When little Felix comes home to his patriotic and Christian home with the news that the Fathers of 1776 were a gang of smugglers and profiteers, and when his sister Flora follows with the news… More
Maybe it was a different time. It was at least before Mike Brown, Carter Paige, “both sides” in Charlottesville, Robert Mueller, Volodymyr Zelensky, Brett Kavanaugh, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Anthony Fauci — June 2010 to be precise. But it is hard to imagine any moderate or progressive in the PCA today, after George Floyd, describing the place of slavery in the Old School vs. New School Presbyterian split (1837) the way Tim Keller does. This is from his essay about his positive regard for the PCA:
There is a third reason that we should learn to live together. Because we are brethren, we need each other. Let’s recount a sad case study that illustrates this–the issue of 19th century African slavery. The New Schoolers lacked doctrinal robustness but they were strongly abolitionist. The Old Schoolers saw the danger of the New School’s intense campaigns to reform society—they saw how they could distract from the ministry of the Word, evangelism, and the sacraments. They saw how the New School’s cultural accommodation was leading to doctrinal decline. As a consequence, much of the Old School, especially in the South refused to denounce African chattel slavery as being the evil that it was. Mark Noll has shown in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and America’s God that the church’s inability to agree that slavery was evil directly led to the disaster of the Civil War and that was the reason that evangelicalism has never again had the cultural credibility in the U.S. that it had before the 1830s. Old School leader Charles Hodge was caught in the middle of this, perhaps because he was one of leaders who tried to achieve a balance of confessionalism and revivalism in the Presbyterian church. On the one hand, he saw what poor theological reasoning lay behind the arguments of the abolitionists and the New School. On the other hand, he rightly sensed the danger that ‘the spirituality of the church doctrine’ could lead to cultural captivity in the other direction—the conservative one. Noll points out that Hodge began to criticize slavery too late to have brought about unity within Presbyterianism on the subject. In short, the Old School’s fear of cultural engagement caused it to fail this great test. And yet the New School’s overinvolvement in politics and social reform did indeed lead it later to doctrinal compromise. So both schools were right in their criticism of the other.
Can anyone imagine a PCA pastor today arguing that opposition to slavery resulted in theological decline? For that matter, has anyone but a few conservatives recently worried out loud that Christian support for defunding police, wearing masks, or mocking elected officials could actually be at odds with biblical teaching and church conviction? To his credit, Tim Keller did.
But eleven years later, that same argument against splitting the PCA is part of the set of convictions that run along with Revoice. If slavery shouldn’t have split Presbyterians, surely Presbyterian pastors who identify as homosexual in orientation (not in practice) will never break up the PCA.
The Broadening Church was the word the title of Lefferts Loetscher’s book about the Presbyterian controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. It was not the epithet of conservatives like J. Gresham Machen. The question was whether a church should attempt to be broad. Perhaps, the better way to put it is whether the church should oppose breadth. Breadth happens. It may be tolerable (Loetscher’s position), it may be objectionable (Machen’s), or it may be welcome (various modernists’). Whatever you think of a broad church, it pretty much goes without saying that conservatives seek communions that maintain doctrinal, liturgical, and ecclesiastical standards, a desire that generally does not go with breadth. On the other hand, those who either accept passively or celebrate broad communions are not conservative.
To look for parallels between the PCUSA and the PCA and raise the question of whether PCA is following a similar set of trajectories as did the PCUSA during the so-called fundamentalist controversy is to assume that the PCA itself is a broad church. If someone leads with the idea that broad and trending liberal go together throughout church history, then some PCA folk who have spoken positively about the denomination’s breadth may pause their identification with a broad church. They want to be conservative. They also want to be broad. So how do you square breadth with conservatism? Maybe the best you can do is Tim Keller‘s “Why I Like the PCA,” an essay which concedes that the New York City pastor’s communion is broad:
I believe that the only way for the PCA to be a place where we own each other is for us to re-affirrm the original boundary markers that the founders set up.
The founders’ drew very specific boundaries at certain points. One that has always been very important has been a high view of Scripture, with a robust, traditional belief in inerrancy. Another has to do with the core of Reformed theology and soteriology—there are to be no “four point Calvinists” in our church. In many other areas where some Reformed denominations have drawn narrower lines—Sabbath observance, worship (e.g. Psalms-only,) eschatology—the founders left room for diversity.
That sounds very different from what happened in the PCUSA where the church actually tried to do an end run around the PCUSA’s boundary markers. Here it may be useful to recall that the controversy started in 1920 with a plan to unite all Protestant denominations into one American church, like the model that informed the formation of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (1925). The president of Princeton Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, chaired the committee of Presbyterians who approved the plan Stevenson’s faculty opposed the plan strenuously (including B. B. Warfield during the last year of his life). It was a classic instance of “we should be broad” vs. “we want to maintain Presbyterian standards.”
The next phase of the controversy played out in 1922 when congregations in New York City were behaving very broadly. This became common knowledge when Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist preaching as stated supply in a Presbyterian pulpit, gave his famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” For Fosdick, the church was divided between those who wanted the church to be narrow and intolerant and those who like himself wanted it to be broad and open to all good souls. Fosdick’s sermon launched judicial proceedings that forced Fosdick out of the Presbyterian pulpit and the New York Presbyterian to explain the anomaly of a Baptist pastor functioning as pulpit supply as a misunderstanding.
Meanwhile, that same presbytery was ordaining ministers would not affirm (nor did the reject) the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. New York’s breadth prompted overwhelming support from officers at the 1923 General Assembly to reaffirm the famous five points of essential and necessary doctrines — which included the virgin birth (which had been affirmed in 1910 and 1916). Some might construe them as boundary markers. But liberals in New York countered with the Auburn Affirmation, which was a plea for liberty in the church (breadth), an interpretation of the essential doctrines in a less than literal manner, and an assertion that the General Assembly lacked power to insist on essential doctrines.
From there it was largely downhill for liberals. The Special Commission of 1925, which had the task of explaining the tensions in the church, blamed conservatives for making unfounded assertions outside the orderly mechanisms of Presbyterian church government. Those un-Presbyterian activities included (by implication) writing books like Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. The General Assembly followed up with an investigation of Princeton Seminary, again to discover the source of the controversy between Stevenson and his faculty, and between Charles Erdman and Machen. That committee found again that conservatives were the problem and in effect issued a warning that if conservatives continued to criticize liberalism in the denomination those critics could face church discipline. The committee also recommended administrative changes at Princeton that diluted conservative voices (which had been in the majority). Readers should remember that PTS was and remains an agency of the General Assembly (as opposed to independent ones like Westminster, Fuller, and Reformed, or Union Richmond which I believe was founded by a Synod).
Seven years later Machen led in the founding of an orthodox, narrow, and tiny church, the OPC (name to come in 1939). Meanwhile, the PCUSA had managed to remain unified even as it encompassed a spectrum of positions in the church.
Here is how the contemporary broadening of the PCA differs from the PCUSA. You could argue it begins with Good Faith Subscription. According to “Looking Forward – Together,” the determination of the General Assembly twenty years ago was pivotal:
Good Faith Subscription (GFS) was formalized into our Constitution almost twenty years ago to put an end to such unfounded assertions. Two back-to-back General Assemblies and two-thirds of our presbyteries came to a previously and since-unprecedented level of unity to make this Constitutional formulation that allows for meaningful and biblical adherence to our Standards (acknowledging where the Bible allows good men to differ according to a very careful system of checks and balances, where every difference is recorded, approved by entire presbyteries, and submitted for examination to the General Assembly)! The adoption of GFS made recording confessional exceptions mandatory for presbyteries, and has been extraordinarily effective in strengthening our confessional commitments.
Somehow this revision in church life allowed the PCA to do exactly what the denomination had done twenty-five years earlier without the advantages of GFS: “The latitude that our denomination has allowed for, within the bounds of our orthodoxy, protects us from the kind of centralized control or hidden compromise that brought peril to the denomination the PCA left in 1973.”
In other words, GFS accomplished what the PCA had always stood for — latitude (which is synonymous with breadth) even though the PCA in 1973 was formed precisely because the sort of broad church that the PCUSA had achieved in the 1930s was also occurring within the PCUS.
GFS is not what the Auburn Affirmation was. But it is a form of subscribing that is compatible with breadth. GFS is also an action of a General Assembly. The Auburn Affirmation was merely a statement in search of signatures. That is why “Faithfully” can sound sort of threatening to conservatives the way that PCUSA turned out to be with Machen and other critics of liberalism.
Online blogs, Facebook posts, online news agencies, and emails have generally been the modes of much attack, innuendo, and ridicule, with little or no personal interaction with those attacked and cited. In the process, specific brothers in good standing have been labeled – and hurt, but even more frequently, “straw men” are erected without proof. These communications assert that large segments of our church are abandoning Scripture and our Confessional standards. Every sin does violence to God’s world and forsakes his Word, whether the sin of homosexuality, the sin of slander, the sin of compromise, or the sin of divisiveness.
In fact, “Faithfully” implies that conservatives in the PCA are engaged in a power play:
We disagree with digital and social media characterizations that turn suspicions into speculations that become accusations without proof – to achieve political ends within our church. Where compromise or sin is true and can be proven, we have sessions, presbyteries, and judicial processes to engage. We are wrong to presume that all of these are populated by brothers who are less committed to our faith than those ringing alarm bells in internet discussions and news agencies.
That explains why this letter’s appeal to GFS is an important part of the argument. GFS is the law of the church. Anyone who challenges it is running contrary to the settled practice of the PCA. In which case, while the Auburn Affirmation was a plea for liberty in the church, “Faithfully” is a threat against those who challenge the existing breadth in the PCA.
One other important difference between the PCUSA’s becoming broad and the PCA’s current breadth is the degree to which the broadists talk about the relationship between church and society (or hint at a Social Gospel). The Auburn Affirmation was generally silent about society. Progressives in the PCUSA had to worry more about carving out space for themselves in the church than they did about their role in social reform. This is not the case for the PCA, at least by one reading of “Faithfully.” Here are some of the ways, according to the authors of the letter, the PCA has shown it’s commitment to “biblical integrity, ecclesiastical polity, and gospel focus” (none of which sounds very confessional or subscriptionist):
We are seeing a healthy, biblical consciousness for issues that were previously unaddressed in the denomination, including racial reconciliation, refugee care, domestic violence, the vital role of women in advancing the mission of the church, the gospel-centeredness of all Scripture, the importance of mercy ministries and crisis care in the advancement of Christ’s message of hope, and the precious power of God’s covenant care in a society of sexual and family brokenness. For example, without sacrificing our commitment to biblical integrity, the involvement of godly women has been sought for insight on difficult issues affecting children, churches, and families, as evidenced in the recent PCA study committees on the role of women and domestic violence.
Say what you will about those matters and whether the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which is in the Westminster Confession (ch. 25), was part of the PCUS (and explains why it took until 1983 for the Southern and Northern churches to reunite), and was clearly part (not the whole) of the PCA’s founding, that is not a list of endeavors that would characterize a non-broad or strictly confessional Reformed church. For “Faithfully” to mention these as pretty much obvious signs of the PCA’s health is also to indicate a measure of confirmation bias that in turn construes one sector of a diverse church for the whole.
A similar confusion of broad consensus with actual disagreements is evident in “Faithfully”‘s discussion of the elephant in the PCA room — namely, Side B (or same-sex attracted) Christianity. To avoid that particular matter, “Faithfully” renders the issue as whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals:
You may have heard that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals – This could not be further from the truth, and is an example of using extremes to ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers. We agree that any unrepentant sinner or sinful lifestyle makes ordination not only impossible, but also reprehensible. We know of no pastors or elders in the PCA who in any way desire for practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
Fine. But what about pastors who identify as homosexual (though non-practicing) Christians? Would anyone object to a pastor calling himself an adulterous Christian because he is sometimes attracted to women other than his wife? Are these questions ones that agreeing on a basic set of “gospel” commitments while allowing for diversity on variety of indifferent matters will be easily answered? What if basic gospel commitments about sin, human nature, repentance, regeneration — all matters covered under Pastor Keller’s “Reformed theology and soteriology” — actually bubble up into questions about church and society? And what if Side B Christianity is a way to project that the PCA is a tolerant sort of place for residents of large metropolitan areas where people are generally uncomfortable expressing opposition to homosexuality?
Again, breadth seems to be afflicting the PCA. The affliction is certainly different from the broadening of the PCUSA roughly one hundred years ago. But in one way it is similar. “Evangelicals” like Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton and opponent of Machen within the seminary and the church, believed a denomination could be broad and committed to the essentials of the gospel. The progressives in the PCA seem to be in a similar position. They are not making the church safe for pastors who question the Virgin Birth. But they, like Erdman, want to avoid being part of a restrictive church.
“Presbyterian” by definition means not Lutheran, not Anglican, not Baptist, not Congregationalist, not Quaker, not Methodist. Of course, someone can be not a Baptist in a disagreeable manner. But if the metric for offensiveness is calibrated to the ethos of cosmopolitan urban centers, the bar for giving offense was just set really low.
Our Lord could be hard to pin down (so to speak):
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
Imagine how he would have gotten ratioed on Twitter.
Was Supposism the Hebrew equivalent for Whataboutism?
23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18)
When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.
Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.
Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”
Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:
Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.
He even defends civil religion:
What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.
This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.
Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:
Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.
That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.
The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.
Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)
How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.
But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”). But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:
In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”
If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.
Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.
But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?
James Kessler doesn’t think so:
The PCA is not going back to 2001. Rewriting our constitution is not going to happen, not only because no party has sufficient numbers to accomplish that, but also because there are too many men and women committed to a biblically defined Confession and the great commission who are located in contexts that are more diverse, more agnostic and apathetic, more questioning and less steeped in a church tradition while being more hospitable to Gospel conversations than ever. Every year we plant dozens of new churches in an age of de-churching. When I began in ordained ministry in 2006, in Columbus Ohio, outside the traditional region of the PCA, we had three churches in a city of more than two million. Now we have seven, with more on the way. Every year RUF takes on scores of campus ministry interns seeking to learn how to minister the Gospel in a pluralistic society. The Unity Fund produced 48 minority ordination scholarships last year. Even the places where the PCA was born have been changing, and there is no going back because the harvesters in the white fields are not who they once were. Friends, this PCA is not going away as long as you are on mission. But preserving it will not only require your good will, it will require your work.
The odd thing is, the group responsible for that change in the PCA, the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network, doesn’t seem to exist. It has zero assets and zero income.
But PPLN was responsible for the shift in the PCA that Pastor Kessler celebrates. This is how the Nicotine Theological Journal (July 2002) rendered the 2002 PCA General Assembly:
The defection of the Briarwood associate pastor [to First Baptist Birmingham] hardly reduced the ranks of its delegates to the 30th General Assembly of the PCA. Briarwood sent 21 delegates to the GA that met in Birmingham last month, more than many presbyteries sent. These commissioners were not merely availing themselves of a home court advantage, but they were on a mission, representing a portion of the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network’s effort to stack the Assembly with votes. The PPLN voter turnout drive proved enormously successful. Though we did not attend the PCA Assembly, we have struggled to read some reports about its deliberations. Our struggle has mainly to do with working through the awful “TE”/“RE” nomenclature. (A compelling case against the two office view can be made simply on the basis of English prose.)
REPORTS WE READ HAVE varied from denial – “things went much better than anyone had ever expected,” gushed Clair Davis in pcanews.com – to disaster – “we were more than just defeated, we were routed,” wept Andy Webb on his Warfield elist. Of course, post mortem rhetoric of this sort is typical, and we should forgive exhausted commissioners who lapse into hyperbole.
But there is one aspect of PCA analysis that we cannot abide. It is the recurring habit to link the denomination’s fragmentation with the struggles of youth. The PCA is a young church, so goes this line of thinking, and its indiscretions will naturally accompany the awkwardness of childhood. World magazine displays the most recent example of this reasoning. Its July-August 2002 issue euphemistically described the victory of PPLN juggernaut under the heading, “Growing Pains in the PCA.” This toddler of a denomination is still growing, and the PPLN initiatives were helpful means of promoting further growth in the young church. As the old commercials put it for Wonder Bread, PPLN builds strong bodies.
HOWEVER ONE INTERPRETS THE struggles in the PCA, one cannot distort them into the pains of youth. Rather, they more closely resemble the symptoms of an old and dying church. Pre-Assembly caucusing, bussing in votes, stifling the voice of the minority, establishing competing websites – these are not the indiscretions of the young and the naïve. Indeed the actions of the last Assembly have even prompted some TE’s and RE’s (see, now we’re doing it) to propose that PCA presbyteries redesign themselves along ideological rather than geographical lines. This is not a novel idea within American Presbyterianism. It is generally floated as the desperate attempt to maintain a semblance of unity in worn out and creaky denominations, and ideological presbyteries are often predecessors of church divisions.
Curiously, Clair Davis argued, contrary to the claims of World magazine, that the PPLN initiatives were wise precisely because the PCA was not numerically growing. 80% of the PCA had not shown any growth during the previous year. Whether or not the church is growing numerically, at least this much is clear: the PCA is a thirty-something denomination that shows all the indications of premature aging.
Will the National Partnership to which Pastor Kessler belongs have a fait similar to PPLN? If the past is not as important as the current, if what Presbyterians used to fight about no longer make sense in pluralistic, urban, and socially aware settings, what will come of the National Partnership by 2040? Chances are they will be as relevant then as Charles Erdman is to the PCUSA today — not much.
That’s not the fault of Pastor Kessler or his colleagues. It is the function, though, of updating the church to contemporary developments. The flower fades. So do the headlines.
By the way, what does “good faith subscription” do to confessionalism? What is the point of having a long, scholastic, and elaborate confession when all you want are the fundamentals of the confession and catechisms? Why not switch from the Westminster Standards to the Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement? Presbyterian nostalgia?
A 2007 estimate of evangelical leaders (read elites):
Since 1976, hundreds of evangelicals. . . have risen to positions of public influence. But they have not done so by chance. The rise of evangelicalism is the result of the efforts of a select group of leaders seeking to implement their vision of moral leadership. They have founded organizations, formed social networks, exercised what I call “convening power,” and drawn upon formal and informal positions of authority to advance the movement. Sociologist Randall Collins has argued that recognition and acclaim are bestowed upon leaders and ideas through structured, status-oriented networks. Over the last three decades, the legitimacy that has come to the evangelical movement has come through the political, corporate, and cultural leaders who were willing publicly associate with it. Evangelicalism, with its history of spanning denominational boundaries is well suited to help evangelicals build connections and important leaders and prestigious institutions. They have formed alliances with diverse groups, giving the movement additional cachet and power in surprising ways. Leaders are often at the vanguard of a movement, and this book shows how evangelicals endowed with public responsibility have been at the forefront of social change over the last thirty years. By building networks of powerful people, they have introduced evangelicalism into the higher circles of American life. The moral leadership they practice certainly grows out of their evangelical convictions, but it also reflects the privilege they enjoy and the power they wield. Indeed, their leadership is an extension of-not a departure from-the elite social worlds they inhabit. (Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power, 11-12)
Were Bush-era evangelicals ever set up for a fall?
The lesson here is beware when sociologists praise your movement, that includes you Young, Restless, Reformed, you.
A recent Gallup Poll shows church membership dipping below 50% for the first time in eight decades. The results have provided observers with a chance to take the temperature of religion in the U.S. Some worry about America’s national identity if faith declines. Others regard this as evidence that religious “nones” are almost as numerous as evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Still others notice that the drop has been most significant for Roman Catholics and Democrats who are religious. And among evangelicals, the lesson to learn is either that church membership is necessary and biblical or that Americans are leaving churches because evangelicals are — believe it or not — hypocritical.
What few seem to notice is that evangelicalism, for one, is not a church. It is an impulse or dynamic that turns Presbyterians into Presbyterian evangelicals, or Anglicans into low-church Anglicans. Evangelicalism is not a communion.
For another, the very point of the new birth, as George Whitefield explained it, was to place church membership several rungs below (in importance) a personal relationship with Jesus:
The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion. . . . it is certainly a blessing to have the outward government and discipline of the Church exercised; but then, if you place religion merely in being of this or that sect–if you contend to monopolize or confine the grace of God to your particular party–if you rest in that, you place the kingdom of God in something in which it does not consist. (“The Kingdom of God,” 1741)
That stress upon the internal as opposed to the external of religion, on the heart over the head, on experience over liturgical forms, is one reason why evangelicals may not be as troubled by the decline in church membership.
Thomas Kidd, who wrote a biography of Whitefield, applies the logic of the evangelist’s sermon to the recent data:
The overall picture of declining church membership should be of interest, but not special worry to Reformed and evangelical believers. We’re not so much concerned with “mere” church members, but “regenerate” church members. And evangelicals have been at their best—such as during the First and Second Great Awakenings—when they had to work hard at drawing people into church with crystal-clear proclamation of the gospel, and with caring service to the needs of congregations.
Because of this elevation of conversion over church membership, perhaps the evangelicalism in its aggregate character is more like Antifa than the church. Here is how Mark Bray described Antifa last May:
Trump cannot designate “ANTIFA” as a terrorist organization because antifa is not an organization. Rather, it is a politics of revolutionary opposition to the far right. There are antifa groups, such as Rose City Antifa in Portland and NYC Antifa, just as there are feminist groups, such as Code Pink. But neither antifa nor feminism is itself an organization. You cannot subpoena an idea or a movement. That’s not to say that antifa doesn’t exist, of course. Antifa is “very real,” . . .but not in the monolithic, hierarchical way in which he and many other Americans are accustomed to thinking of political associations.
The same applies to evangelicalism. It is an experience, a piety, a sentiment, but not an organization. Fuller Seminary or The Gospel Coalition may be evangelical organizations. But evangelicalism is not monolithic or hierarchical. Evangelicalism does not function like a Christian church.
Lots of people are writing about Rush Limbaugh now that he is dead. Bill (aka Wilfred) wrote about Rush a decade ago for Commentary magazine and pretty much capture the phenomenon that was The Rush Limbaugh Show. He describes a dynamic that made Donald Trump attractive and that continues to polarize the people who live in the United States:
Talk radio is, implicitly, talk-back radio—a medium tuned into during times of frustration, exasperation, even desperation, by people who do not find that their thoughts, sentiments, values, and loyalties are fairly or even minimally represented in the “official” media. Such feelings may be justified or unjustified, wholesome or noxious; but in any event they are likely to fester and curdle in the absence of some outlet in which they can be expressed. Talk radio is a place where people can go to hear opinions freely expressed that they will not hear elsewhere, and where they can come away with a sense of confirmation that they are not alone, are not crazy, and are not wrong to think and feel such things. The existence of such frustrations and fears are the sine qua non of talk radio; it would not exist without them.
In other words, will Scott Simon at NPR ever recognize why he never gets under the skin of his regular listeners? He can imagine — and only imagine — how his coverage might sound to Trump voters. But have journalists like him ever challenged the assumptions and prejudices of elites in business, entertainment, federal agencies, and the academy? Is that even possible?
So, some Americans looked to talk radio:
The critics may be correct that the flourishing of talk radio is a sign of something wrong in our culture. But they mistake the effect for the cause. Talk radio is not the cause, but the corrective. In our own time, and in the person of Rush Limbaugh, along with others of his talk-radio brethren, a problem of long-standing in our culture has reached a critical stage: the growing loss of confidence in our elite cultural institutions, including the media, universities, and the agencies of government. The posture and policies of the Obama presidency, using temporary majorities and legislative trickery to shove through massive unread bills that will likely damage the nation and may subvert the Constitution, have brought this distrust to a higher level. The medium of talk radio has played a critical role in giving articulate shape and force to the resistance. If it is at times a crude and bumptious medium, it sometimes has to be, to disarm the false pieties and
self-righteous gravitas in which our current elites too often clothe themselves. Genuinely democratic speech tends to be just that way, in case we have forgotten.
McClay wrote that ten years ago.
Readers may have heard that Max Lucado, who seems to have avoided controversy until now in the post-Ferguson state of American evangelicalism, preached at the National Cathedral. And then he became for the Cathedral was Tim Keller was for Princeton Seminary. Lucado had preached a sermon in 2004 in which he asserted that homosexuality was sinful. (The people who run the Cathedral don’t have computers with search engines?). He issued a clarification after this news came to light and apologized for hurtful words. (This is a fuller account.) But that was not enough and so the Dean of the Cathedral and the Episcopal Church’s D.C. bishop have issued an apology for letting this evangelical pastor preach in their pulpit:
I would like to apologize for the hurt caused in inviting Max Lucado to preach at Washington National Cathedral, and for not heeding the appeals that came to Dean Hollerith and me prior to Sunday, February 7 asking us to reconsider. I didn’t take the time to truly listen to your concerns. In a desire to welcome a wide variety of Christian voices to the Cathedral pulpit and on the assumption that Max Lucado no longer believed the painful things he said in 2004, I made you feel at risk and unwelcome in your spiritual home. I am sorry.
In the days since, I have heard from those who were not only wounded by things Max Lucado has said and taught, but equally wounded by the decision to welcome him into the Cathedral’s pulpit. I didn’t realize how deep those wounds were and how unsafe the world can feel. I should have known better.
More than apology, we seek to make amends. As a beginning, we invite all who wish to speak of their experiences in the church as LGBTQ+ persons and their allies to join Dean Hollerith and me for a listening session on Sunday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m. EST.
Back in the day, liberal Protestants were not so squeamish about giving offense:
In response to the assembly mandate of 1923, Coffin and his modernist allies in the New York Presbytery addressed the Fosdick situation. In February the Presbytery adopted a report that essentially exonerated Fosdick of any wrongdoing and proposed no change in his status. If this were not enough to ruffle conservative feathers, two other events further agitated the situation. First, in June 1923 the New York Presbytery voted to license two Union students, Henry P. Van Dusen and Cedric O. Lehman, who refused to affirm the truth of the virgin birth. Then, on 31 December 1923, Dr. Henry van Dyke, former pastor of the Brick street Church in New York and then a professor at Princeton University, publicly relinquished his pew at First Presbyterian Church, Princeton because of disagreement with the preaching of Machen, who was serving gas stated supply preacher of First Church. (Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, 100)
The rest is history. Van Dusen went on to preside over Union Seminary in New York City during the heady days of Reinhold Niebuhr’s greatness.
One of the many advantages of Hillsdale College is the diversity of Christians who work, study, and teach at the place. That reality means that Hillsdale has more confessional Protestants on campus than your ordinary evangelical college.
And those circumstances make possible a relatively new podcast that features Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians talking about being confessional Protestant in America. The main interlocutors are Miles Smith (Anglican Church in North America), Korey Maas (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), and mmmeeeEEEEE (OPC). The idea for the podcast is to talk about differences among these communions that trace back through the history of the Reformation and its reception. But also the idea is to provide a forum for talking about church life and Christian witness that sounds different from either evangelical or mainline Protestantism.
The first episode introduced the participants and the podcast.
The second featured a discussion of seminaries and where confessional Protestant pastors receive their training.
The most recent, posted yesterday, asked the difficult question about what’s wrong with Lutherans?
If for some reason, you don’t have enough to listen to, you may want to check out the Paleo Protestant Pudcast.