Reformation Wall, Geneva

The Reformed Tradition

Our Heritage

Our heritage is an integral part of how we understand ourselves. It is something to be treasured and passed on – but it is not always easy to communicate. How our message is understood will depend upon who it is that is speaking, who is listening and the context in which the message is given.

As Christians, our heritage derives from Jesus Christ, as witnessed to in the New Testament. As Reformed Christians, we have particular histories and particular experiences of the way in which life in Christ has been lived out. Even within the Reformed tradition we come from different regions and bring together different strands of Christian life. Together, these diverse strands make up the people and churches of the Reformed heritage.

Diverse sources

Some Reformed Christians trace their ancestry to reformers such as Peter Valdes and John Huss. These early Reformers inspire contemporary members of the Reformed family in Italy, the Czech Republic, and other places.

A new emergence of European Reformers in the 16th century gave birth to other strands of the Reformed heritage. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and John Knox inaugurated developments that have led to a variety of forms of national churches in Europe.

Some carried their Reformed heritage with them when they migrated to new homes in the 17th, 18th and l9th centuries. Their tradition brought them comfort and growth in new lands, and gave them an ethic to contribute to their new communities. There were also negative aspects, however, including the use of their heritage to dominate indigenous cultures and destroy native populations.

Some of us are descendants of people who received the gospel within the Reformed tradition when they arrived in new homes to which they had been forced to migrate. For Africans, Indians and others who were dispersed from their original homes, their original culture influenced the expression of their faith.

A large part of the Reformed movement descends from people who received the gospel from foreign missionaries. These pioneer missionaries often exhibited great courage, perseverance and love as they laboured in other lands. They empowered people by equipping them to read the Bible in their own languages, and strongly emphasised education and health care. The Scripture they brought had crucial liberating power in peoples lives. Often, however, they imposed an authoritarian rule on the churches they founded, discouraging local initiatives to interpret and organise Christian community in ways fitting to local contexts. Missionaries who wanted to facilitate local initiatives were often silenced. The ways in which many missionaries utilised colonial structures are blots on the Reformed heritage. Sadly, such past mistakes are still being repeated in missionary activity today.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the missionary movement was in one direction: mainly from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia or Latin America. Even during those centuries, several new converts quickly took up the missionary work among their people and in their neighbourhoods. For example, in the Pacific, the number of indigenous missionaries during the nineteenth century outnumbered the Europeans. Today, mission moves in both directions, both within and beyond national boundaries.

Reformed churches have emerged from these different strands and experiences. We belong together in the Reformed family, constantly affirming, questioning and challenging aspects of our understanding of ourselves. The Christian message received through these different strands was liberating. People experienced release from bondage, becoming a new creation in Christ. As the people of God, they were called to become agents of transformation in their communities.

Women and men have given outstanding service in all strands of the Reformed movement. The injustice of not recognising the work done by women is a blot on our heritage. Even today, some parts of the Reformed movement continue to prevent women from using their gifts and exercising their calling.

Reformed churches have emerged from these different strands and experiences. We belong together in the Reformed family, constantly affirming, questioning and challenging aspects of our understanding of ourselves. The Christian message received through these different strands was liberating. People experienced release from bondage, becoming a new creation in Christ. As the people of God, they were called to become agents of transformation in their communities.

A shared heritage

Our Reformed heritage is expressed both through written formulas or creeds, and by our sharing in experiences and difficulties. While some churches in our tradition, as a matter of principle, have refused to formulate confessions, many Reformed churches in different times and different social and geographical locations have done so. In the past such confessions have sought to meet the challenges of the contexts in which churches found themselves or to counteract profound aberrations – perhaps even denials – of the Christian faith. Confessions have served to educate and inspire some and to lay down standards for others. Today it is still true that some Reformed communities articulate faith in new statements or confessions.

Our heritage is also expressed through worship and the spiritual life. The sixteenth century reformers emphasised the spiritual formation of a Christian community. They wanted the Christian life to be lived out by all Christians in their many vocations. This understanding of spirituality shapes and enriches the worship life of Reformed communities. Reformed worship emphasises Scripture and preaching. It can be joyful, contemplative, celebrative, structured, or ritualistic. Baptism and eucharist are central in the worship of the Reformed family. In many churches discussions continue concerning the meaning and mode of baptism and the frequency of celebrating communion.

The office of elder is also an expression of the life and witness of our Reformed heritage. In recreating the office of elder, the early reformers widened the scope of ‘ordered’ ministry within the church. Elders have fulfilled a significant role in the formation of the spirituality of congregations.

Our Reformed heritage has been shaped and continues to be shaped by global mobility. As Reformed Christians we live with the positive tensions of being true to God and yet relevant to the world, being part of the one Church and yet involved in particular cultures. It is important that we affirm our heritage in worship and theology, yet remain open to the winds of the Spirit. Ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda – a church reformed and yet always in need of reform.

A Reformed Faith

Unity and diversity

We affirm our unity in Christ – the fact that we belong to God. We acknowledge that we express our life in faith with diverse voices in our different contexts. While we affirm our differences as gifts we offer to one another, we recognise the difficulties involved in living with diversity. We have often allowed our differences to result in disunity. Thus, we recognise our need for reconciliation. We neither exalt a unity that becomes uniformity nor a diversity that becomes fragmentation. Being Reformed is our way of answering the question of Christian identity, but the Reformed faith is not a tool for excluding others who are not like us. Rather in response to God’s call we offer our gifts, experiences and understanding for the building up of the whole people of God and for the common good.

We are all called…

All are created in the image and likeness of God. Each life has value: the contribution of everyone is needed. Christian life is a vocation for all believers in every aspect of life. God’s call comes to us in our homes, our labour, and our communities of faith.

All Christians are called to ministry in their baptism. Within the ministry of the whole people of God, some ‘ordered ministries’ can be distinguished. Deacons fulfil ministries of service and compassion, elders lead the church in its mission, and ministers serve as preachers and pastors. The Reformed tradition values parity within ordered ministry as an expression of the priesthood of all believers.

Living by the word of God

God spoke to us in Jesus Christ in ways we can understand, and continues to speak to our communities of faith through the witness of the Scriptures. Frequent personal and shared reading of Scripture has been characteristic of the Reformed tradition. The whole of Scripture has been read, both Old and New Testaments.

Personal reading occurs within family contexts and in daily personal devotions. In our communal experiences, it occurs in Bible studies and acts of worship. The voices of the prophets have often awakened our churches to oppression, poverty and injustice. The writings of Paul have particularly shaped our theological formulations. The Gospels and Psalms have a special place within the Reformed tradition because they reflect the life and teaching of Jesus and the prayers and personal experiences of people of faith.

Today we acknowledge that the biblical witness is varied, multifaceted and diverse. Life itself has many aspects, and truth about God is not a theory about divine realities but a lived experience. Living in relation to God. God has revealed Godself during a long history. Also, in the history of the church, new situations have challenged people to give new answers; new insights have been born, and old insights have frequently been set to one side.

Today, we read and interpret Scripture in many differing contexts. Yet all interpretations, traditional or contemporary, liberal or conservative, by women or men, by lower or upper classes, are partial: sometimes they are full of insight, sometimes they are superficial. We believe that many voices should be heard because other perspectives enrich our understanding of the gospel and provide a necessary challenge to our tendency to interpret Scripture only according to our style of life and our culture. In all these contexts we hear the living Word of God in the word written, preached, explained and applied to our lives, so that the Spirit may lead us into all the truth.


In worship the Word is proclaimed. Preaching announces the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, and the way we are called to live in this world. In worship the Word is also enacted. As people share bread and wine, remembering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christ is present with his people. We are also present with one another, sharing the bread which is given by God as foretaste of the coming messianic banquet. It is into this community that new members are baptised. We are led out of bondage through the waters of baptism into the freedom of new life. In the baptism of each one, all members are reminded of their own baptism, giving thanks to God and confessing their common faith.

Within worship the good news is lived out as we confess our sins, hear forgiveness and acceptance, pray for each other and the world, sing hymns of praise, and share the gifts that God has given to us.

Worship ends with blessing. We hear again that we live together within the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The grace of Jesus Christ.

At the heart of all we know and experience of God, there is grace. In Jesus Christ we are welcomed by God, who takes the initiative to move towards us freely and unconditionally. By his grace we are justified. We enter into a freely-given, unmerited relationship with God. We are not accepted because of what we are, but because God is who God is and graciously receives us as we are.

Grace is liberating, setting us free from anxiety about the adequacy of our lives or the sufficiency of our faith. Neither our works nor our faith can save us, but only the gracious God who is one with us in Jesus Christ. Grace is liberating, setting us free for gracious relationships with others. As women and men who know the grace of Jesus Christ, we no longer need to make calculations about the worth, power or ability of others. We too can live gracefully, welcoming all, and taking the initiative to move towards all freely and unconditionally.

The sovereign love of God

The sovereign God is the free and powerful source of all that is. Apart from God’s love, such absolute freedom and power would be terrifying. Because of God’s love, we do not experience God’s sovereignty as the compulsion of a dictator, not even a benign despot. God created the world and called it good, making all people, male and female, in God’s image, making all races and peoples one human community. God’s power is manifest above all in Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection are the love of God made flesh.

God’s sovereign love is liberating, setting us free from frantic striving to master ourselves and others. We need not defend our present or seek to protect our future, for the loving God is Lord of all times and places. The sovereign love of God is liberating, freeing us from domination by others and from domination by principalities and powers. We are set free from the lust for power and the compulsion to dominate others. We too can live in love: together with all people, we can live as one.

The koinonia of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is God’s continuing presence among us, giving and renewing life, sustaining new possibilities of communion with God – within the church, among all humanity, and throughout creation.

The Spirit calls the church to be one, a communion of love in a fragmented world. The church as it exists today is itself fractured, yet the Spirit is present to create a new unity that is neither monolithic nor artificial.

The Spirit calls the church to be holy, a communion of fidelity in a broken world. Churches may be marred by grand and petty conformities to culture, yet the Spirit is among us to create a distinctive community that knows the source of its life.

The Spirit calls the church to be catholic, a communion of mutual love and respect in a world of national, ethnic, racial and gender enclaves. The church often reflects the hostilities of societies, yet the Spirit is among us to create a communion of freedom.

The Spirit calls the church to be apostolic, a communion of truth in a world of self-deception. Churches may be timid, mistaking their truth for God’s truth, yet the Spirit is present among us to create a communion that moves beyond itself to the full freedom of koinonia with God’s creation.

Freedom and responsibility

We are given freedom as we receive the grace of God, freedom from striving to justify ourselves before God, ourselves or anyone else. With this knowledge we can accept ourselves and others as people with gifts and limitations. Freed from sin, we are freed to live in relationship with God, ourselves and our neighbour. This calls us to live responsibly as individuals whose lives match our calling. This means thinking and speaking clearly – and acting boldly – on issues that prevent people from receiving the fullness of life that God promised.

Our strong tradition of social action compels us to commit ourselves to social and political engagement as part of the mission of our churches. We are also committed to providing education and nurture which equips us and future generations to live responsibly in our world. In the end, our freedom is the freedom to obey God, to make God’s justice and peace visible among us. Is this possible? Yes, we believe that in Jesus Christ the reign of God has broken into our world!

…but always reforming

God reforms and continues to reform God’s church. The church must always understand the gospel in relation to the changing cultural contexts in which it lives. Many values, insights and usages in a culture will be respected by the church and integrated in the Christian life. On the other hand, others are contrary to the gospel, and the church is called to transform or even to oppose them.

In every situation the church is called to read the Scriptures again and hear what the Spirit says to the churches, the Spirit who will lead us into all the truth.

Living our Heritage

With gratitude for those who have lived and died for the faith before us, we nevertheless affirm the creative power of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Our call is to be faithful to God as we face the challenges of our time.

Challenges of our world

There is a ‘crisis of meaning’ in many parts of the world, both within and outside the Reformed family. The end of the Cold War has created a new political environment, but with questions which we struggle to answer. There is unequal distribution of wealth among nations and within nations. An open disrespect for the environment can be seen in, for example, the dumping of toxic waste and overfishing of the seas. Other challenges include unemployment, experimentation on poor human beings, the proliferation of nuclear arms, the drug culture, racial discrimination and various forms of ethnic cleansing.

The global economy has produced contradictory results. On the one hand, it has freed many people in certain parts of the world from poverty. On the other hand, it continues to impoverish and marginalise many people, especially in Third World countries. It engenders greed and exploits the environment at the expense of future generations. It creates anonymity and fosters homelessness, drug dependency and growing numbers of street children. It fragments families and communities, putting in their place empty individualism. In response, people often turn to escapist forms of spirituality, within and without Christianity. These movements attempt to separate people from life’s realities. They offer immediate gratification-a quick answer to or an instant escape from life’s problems. In doing so they further fragment community and family.

These realities call for new answers based on our belief that humanity is created in God’s image. In facing the challenges of our times, we have to be open to learning from the different cultures in which we find our Reformed family and we cannot hide behind the fear of adulterating the faith. This also is an expression of what we truly are: the church reformed and always in need of being reformed. Can the heritage and affirmations cherished within the Reformed family help us address these challenges?

The goodness of God and the task of the church

We have not always obeyed God’s call. Indeed, by our actions and attitudes, we have often contributed to the brokenness of the world. Reformed churches, nevertheless, have sought, in many and various ways, to live out their calling.

The quest for justice has led various branches of the Reformed family to confession and dialogue. In the middle of this century, many Africans used their understanding of the Bible, together with the education received from church schools, to fight colonialism. In more recent times, the evil of apartheid was denounced as contrary to the gospel. The pressing need for economic justice in the world has led to the emergence of action groups both within and across national borders.

Many who belong to the Reformed family are at the heart of movements for peace and reconciliation around the world. Reformed churches in Canada have offered confessions to Native Peoples for sins committed against their culture and way of life. Many churches within the Reformed tradition have moved to include and celebrate the gifts of the whole people of God by recognising women as full partners with men in vocation and ordered ministry. The Programme to Affirm, Challenge and Transform (PACT) calls the Reformed family to recognise the partnership of women and men in all facets of life.

Various branches of the Reformed family have sought to overcome divisions among Christian churches. Unions and reunions continue to take place. The United Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa are examples. Reformed churches in Brazil, Chile and Korea are drawing together in the interest of a more effective, common witness. Reformed churches have also united with Christians of other traditions, for example, the Church of North India the Church of South India, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and the Uniting Church in Australia.

Co-operation among Reformed churches crosses national boundaries. A partnership has developed among various churches within the Reformed family for the rebuilding of the churches in central and eastern Europe. More than sixty congregations in western Europe are twinned with congregations in central and eastern Europe. The Protestant theological faculty in Prague has also benefited from this Reformed affirmation of unity in diversity. In 1994 the Asociacion de Iglesias Presbiterianas y Reformadas en America Latina (AIPRAL) and the Caribbean and North American Area Council (CANAAC) met together in Puerto Rico, another example of the desire to overcome separation, to celebrate what unites us, and yet to value what makes us distinct. In Africa, Reformed Christians act together through the Southern Africa Alliance of Reformed Churches. East African and West African churches are seeking ways to do the same. The formation of the Northeast Asia Area Council, which brings together churches in Korea, Japan and Taiwan, is another symbol of unity.

Some Questions

We proclaim that unity in Christ is at the heart of our diversity.

  • How do we embrace that unity so that those who are different are not seen as people to be feared and hated?
  • How can we handle a crisis in which a WARC member church is threatened with division over ethnic, theological or liturgical differences?
  • How do we live with our neighbours who are not Christians?

Many national churches within the Reformed family struggle to affirm ‘unity in diversity’ in situations where there are varied cultural and ethnic differences.

  • How can we best balance both integration and the development of separate identities?
  • How appropriate is it to develop separate identities within the same national body?
  • How do we make sure that a church that has different identities remains united without forcing it into uniformity?

We proclaim that the reality of koinonia is central to the gospel.

  • How can we reform the hierarchical and exclusivist structures which continue to exist in some of our churches?
  • How do we continue to mould our churches so that decision-making processes at all levels are truly participatory?
  • How do we affirm the ministry of the whole people of God when too often our churches and congregations are dominated by clergy?
  • How can personal relationships between us be more faithful to the covenant community God has called us to be?

We recognise both the claims that the gospel and our cultures make on our lives.

  • How do we accommodate both claims?
  • How does the gospel, with its promise of fullness of life with dignity offered through Jesus Christ, challenge both traditional and contemporary cultural practices which deny these values?
  • How does the incarnate Word speak to us in ways that are relevant in our cultures?

We judge all forms of racial and ethnic discrimination and suppression to be evil.

  • How do our affirmative and educational programmes incorporate issues of racial and ethnic discrimination and suppression?
  • How do our churches guarantee non-discriminatory practices in our leadership, budgetary and staff employment policies?
  • How do we as churches deal with the range of racial and ethnic hostility in our societies – and our complicity in it?

We deplore the unequal distribution of wealth among and within nations.

  • How do we as churches respond to this unequal distribution in which the rich get richer and further impoverish the poor?
  • How can we translate the church’s commitment to the well-being of all people into programmes of economic justice?

We confess that exploitation of the environment threatens death to the planet in which we live.

  • How can we move away from greed to live responsibly in relation to the environment?
  • How do we deal with environmental questions when they seem to raise questions for economic survival in some communities?

We are appalled that the world still experiences violence in many spheres of life.

  • What do we say or do about the proliferation of nuclear armaments, nuclear testing and other death enhancing technologies?
  • How do we deal with violence against the innocent (use of child soldiers, rape of women as an act of war, child labour, random killing as a political act)?
  • What is our response to experimentation on human beings in poor nations?
  • How do we deal with all forms of domestic violence?

Our willingness to reflect on questions like these is an integral part of who we are within the Reformed family. As we continue to raise questions in the power of the Holy Spirit, the witness of the church is carried further. The interaction between our heritage, our affirmations and contemporary issues needs to be carried on by every generation in order for us to be faithful to our calling.