reformed churches were established in Switzerland, and they spread in Europe during the 16th century. They were one branch of the Protestant Reformation, ignited when reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin opposed the doctrines, practices and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. New Protestant churches were birthed in this religious upheaval.
TRADITIONS: Reformed theology is expressed in statements of belief such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, deemed an accurate summary of doctrines and covering all aspects of church, society and family. The more austere churches limit their music to Biblical Psalms and exclude instruments.
BELIEFS: The movement emphasises God’s sovereignty, and that it is God’s grace that powerfully saves and regenerates sinners – salvation is not based on man’s merit.
IN SINGAPORE: Reformed churches are a spectrum of denominations ranging from purists like the Pilgrim Covenant Church and Bible Presbyterians to the majority of Presbyterians, now quite indistinguishable from other mainstream Christians.”