Spectacle in American Life

Someone who attended the National Prayer Breakfast and observed reactions to President Trump wrote this to Rod Dreher:

It was disturbing, and I was equally disappointed by the applause lines, campaign rally atmosphere, and lack of concern by many of my fellow Christian’s at the event. I’m not from or much familiar with the evangelical world so I admit that, but responding with “yeahs”, “amens”, and other affirmations when an obviously angry and contemptuous man is lashing out at his enemies during a PRAYER BREAKFAST WHERE WE JUST TALKED ABOUT LOVING OUR ENEMIES was crazy. I can’t think of another word to describe it. The speech came as close to possible to saying Jesus was wrong about loving our enemies without going there.

I wonder, if Christians could resist the spectacle of the Super Bowl, would be they be better equipped to spot the cringe-worthy feats of presidential politics?

This is one way not to gain such perspective:

See the players as image bearers. I watch guys like Randy Moss with his freakish physical ability and I marvel at the God who made someone who can jump, run, and catch like this guy. I watch Tom Brady dissect a defense in a matter of seconds and throw a pass between two defenders and hit his receiver in stride on his outside shoulder and think of his creator. I look at the size of a guy like Adalius Thomas whose arms are bigger than my thighs (seriously) and watch how quick he is and just think about how amazing the human body is, the way God made it so that we can, by hard work, strengthen, condition, and improve it. I watch a coach like Bill Belichick who has opposing coaches staying up all night trying to be creative because they know the guy is a football genius; I watch him and worship the God who gave him such a great mind.

Or, perhaps you could try to see the image-bearing aspects of Donald Trump and his freakish ability to escape investigations by Special Counsel and Congress. But maybe not.

But if you regarded the Super Bowl this way, you won’t have any trouble with Trump:

The Super Bowl is not just another NFL game. It has become an intensified concentration of vulgarity and ego, with enough athletics in the game and cleverness in the commercials to trick me into watching. It’s simply not what I’m living for.

That was my last Super Bowl.

Now, the question is those who go along with the Super Bowl and draw the line at POTUS. I wonder, for instance, what Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner, and John Fea think this year’s half-time show says about “one nation under God.”

Ecclesiastical Networkionalism

If you think about Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the church equivalent of PanAm Airlines and Sears & Robuck, you may have a point. Denominations have been in decline numerically for some time just like the blue chip businesses of the 1950s. Some of that is a function of the mainline’s problem with message — are they a church, an NGO, or a wing of the Democratic Party? Some of it is a function of conservatives perhaps being too zealous about what makes their denomination distinct — the OPC is the denomination Jesus founded!! But much of it comes from not understanding the point of being connected to other congregations and using those ties to organize larger ministry endeavors (e.g., evangelism, missions, education, ecumenism). A pastor in a small town may find that the congregation in which he ministers is sufficient to carry out its work, and that denominational expectations and funding is a restriction.

At the same time, the work of independent congregations has to be difficult. Where do you find trained pastors if yours retires? What about pension funds for pastors? What about supporting foreign missionaries? If someone proposes a joint-worship service among local churches, how does an independent church decide whether to participate? Denominational committees help with a lot of the activity that goes beyond a congregation. In other words, a local congregation has trouble functioning as its own denomination. This is especially true when it comes to planting churches. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?

Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.

Apostles Church (three separate congregations) in New York City seems to be an example of the new world of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship. One of its pastors, John Starke, used to write for The Gospel Coalition, and since these churches are in New York City, Ground Zero of urban ministry for urban ministries, you might think Apostles might be a partner with both the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer City-to-City. As it turns out two of the three Apostles’ congregations do show up as partners. But not with Apostles Downtown. That raises a question of how much the three Apostles congregations are in full partnership with each other. But since they are urban and in NYC, it seems odd that Redeemer is not a partner.

Instead, the churches have ties to these networks:

Send North America: Our strategy is simple and straightforward. We believe that the Church is God’s plan—you are God’s plan—to reach North America and the nations with the hope of the gospel.

As a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board is here to help local churches send the hope of the gospel across North America in two primary ways: compassion ministry and church planting.

Hope For New York: Our vision is a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.

Our mission is to mobilize volunteer and financial resources to support non-profit organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City.

Sojourn Network: …by offering the pastors in our network a strong vision of planting, growing, and multiplying healthy churches and by providing them with thorough leadership assessment, funding for new churches and staff, coaching, training, renewal, and resources, we can best steward their gifts for the benefit and renewal of their local congregations.

Since 2011, our aim at Sojourn Network has been to provide the care and support necessary for our pastors to lead their churches with strength and joy – and to finish ministry well.

Of course, other networks have been around for a while. Willow Creek is now long in the tooth and struggles, I imagine, after revelations about its founder, Bill Hybels and guru, Gilbert Bilzikian. Acts 29 is also about as old as Redeemer NYC and its founder, Mark Driscoll, has had Trumpian moments.

But if someone wanted to plant a church, the prospects never appear to have been better. Lots of energy, money, and people are starting churches and finding funding outside the denominations, whether small or large. But what gives these networks an identity? Can you substitute Sojourn for Methodist, Acts 29 for Episcopalian, Redeemer City-to-City for Presbyterian? As tired or as broad as the older denominational names have become, they have direct reference to a specific historical moment and a distinct set of ideas and practices. What is a network other than a mechanism for funding churches and consoling psychologically damaged church planters?

Tim Keller once said of churches that:

promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Well, don’t denominations create associations where networks create websites and podcasts? So why start a network when you are in a denomination? And why start a church planting network when you are in a denomination that has an agency devoted to church planting — called, Home Missions?

Yuval Levin recently wrote about the decline in institutional life in the United States. Some of this owes to businesses or political parties or churches where executives or officers abuse power and betray trust. But Levin adds a wrinkle. It is those people who use institutions to advance their para-institutional endeavors:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.

Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.

I cannot prove it but I have a pretty good sense that this is what is happening with networks in relation to denominations. We see pastors and denominational leaders working outside denominational structures in networks. They use their denominational standing to generate interest in an activity and alliance outside the denomination. This is not simply a function of the parachurch sort of replicating what the church does in forms of preaching- and teaching-like activities. This is supplying funding for congregational startups that could very well be part of a denomination’s church-planting effort.

Denominations are by no means above criticism. But how do you start a network even while you belong to a denomination? If the federal government had any regulatory power over religion, this would be high on the list of investigations.

And You Thought Presbyterian Polity Is Onerous

So many alliances and networks, so little church discipline:

The roots of the Sojourn Network go back to the early 2000s, where Sojourn was invited to join Acts 29, a diverse global family of church-planting churches. Mike Cosper and other members of Sojourn participated in boot camps and events, using this experience of brotherhood and curiosity to influence the development of the Sojourn Network.

With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.

Soon realizing that Sojourn was the only network who chose to make the change to an infinity network, Acts 29 inspired them to go out and start something new. It was an exciting time for everyone to see new networks growing and moving forward in new directions.

Wanting to put more resources to the church planting mission, Mike Cosper and Daniel Montgomery set out to find a leader with a passion to coach and mentor church planters. The ideal candidate had to be devoted to the local ministry while pioneering the network simultaneously. Finally, they discovered Brian Howard, a member of Acts 29 and a church planter in Southern California looking spend more time on church planting and working with planters.

After joining Sojourn, Brian not only served as a pastor, but he helped launch the East campus and the J Town campus, evolving the network’s vision. Dave Owens first joined the Sojourn Network in 2011 as Brian’s administrative assistant. Though his experience as an assistant was humbling and transforming, Dave knew his passion lied with planting churches and helping other planters.

Defining the vision
With several leadership transitions redefining the network’s mission, the Sojourn board of directors wanted to focus on crafting lasting values and a vision for the future.

Many church planters believe a network can only be a head or hands network, meaning the focus is either to take time to ensure beliefs are lined up or to just get it done. The Sojourn Network questioned this status quo and wanted to bring both soul and a healthy posture back to ministry. With this value, Sojourn became known as the place where church planters came to be healthy, quickly shifting the network’s grand visions of planting thousands of churches to simply helping church planters recover from spiritual warfare and disillusionment. Mike recognized many church planters were burnt out, working as both a pastor and a planter. Sojourn realized this was not a sustainable or healthy path. Knowing Sojourn would take a few years to take off, the members focused on holistic renewal to prepare church planters for multiplication, growth and outward energy, driving passion for church planting.

At this time, Sojourn started to look inward for inspiration to develop the vision and values. Sojourn ran the 930 art center, a diverse, artistic place from wood carving to videography to skateboarding. This culture around art, music and literature helped the network realize the ultimate goal is transforming communities and lives.

As God continued to send creative and artistic people to Sojourn, the network understood their culture flows from creative contextualization coupled with health and wholeness. Praying for the lord to lead the way, Sojourn found themselves defining a vision based on sustainable, healthy growth.

This may be the most challenging paragraph:

With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.

What is an affiliated network as opposed to an allied network?

What is an infinity network as opposed to a finite network?

What is wrong with Redeemer NYC that it has not solved the “extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches”?

Acts 29?

Presbyterians in Charge

The news of Julius Kim’s appointment as president of the Gospel Coalition should put the organization’s sometime fascination with Anglicanism in perspective — Anglophilia runs deep in Americans (as does venerating the Founders many of whom were Anglican).

Worthwhile to recall is that when TGC aired differences over church polity, they did not include a brief for episcopacy. Instead, it was mainly a choice between Presbyterians and Congregationalists (read Baptists).

On the Presbyterian side were Kevin DeYoung and Mark Jones. DeYoung wrote in defense of the office of elder:

I hold to the Presbyterian position because of the overall New Testament teaching about eldership. The office of eldership is one of teaching and authority (1 Tim. 5:17), which is why the position is reserved for qualified men (1 Tim. 2:11-12; 3:1-7). Elder-pastors are given by Christ to be overseers and shepherds of the flock of God (Acts 20:28, Eph. 4:11). The leaders in Hebrews 13:17 who must watch over the souls of God’s people are almost certainly elders. We know from 1 Peter 5:2-3 that elders must exercise gracious oversight in the church. They are the under-shepherds serving and representing Christ, our Chief Shepherd and Overseer (1 Peter 1:25; 5:4). It is, therefore, everywhere in keeping with a biblical theology of eldership to have the elders of the church exercising the authority of the keys through preaching and discipline. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the elders are to shepherd, govern, and protect as the New Testament commands if the final authority rests with the congregation and not with the officers who represent Christ in their midst.

Jones dug in with presbytery:

Despite what you may think, Presbyterian ecclesiology is not primarily defined by churches governed by elders, but by churches governed by presbyteries. Presbyteries can encompass the elders of a local church, a regional church, and what is termed a “general assembly.” This view is established from the oneness of the visible church. Based on the sufficiency of Scripture, Presbyterians hold that the church is governed jure divino (by divine right). There are certain fixed principles in the government of the church. We hold that Christ has blessed the church with the Scriptures, church officers, and sacraments. In doing so, Christ has “ordained therein his system of doctrine, government, discipline, and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom” (Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order).

While there is much that Presbyterians and classic congregationalists can agree on, nevertheless, against the congregationalist view, Presbyterians affirm the authority of presbyteries beyond the local church. That’s the crux of the issue between Presbyterians and congregationalists: authority.

From the other side came Hunter Powell, a Baptist pastor, in defense of Congregationalism which appeared first at Gospel Coalition, vanished, and then moved to IX Marks:

Elders have authority given to them in the Bible. They should be obeyed. The problem is whether that paragraph says all there is to say about church power. If church members are to vote on their elders, and if church members have a right to vote in excommunication (which many Reformed divines, particularly some notable Dutch divines, argued for), then we must say that there is some church power in the congregation as a whole. But that does not by any means argue against the unique role of elders and the fact that the Bible commands churches to submit to their elders. Nor does this mean that people are mini-elders arbitrarily deciding when and where they actually submit to their leaders. If a church feels a tension there, then that is actually a good thing. The reformed divines certainly did….

It is true some congregationalists fear elders because of the tyranny of the few, but on the other hand some presbyterians fear members involvement because of the anarchy of the many. But fear never leads to good polity. The question really comes down to this: Did Christ give any share of church power to the congregation? If so, then we must account for it.

Again, no brief for bishops. The world of New Calvinism seems to have little room for the rule by one in the palace of the church. It may owe to church history like this.

How Small Are Your Ten Commandments?

Jake Meador addresses the question of whether to support impeachment of President Trump on the basis of the Decalogue (as the Christianity Today editorial did implicitly). After all, if you argue that Trump lied and broke the 9th commandment, what about other presidents who were not exactly truthful about intelligence and wars?

He goes on to say that the Ten Commandments are the basis of Protestant political reflection:

First, the Ten Commandments are central to traditional Protestant political theology. Indeed, the Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius says that you destroy all possibility of symbiotic human community if you remove the Ten Commandments from public life. (In as much as many of our arguments about symbiotic communal life today depend on structuring our economy in such ways that human selfishness is ingeniously twisted to promote mutual material prosperity, I think Althusius is almost certainly correct.)

Likewise, many early Protestants, Melanchthon included, would argue that the Ten Commandments are simply a distillation of the Natural Law and so to remove the Ten Commandments from all consideration in public life is to render public life lawless; it is to make the norms of public life equivalent to the wishes of the powerful, who have the ability to wield the power of government to their own ends and who, apart from the law, have no mechanism to limit their power. This, of course, is an echo of Augustine’s much-cited line when he says that kingdoms without justice are but little robberies. Given the state of our republic, I, once again, find this line of thought highly persuasive. Therefore, any attempts to push the Ten Commandments to the center of Protestant political thought is quite welcome, for it is an attempt to return Protestantism to its historical roots.

… The magistrate’s responsibility is to preserve the peace of society through protecting the good and punishing the bad. So while I might sin in my inner life through impure thoughts, coveting, or some other vice, these things are not crimes, properly speaking, because they are strictly internal; if these thoughts are externalized in my conduct then they could become subject to civil law.

But what about the sins of the First Table that, as Protestant political theology teaches, magistrates are supposed to enforce? Don’t people remember the original Westminster Confession?

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (23.3)

That might be a good idea — having the magistrate (as long as it’s not Donald Trump or Anthony Weiner) evaluate worship — if the church is struggling with veneration for POTUS:

For Rose Ann Farrell, 74, from Florida, the claim rang true. “I really believe he was sent to us,” she said. “From one to ten, he’s a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian.”

But is it such a good idea to enforce the First Table of the law on Muslims and Mormons?

Plus, why do Protestants concerned about public life so often reduce the Decalogue to the Second Table? That was not the way old Protestant political theology had it. Not only did the First Table restrict religious expression and worship, but the magistrate — maybe someone like Barack Obama — was supposed to enforce worship and morality. It doesn’t get much older for Protestant political theory than Calvin:

no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule. Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. (Institutes, IV, 20. 9)

I understand Meador wants to promote the common good and to do so as a self-conscious Protestant. I don’t understand, though, in a nation that prizes freedom — even religious freedom — how that common good is going to come from the Decalogue if the whole of it is in view.

Putting the Nationalism in Denominationalism

Colin Hansen makes an arresting admission in his piece about having grown up a Methodist and how he left the communion:

As a former United Methodist, I thank God for these friends and co-laborers in the gospel, even if I no longer share all their theological views. I recognize my spiritual debt. They were my family. They are my family.

I’m in no position to advise these people called Methodists. I forfeited that right when I left. And no one is asking for my advice, anyway. But I want my United Methodist friends to know something important. I did not leave because of your views on sexuality. By the time I left in the early 2000s I didn’t even realize you had been debating sexuality for decades. I left to find the theology of George Whitefield and Howell Harris that converted the Welsh, including my Daniel kin. I left to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal by heart as cancer ravaged his body.

I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.

Imagine if New Calvinists and Gospel Allies followed the same logic. “We do not belong to the PCA or the OPC or the URC, so we have no reason to offer you advice or criticism. By virtue of our not being members in your communion, we are in no place to tell you about Reformed Protestantism.”

Imagine too if those who associate or form alliances with New Calvinism — ahem — also followed what is implicit in Hansen’s understanding of membership. Imagine if a Presbyterian ally of the gospel said, “well, because I am a member of the PCA, even ordained in it, my first duties (PCA First) are to the denomination where I serve. That means, I might have to cut down on participating with non-Presbyterians. I might even reconsider my relationship to non-Presbyterians because we are merely allies, not fellow members of the same body.”

But I also noticed what Hansen did with Methodism. He did with it what he did with Calvinism. “I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.” The same goes for Gospel Allies. The identify less with Calvinist communions to find Calvinism.

And so, the problem of belonging to the church, the ministry of the church, ordination, and membership rears its head again. To parachurch or to church?

But Hansen did seem to acknowledge that not being a member of an institution means he loses standing for being heard by members of a denomination. That point also suggests that someone who is more involved in parachurch endeavors while belonging to a body of Christians also loses some of his or her standing for dialogue and instruction. As if.

After all, if borders between countries matter, if governments of nations matter, why shouldn’t the borders and polities of Christian communions also matter?

How Did it Become So Easy to Get Out of a United Church?

In the United States, we put “the union” in USA. We are as much a republic as France, though we are still in our first iteration (some say Lincoln started our second republic) and the French are up to five. But in a few weeks, POTUS will deliver not “The State of the Republic” but “The State of the Union.” Union matters in part because the Civil War was so traumatic (and deadly). To consider separating from the U.S. is tantamount to the sin of schism. And yet Scotland can hold a referendum on leaving the UK or Britain can do the same to vote on leaving the European UNION! and no one fights a war to protect such unions, maybe because no one like an Abraham Lincoln was around to call these political arrangements “perpetual.”

The effects of political union on Christianity in the United States has been huge. Soon after the Civil War the Old and New School Presbyterian churches in the north reunited, with a large part of the rationale coming from imitating the Union. That merger launched a wave of ecumenical affiliations and networks that resulted in the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and a proposal to unite all Protestant communions in one United Church of the United States (comparable to the United Church of Canada). “United” has been a common part of Protestant church names, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Presbyterian Church in the United States, United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the United Churches of Christ, the United Reformed Churches, and the United Methodist Church.

Now comes word that the Methodists are about to break apart into two denominations, one traditionalist (at least about marriage and sex) and one progressive (at least about marriage and sex). All it takes these days is a vote. No theological battles, no warring pamphlets. No one has even mentioned the s-word of schism. Although, Episcopalians still do not look favorably on leaving the Anglican communion.

If J. Gresham Machen had tried that back in the 1920s, he would (and did) have faced charges of disloyalty, unfaithfulness, and disobedience. In fact, when he called for a separation of conservatives and liberals, it was as if he had suggested Social Security should be privatized:

whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.

Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Something is changing out there. The old liberal internationalist order is breaking up. The election of Donald Trump was one sign, Brexit was another. The change also is having effects on the ecclesiastical world.

The Wrong Question

In his review of Thomas Kidd’s new book, Who Is an Evangelical, Samuel James begins with this anecdote:

Many years ago I was sitting in the basement of my Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, when a friend asked: “Do you think it’s a sin to vote for John Kerry?” This was 2004, and conversation was littered with talk of the upcoming contest between Kerry and President George W. Bush. I thought for a minute, then said no, I didn’t necessarily believe that. But it never occurred to me to think of the question as strange. The congruence between believing in Jesus Christ and voting Republican was as natural in my mind as the inspiration of Scripture. Only much later would I realize just how novel that kind of thinking truly is among we who call ourselves evangelicals.

Roberts seems to think that asking about the sinfulness of a ballot choice is fine. The problem is identifying evangelical fortunes with the Republican Party.

What if both are wrong? I mean, why on earth (as opposed to heaven) would anyone conceivably think that a vote for a Democratic candidate is sinful? Why, that is, if the person asking had any sense of Ecclesiastes, Paul, and Augustine, texts and authors that indicate politics is intrinscially a temporal, earthly, dirty affair because it happens post-Eden. To expect politics to correlate with redemptive purpose is to border on utopianism or immanentizing the eschaton. What is rich, for evangelicals at least, is that questions about sinful voting rarely extend to the visible church, which is locus of Christ’s kingdom this side of glory. Why not ask if it is sinful to think Beth Moore should be president of the Southern Baptist Convention?

And so, the better way that Roberts hopes for in the end is one where evangelicals are not so predictably Republican:

Nevertheless, Who Is an Evangelical? is a hopeful book, demonstrating that the word “evangelical” is rooted not in our present culture wars but in our past gospel commitments. The solution is to look backward, to break the tyranny of the now and remind ourselves of a way more ancient, more holy, more biblical, and more evangelical.

In politics? Hello. That older evangelical way (at least in the United States) had some role in apotheosizing George Washington as the father of the country and turning Abraham Lincoln (a Republican, remember) into a Christian martyr.

Roberts’ (and Kidd’s) critique of political evangelicalism is simple. Trump is a despicable person who puts the fall in fallen. If evangelicals remain loyal, it’s because they are so politically partisan. Their political partisanship blinds them to Trump’s wickedness (as if evangelicals have ever been known for subscribing to National Review). That analysis is both moralistic and pseudo-psychological. If evangelicals wanted to vote for the Democratic candidate, were they facing a clearly moral and holy choice? And what if evangelicals were not merely tribal in their attachment to Republicans but also felt alienated from the corridors of elite institutions where people associated evangelicals with clinging to God and guns or were worse, belonging to a basket of deplorables (without the loaves and fishes). In fact, the divide between elites and non-elites likely has a lot to do with Brexit and Trump. But some evangelicals who work in the academy and publishing world, and aspire for inclusion in those same sectors within the secular world, do not seem to understand the elite-populist divide.

This post overdoes it, but it also captures some of the reality of life among Protestants who want to be evangelical:

The 2016 election and the years that followed have revealed this truth: that the composition of the current “respectable” evangelical leadership does not derive its legitimacy from the evangelical many but from the few. They are a self-legitimizing, self-perpetuating, and self-anointed elite—unaccountable to and disconnected from those whom they are to serve and represent. In other words, as to form, they are no different than the elite of broader American society; and, materially, they are increasingly similar in political sentiment.

I might qualify “self-anointed” and refrain from attributing motives. But 2016 did reveal a significant gap between those people who observers thought were evangelical leaders and spoke for the movement and the ordinary whites who voted for Trump. To be so completely out of touch with the eighty-one percent does raise all sorts of questions about whether you have your finger on the pulse of the movement so you can actually represent it to reporters and scholars. Whether traveling in evangelical academic circles, Washington think-tanks, or on-line fraternities necessarily isolates you from the rank-and-file is a question without an obvious answer. But given the way modern life works especially for people who don’t work with their hands or in the service sector, it’s hard to imagine that evangelical professionals would be immune from elitism.

Then again, they could ask whether it’s sinful to think that your professional office or rank make your theological or political judgments more valuable than those of the average pastor or church member. Expertise does yield insights. So does the communion of the saints.

SBC Politics beyond Beth Moore (or will Southern Baptists save evangelicalism?)

I was listening to the Quick to Listen interview with Thomas Kidd about his new book, Who is An Evangelical, and heard a startling advertisement. Just about 32 minutes into the discussion, I heard Truett Seminary, the Southern Baptist institution for training ministers at Baylor University, plug its programs. Although the seminary describes itself as “orthodox” and “evangelical,” in that order, it also trains women to be pastors. The advertisement was explicit about that part of Truett’s endeavor. Here‘s an excerpt from a piece on Truett’s female alums:

Another reality for many Baptist women called to preach is whether to remain inside the Baptist denomination or to move to a denomination more open to female pastors. As Lillian enters her final semester at Truett, she is considering another denomination. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a Baptist all her life, this is a difficult decision to make. But Lillian is a woman in her fifties who has been divorced and she has to accept the fact that there may not be a place for her in Baptist life. She says, “I have already been turned down by one church as their music minister, because I was divorced. Being a woman and talking about preaching makes most people uncomfortable so I have to be careful what I say.” Lillian believes she is called to preach, not to divide churches. She loves the church and the people of God and believes that she will be a good pastor. Although the future is unclear, she resolves to remain hopeful, positive, and faithful to her call.

Leah also faced changing denominations, but says that she could not move because she is committed to Baptist beliefs and core ideas. She says, “…I see myself committing to this and so at the same time calling churches to committed to calling women, because I am not giving up on the Baptist church and the Baptist church doesn’t not need to be giving up on women either.”

Now, see if you can follow the bouncing balls.

Kidd has written a book about Protestants who have been generally opposed ordaining women. Evangelicals typically affirm traditional family values and roles for women (though that is not a big part of his book). Kidd is also a regular blogger at The Gospel Coalition which is firmly in the complementarian camp. The editors at Christianity Today who interviewed Kidd, at least one of them, is in a mainline Protestant denomination that ordains women. And the podcast is being sponsored by a Southern Baptist seminary that supports the ordination of women.

To add to potential confusion, maybe you younger readers have the visual dexterity, Kidd is going to teach part-time in the graduate programs at Midwestern Baptist Seminary, a school that admits women to the M.Div. but does not train them to preach:

Purpose: The Master of Divinity degree, Women’s Ministry concentration, cultivates a Christian lifestyle, offers instruction in classical theological disciplines, and develops theoretical understanding and practical skill related to women’s ministry.

Objectives: In addition to the Master of Divinity degree objectives, students graduating with the M.Div., Women’s Ministry concentration will be able to do the following:

Demonstrate understanding of the biblical and theological foundations of women’s ministry in the local church.

Demonstrate increased skill in the practice and leadership of women’s ministries in the local church.

In fact, women at MBTS take courses not in preaching but teaching.

If you want an additional shell to follow, consider that Ed Stetzer went from Lifeway Christian Resources to Wheaton College. Lifeway is the publisher for the SBC but also controlled by conservatives, the ones who are inerrantists and generally oppose female pastors. The moderates in the SBC look to Smyth & Helwys as their publisher for theology and biblical commentary. Wheaton College has many faculty in denominations that ordain women and even has had some female professors who are ordained to preach.

So, go ahead, try and correlate Southern Baptist conservatives with evangelicals. I dare you. See if it makes any sense for evangelical (what used to be a Yankee word in the SBC) institutions to establish closer ties with Southern Baptists except for increasing readership, audiences, enrollments, and subscriptions.

It makes you wonder about looking to conservatives in the SBC for leadership in evangelical circles if only because the Convention may be as soupy as evangelicalism. Look at what Trump has done to turn Southern Baptist conservatives from supporting Republicans to dabbling with progressives. Withdrawing support from the GOP is fine. It’s a free country. But it took Trump to do that?

And yet, because of their size and their presence in evangelical institutions like Christianity Today, Wheaton College, and The Gospel Coalition, Southern Baptists, no matter the previous identification with Republicans and their opposition to female preachers, are in a position to dominate an evangelical world that has no obvious successor to Billy Graham and the institutions that grew up around his endeavors.

Maybe the solution is Beth Moore. Maybe she can transcends all the parties and unite moderates and conservatives in the SBC along with evangelicals. Maybe she is the next Billy Graham. That way, if you like her, as George Marsden had it about Graham, you can be an evangelical.

An End Run

Imagine you are a Reformedish Protestant around the time of George W. Bush’s election. You have entered the world of Reformed Protestantism by way of the biblical theology (which leaned Federal) of Peter Leithart and James Jordan, you agree with a number of Doug Wilson’s critiques of modern America, and you became acquainted with the West and the Great Books again through Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Say you want a Reformed or Presbyterian church with a narrative that inspires, that connects with the sort of intellectual creativity that Leithart displays, that shows little of the wear and tear that afflicts most denominations in the United States whether sideline or mainline, and that connects with the larger history of the West, from Plato to Erasmus.

Where do you turn?

The OPC is too small and too theologically sectarian. The PCA suffers from similar problems among the TRs (Truly Reformed) and is blithely naive about modernity and urbanity on its progressive side. The ARP and the CRC are too ethnic and suffer from a measure of parochialism within their Scottish and Dutch traditions respectively. The same goes for the RPCNA which is even smaller than the OPC. The CREC might work but in 2000 that communion is only two years old, not the strongest case for a church with roots.

To your credit, you were enough of a Protestant not to find Roman Catholicism as a viable alternative.

What then? Why not turn to Elizabethan Anglicanism, like this?

The early English church, despite all the misconstruals of it by Anglo-Catholics, was Protestant and Reformed. The history of the 19th Anglo-Catholic attempt to deny this is a painful one for those who prize integrity of inquiry. The work of Peter Nockles and the more recent, and excellent, work of Jean-Louis Quantin, have shown how wrongheaded that 19th century orgy of wishful thinking really was. But this was proved back in the 19th c itself by Nathaniel Dimock, regarding sacramental theology, and regarding ecclesiology, by the American Bishop Charles McIlwaine, in his Roman, Oxford, and Anglican Divinity Compared.

The English Church of Elizabeth, James, and Charles is, in some ways, a model of importance for own time. Reformed churches, their common mind constricted by familiarity only with Scots and English Presbyterianism, miss the riches of Reformed thought available in Richard Hooker, or Richard Field, or Lancelot Andrewes (just as they miss the riches available in the thought of German and French Reformed). Anglo-Catholic attempts to prove that the established church was somehow not really Protestant are attempts to deprive modern Protestants of useful heritage.

What is important to notice about this way of being Reformed is that it allowed you to occupy the catholic and moderate middle while also regarding the regulative principle as too Puritan and biblicist (and sectarian) and two-kingdom theology as a betrayal of the godly monarch (which allegedly made the English church tick until those rowdy Presbyterians and Puritans conspired to take down Charles I).

What is also striking about this line of argument about the American church scene at the beginning of the 21st century was that it was precisely the way priests and bishops who were part of the Anglican establishment saw Christianity in England:

The great innovation of Elizabeth’s reign was what we might term the internalization of anti-sectarian rhetoric, as anti-puritanism. In Edward’s reign that language had been used to associate the English church with the foreign reformed churches in the common defence of an emergent reformed orthodoxy. Now it was introjected, to precisely opposite effect, into the conduct of intra-Protestant debates between defenders of the ecclesiastical status quo and proponents of various styles and modes of further reformation. The central figure here was John Whitgift who, in an extended exchange with the leading presbyterian ideologue of the day, Thomas Cartwright, deployed the Edwardian version of the two extremes used to define the via media of the English church, popery and Anabaptism, to exclude, as he hoped, the likes of Cartwright and his ilk, from the charmed circle of English Protestant respectability. True to the spirit of his Edwardian forebears, Whitgift sought to assimilate Cartwright and his associates both to popery and to Anabaptism, using what he took to be their ultra-scripturalism and populism to associate them with the latter and what he took to be their clericalist opposition to the Royal Supremacy to associate them with the former.

Ostensibly a form of religious polemic, Whitgift’s anti-puritanism was also inherently political. It dealt with issues of governance and jurisdiction and stressed heavily the extent of direct royal authority over ecclesiastical affairs. In so doing it encoded within itself a set of (intensely monarchical) political values, defined against what he took to be the ‘popularity’ inscribed within presbyterian theory and puritan political practice. By popularity Whitgift mean a commitment to theories of government in which the role of the people was expanded. But he also used the term to refer to the political methods used by the supporters of the discipline to put their case to a variety of more or less popular publics through the pulpit and the press, and through the the circulation of manuscripts and of rumours and a variety of petitioning campaigns, some of them aimed at the parliament rather than at the prince. (Peter Lake, “Post-Reformation Politics, or On Not Looking for the Long-Term Causes of the English Civil War,” 28)

When Machen, Witherspoon, and Knox won’t do, turn to Whitgift and Hooker? In the United States, a country that made its name by rejecting Royal Supremacy?

It is an intellectually energetic way to find an alternative to American politics and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have persisted in the United States. But it is as arbitrary as thinking that the debates surrounding foreign missions and church government of Machen’s time are the terms by which Presbyterians in Australia ought to operate.