Why Presbyterians Are Ambivalent about Evangelicals

Chris Gerhz is a good historian and generally thoughtful about a number of matters (even when you disagree), but his piece about the virtues of mainline Protestantism is an indication of how thin the ties are within the bond of evangelical Protestantism. In the post, he is frank about the mainline’s numerical decline and mentions a few reasons for it. But Gehrz also mentions several features of the mainline that he appreciates and would hate to go away. First up, women’s ordination:

In an inscription on the balcony in our sanctuary, the Apostle Paul reminds us that it is by “the power of the Holy Spirit” that we “may abound in hope” (Rom 15:13). Truly, I have hope for the renewal of the ELCA, the mainline, and all the church, because I trust that God’s Spirit continues to move in our midst: comforting, counseling, and gifting us to accomplish more than we can imagine.

Whenever I need to be reminded of that truth, I turn my head to the right of the choir loft, where I see the two women who serve as our senior and associate pastors preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. Then I think of the women on our staff who direct the church’s excellent children and youth ministries. And while I don’t put a lot of credence in church hierarchies, I may even recall that women currently serve as the bishop of our local synod and as the denomination’s presiding bishop.

In a time when most (non-Pentecostal) evangelical denominations deny such roles to women or fail to back up egalitarian words with regular calls to pastoral ministry and leadership, it’s the mainline that best embodies the Pentecost message that God has poured out his spirit on all humanity, such that daughters and sons alike will speak for him.

Say what you will about the significance of women’s ordination — some could conceivably liken it to Sabbath-Day desecration, which is hardly an offense worthy of ecclesiastical discipline in the Presbyterian world — but what sort of support might a fellow like Gehrz render to fellow Presbyterians if he were in a common endeavor with them? Chances are if a vote came up about recognizing a female pastor or an organization’s ties to a communion that ordained women, Gehrz would vote with mainline Protestants against those Presbyterian communions that refuse office to women. That’s not inherently bad. But it makes difficult the thought that an Orthodox Presbyterian and an evangelical Pietist-turned-mainline-Lutheran could meaningfully cooperate in so-called Christian organizations.

Gehrz also appreciates the mainline’s ecumenical posture:

Here I don’t so much mean the institutional ecumenism of the National and World Councils of Churches as the lived faith of congregations like ours, where we’re regularly reminded both of our Lutheran distinctiveness and our participation in the unity of the church catholic….

“Go in peace,” we’re told at the end of worship, “and serve the Lord.” That’s a charge we can only fulfill together, with Christians who might belong and believe differently than us. During Sunday’s education hour, we learned about our church’s partnership with Dorothy Day Place, which continues that Catholic writer’s commitment to living in solidarity with the poor. The week before, children of all ages had assembled materials for Bridging, a local nonprofit that helps Minnesotans transition out of homelessness; its Catholic founder had died the day before.

There goes the spirituality of the church (or the idea that the church provides services — chiefly spiritual and eternal — that non-government agencies or government welfare can). When the idea of Christian unity comes from race, class, and gender, what’s a Presbyterian to do about the Shorter Catechism or the regulative principle of worship?

Finally, Gehrz thinks the mainline has contributed well to congregational singing and liturgical music (it is hard to disagree, especially if evangelicalism is known primarily for Praise & Worship worship music):

In Paul’s much-debated passage on the mutual submission that marks a united church, he also describes being “filled with the Spirit” in these terms: “you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19).

Of course, there are many ways of living this out in practice. We all have our own preferences. You won’t be surprised that an evangelical who laments the removal of hymnals is no fan of worship that takes its cue from megachurches, where the congregation is too often reduced to a passive audience standing silent as professional performers sing words that are too shallow to the accompaniment of tunes that are too monotonous. …

Of course, “traditional” worship has its own problems. … But at its vibrant, creative best, such worship embodies Pelikan’s definition of tradition (“the living faith of the dead”). For example, my heart swells as the centuries-old words of Nicolai’s Epiphany chorale again “teach us / God’s own love through you has reached us.” And it’s worth pointing out that five of the eight texts our congregation or choir sang in that single hour of worship were written by authors born in the 20th century. This, too, is living tradition: Christian composers and writers continuing to adapt old musical forms to accompany still older words (mostly from Scripture itself)… and Christian laypeople continuing to sing them, actively participating in worship. (Many of them even singing in four-part harmony, another way we may learn Christian unity.)

That this happens is not the result of mere inertia. It has taken the conscious, ongoing investment of mainline churches in publishing houses that encourage musical creativity and in colleges that provide musical training for professionals and amateurs alike.

At this point, Gerhz might appreciate the OPC and URC’s cooperation in producing a Psalter-Hymnal, an expression of Reformed Protestantism’s tradition of congregational song. What is unclear is how interest in the past when it comes to worship fits with the relative recentness of ideas about ordaining women and the social gospel. It actually looks like the mainline tradition, as it appeals to some evangelicals, is a relatively arbitrary collection of ideals and convictions — good taste when it comes to music, overturning hierarchies when it comes to gender and class.

To his credit, Gehrz concedes that mainline Protestantism can go wrong:

Beautiful music can become the end of worship, rather than one of its means. Practiced for its own sake, ecumenism easily turns bureaucratic or latitudinarian. And the conviction that the Spirit is bringing renewal can tempt us to exchange dead orthodoxy for living heterodoxy.

But I don’t suspect he will want any help from confessional Presbyterians in spotting if and when the mainline veers from orthodox norms.

Which makes me wonder again why conservative Presbyterians ever thought they would get much in return for joining forces with so-called evangelicals. Heck, it looks like evangelicals — think Charles Erdman — resonate more with liberal Protestantism than with confessional Protestantism. It is another variety of third-way Christianity — neither modernist nor historic. But always with a nod to the Holy Spirit. Just not too much like those crazy Pentecostals.

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.

Big Oil, Little Oil, Big Presbyterians, Tiny Presbyterians

Darren Dochuk’s new book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, continues his study of American Protestantism’s financial profile. A very simple way of putting his findings is to say that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil financed mainline Protestant organizations and J. Howard Pew (and other small oilmen) sustained evangelical Protestantism. In his own words:

By the late 1940s, Howard was not only bitter about major oil’s global expansion at the cost of U.S. domestic production (and with Washington’s privileging of that trend), but also about how the Rockefellers were reshaping society with their mammoth charity. John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his sons were, by now, heading a multifaceted foundation that sought to provide humanitarianism and economic development on an international scale. In Pew’s mind, it was the Rockefellers’ brand of ecumenical, interdenominational and internationalist (“monopolistic”) Protestantism, and its prioritizing of science and structural reform over personal matters of the soul that was responsible for the nation’s secular slide. Determined to offset the Rockefellers’ modernistic gospel, in 1948 Pew helped his siblings incorporate the Pew Memorial Trust to “help meet human needs” through support of “education, social services, religion, health care and medical research,” then christened his own, the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, whose charge was even bolder: “to acquaint the American people with the values of a free market, the dangers of inflation, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people” and “promote the recognition of the interdependence of Christianity and freedom.”

That stance in opposition to Protestant modernism and ecumenism prompted Pew to be a major backer of the neo-evangelicals (later just plain evangelicals) at institutions like Fuller, Christianity Today, Billy Graham (Inc.), and Gordon-Conwell:

the Pews rigorously protected personal liberty in theological terms. Howard continued that tradition in the Cold War years. While serving as chair of the National Lay Committee in the National Council of Churches, he agitated against the “collectivist” drift in Presbyterianism and America’s Protestant mainline.

He found another way to push back by funding pastors, seminaries and lobbies associated with “new evangelicalism,” the loosely coordinated movement that would lay the groundwork for the religious right. In one respect, new evangelicals sought simply to continue a fight against liberal “modernist” trends in American Protestantism and society that self-identified “fundamentalists” had waged in the previous half century. Thanks to the unmatched financial support of independent oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart, the brother tandem at the helm of Union Oil Company of California (whose own hatred of the Rockefellers knew no bounds), fundamentalists had proved highly successful at constructing an alternative infrastructure of churches, missionary agencies and schools that resisted progressivism’s pull. Yet new evangelicals, unlike fundamentalists, wanted to engage rather than recoil from mainstream society—they sought to redeem it rather than run from it. The number of institutions within the new evangelical orb that would benefit from Pew’s millions would be spectacularly large, including illustrious representatives such as Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals and evangelist Billy Graham. Graham and his friends were known to lean on the “big boys” of southwestern oil for financing, among them the superrich Sid Richardson and Hugh Roy Cullen. But J. Howard Pew was the biggest backer among them.

The thing is, confessional Protestants fell between the cracks of categories like liberal and evangelical Protestants, but also sometimes drew fire from oilmen like Pew. (Machen actually preached at the union congregation in Seal Harbor, Maine, at the invitation of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the place where the Machens and Rockefellers worshiped while on vacation.)

When the OPC began, its original name was the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with “in America”). That was a bridge too far (aside from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions) for mainline Presbyterians. In 1935 while J. Gresham Machen and other board members belonged to the PCUSA, opposition to conservatives could use ecclesiastical courts. But once Machen was convicted of breaking church law and excommunicated, the only recourse to stop his efforts was the civil courts. And so, the PCUSA brought a civil suit against the new Presbyterian communion and asked the judge to force the new communion to change its name. Here was part of the PCUSA’s reasoning (humor warning):

It is impracticable and impossible for the plaintiff church to recover in damages what it has suffered and is likely to suffer from the aforesaid acts done and threatened to be done by and on behalf of the defendant church. The plaintiff church is powerless to prevent the resulting injury to its property and enterprises, or to avoid the resulting loss in donations and financial support which may be diverted from it, which injuries are immediate, continuous and irreparable, and incapable of computation or estimate. (Bill of Complaint, reprinted in Presbyterian Guardian, Sept. 12, 1936)

To put readers’ laughter in perspective, here are some figures to keep in mind for comparison between the PCUSA and the original OPC:

At its first General Assembly the [OPC] counted only thirty-four ministers, with roughly thirty congregations and 5,000 members. Funds were so scarce that the minutes of the first five General Assemblies do not even include financial reports. No doubt the ministers themselves bore most of the expenses of the denomination and its proceedings, with help from congregations. The only mention of finances at the third General Assembly, for example in 1937, was in connection with the costs for printing the minutes and agenda, and the budget of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Printing costs were $137 and the receipts from churches and ministers were only $122, leaving a deficit of $15. Because the Committee on Home Missions was the only agency with a real budget, the delegates passed along the rest of the bill to Home Missions. But that committee was not exactly flush. Their expenses for the first year came to just short of $13,000, with receipts totaling a little more than $13,000. In fact, the Committee on Home Missions’ budget was the OPC’s denominational budget. In addition to picking up the expenses of printing the General Assembly’s minutes, the Committee also footed the bill for renting the hall where the Assembly met. Thus, by the end of its first year the OPC’s total assets, if the balance of the Committee on Home Missions’ bank account is any indication, were $221.54.

In contrast, the PCUSA’s wealth and stature were truly staggering. In their complaint against the OPC the officers of the mainline denomination listed their resources to show how much they had to lose if a new church came along with a similar name. The PCUSA had close to 9,000 congregations, with just under 2 million church members, and 9,800 ministers. The church had approximately 1,600 home missionaries with an annual budget of $2.5 million and trust funds totaling just over $33 million. The PCUSA’s efforts in foreign missions were also large. They counted 1,300 missionaries with an annual budget of $2.9 million and trust funds totaling a little more than $18 million.

The [OPC] did not even send out their first foreign missionaries until 1938 and then could only manage support for eight, a number figure that included wives. (DGH, “Why the OPC: The History behind the Name)

What does this have to do with big oil or J. Howard Pew? The first two names on the Bill of Complaint were:

THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA By (Sgd) HENRY B. MASTER, Moderator

TRUSTEES OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA By (Sgd) J. HOWARD Pew, President.

This does not mean that Pew was aiming for Machen and the OPC. He likely signed this complaint as part of his responsibilities as an elder in the PCUSA.

But, the man who funded so much of the neo-evangelical world, the friend of so-called conservative Protestants, was right there in the legal proceedings against other conservative Protestants, the ones who were the most Presbyterian of all the Protestants (minus the Covenanters, and Associate Reformed). And one reason that Pew might have favored Graham et al and not had much regard for Machen was the the latter’s understanding of the mission of the church was not going to abet the political and economic policies that Pew wanted the federal government to pursue. Graham and the neo-evangelicals, sorry Mark Galli, wanted to be evangelicalism for the nation. That earned them Pew’s support.

How Orthodox Presbyterians became PCA

Another way to supplement Chris Gordon’s post about the demise of confessionalism in the CRC and lessons for the PCA is to consider what happened to the OPC after the failure of union between the CRC and the OPC.

The merger that the OPC and CRC contemplated between 1956 and 1972 never took place but at roughly the same time that those negotiations died, the PCA was born and for the next twenty years became the chief player in ecclesiastical mergers-and-acquisitions. First the PCA acquired in 1982 the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (an earlier merger of revival-friendly Covenanters and dissident – read agreeable – Bible Presbyterians of the McIntire variety) and then the PCA almost in 1986 absorbed the OPC (a majority of Orthodox Presbyterians voted in favor but not by the two-thirds majority required for sending the plan to presbyteries for ratification). In the aftermath of that failed plan for Joining & Receiving, congregations in the OPC and PCA had the liberty to re-align if they chose. This was opening for a number of New Life churches (among them the Glenside congregation where Tim Keller learned the ways of New Life Presbyterianism) to join the PCA during the late 1980s.

Again, a piece of OPC history (self-promotion alert) that fills out Gordon’s observations:

In 1988 the effects of the OPC’s change of direction were still visible but not altogether clear. Again the church experienced a growth numerically, rising to 19,422 members but it also lost two more congregations to the PCA, one (New Life) in Philadelphia and one in Southern California. Only in 1989 did the OPC’s statistician start to notice these numerical changes as part of a “step backward.” That year was the peak of membership and congregational loss. The church’s total membership decreased by 3.5 percent to 18,689. [ed. no snickering] Meanwhile, five congregations transferred to the PCA, among them New Life in Escondido, California. This was the same year that the Assembly’s decisions about Bethel church took their toll. A majority of the Wheaton congregation (162 out of 301) left the OPC to form an independent congregation, which eventually affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In 1990 the “step backward” statistically lengthened. The OPC lost another 546 members and three congregations; among them New Life, Glenside, joined the PCA. Only by 1991 did the hemorrhaging stop and membership begin to rise again. In 1992 the OPC added 525 members and total membership increased to 18,767.

The movement of OPC congregations into the PCA was the occasion for a exchange between John M. Frame and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. in New Horizons on realignment at the same time that statistics were revealing the consequences of congregational transfers. It was a telling exchange because it revealed an important aspect of Orthodox Presbyterianism that after the semi-centennial was beginning to reassert itself within the life of the communion and causing sufficient discomfort for others to look for another denominational home. That characteristic of Orthodox Presbyterianism was the Reformed doctrine of the church in which membership in particular communion was not a supplement to Christian identity but its embodiment. As Gaffin explained in this exchange, the OPC was not merely a denomination; “it is a church, a church that exists by divine warrant.” As such, he added, “Biblical presbyterianism has no place for loyalties torn between the denomination and the local congregation, or for greater loyalty to either one.” In contrast, Frame, who was then an associate pastor of the New Life congregation in Escondido that had realigned with the PCA, explained that the reason for transferring was to partner more effectively with other church planting efforts in southern California. Denominational affiliations for him were at best accidental, at worst sinful. Either way, he hoped that denominational “barriers” would become less important and that Orthodox Presbyterians would understand that transferring to the PCA was not a sign of disloyalty or contempt. The move was simply practical.

Clearly, Frame did not see the switch to the PCA as the serious risk that Gaffin said it was. Gaffin believed such transfers were dangerous because they nurtured a mind set that increased divisions in the church, not along lines of biblical witness, but according to personal preferences or styles of ministry. As such, Gaffin was expressing a doctrine of the church that had deep roots in American Presbyterianism reaching back to Old School Presbyterianism and even to the Old Side Presbyterians of the colonial era. Frame, in contrast, was more typical of a view of the church characteristic of New School and New Side Presbyterians, where the formal work of ministry was supplemental to the religious endeavors of all believers. In other words, whether Frame or Gaffin acknowledged the history of American Presbyterianism in their reflections, they spoke volumes about Orthodox Presbyterianism and how it emerged and developed in relation to its Presbyterian past. Among the many convictions for which the OPC had stood historically, the doctrine of the church as part of biblical teaching and necessary for faithful witness was one of the hallmarks of Orthodox Presbyterianism. During the 1970s and 1980s that ecclesial conviction had begun to wane if only because it was not producing the size and influence that some Orthodox Presbyterians desired. But as the OPC began to take stock of its past, it also recovered one of its most noticeable features. Furthermore, just as that commitment to biblical Presbyterianism had been a source of frustration to Bible Presbyterians in the 1930s, neo-evangelicals in the 1940s, and more generally to Orthodox Presbyterians like Edwin H. Rian who had hoped the OPC would turn out to be a conservative version of culturally established and respectable Presbyterianism, so in the late 1980s as the OPC recovered its doctrine of the church some felt compelled to look for better, friendlier, or less restrictive expressions of American Presbyterianism than the OPC. (Between the Times, 316-18)

In other words, the consequences of Reformed ecumenism from the 1970s and 1980s were having consequences for all of the players — the CRC, OPC, and PCA. Where Presbyterians went, their forms of association, and their understand of the church were factors in the witness they embraced.

How the OPC Avoided becoming the CRC

Chris Gordon’s piece on how the CRC lost its Reformed bearings has wisdom not only for noticing similarities between the CRC and New Calvinists but also contains a warning about developments in the PCA:

NAPARC churches should not forget their older brother, the CRC. Unless these concerns are taken seriously, I foresee the PCA and other Reformed denominations following this trajectory heading for fights, splits, and empty pews. They will be on a fast track to becoming just another mainline liberal denomination scratching its head at General Assembly meetings as they desperately try to find answers. I pray that my dear brothers and sisters in NAPARC will hear this humble plea from a brother in Christ who learned how true it is that those who forget their (church) history, are most certainly doomed to repeat it.

One difference between the CRC and PCA is the former’s ethnic outsider self-identity compared to the latter’s effort to become the Presbyterian insider. In other words, the CRC wanted to leave the ghetto and enter the mainstream; one way to do that was to embrace some forms of evangelicalism. For a time the CRC even considered merging with the OPC (as explained in Between the Times — self-promotion alert!):

Decreasing familiarity with the OPC was one of the factors to which Henry Zwaanstra pointed in this study of the CRC’s ecumenical relations. In fact, his narrative highlights developments in 1967 as decisive for sinking the project. The previous year, according to Zwaanstra, the OPC’s committee was requesting “their general assembly to declare that the joint committee should work toward the definite goal of organic union.” But the following year, the OPC’s Assembly “retired its representatives from the joint committee and appointed new members.” The reason for the new appointments, according to Zwaanstra, was “mandate to investigate trends toward Liberalism in the CRC.” . . .

Indeed, the overwhelming factor that prompted the OPC to worry about liberal theological trends in the CRC was a re-ignition of anti-liberal polemics during the mid-1960s over the PCUSA’s adoption of The Confession of 1967. During the 1960s leadership within the OPC spent considerable time disputing the mainline Presbyterian Church’s revision of its confessional standards and faulting the denomination for embracing a Barthian doctrine of the Word of God. This view, exhibited in the Confession of 1967, distinguished in effect between the sort of encounter with divine revelation that came through Scripture rather than regarding Scripture itself, its words, paragraphs, and books, as the Word of God. One Orthodox Presbyterian who was particularly vocal in defending the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and in criticizing was E. J. Young, newly appointed to the OPC’s committee to confer with the CRC. The Old Testament professor was by no means insensitive to the assistance the CRC had given to the OPC since Young had served with the likes of Van Til, Stonehouse, and Kuiper, and as a renowned scholar had trafficked in Christian Reformed circles at conferences and lectures. And yet, Young was adamant in his diagnosis of Barthian developments in the PCUSA and was likely sensitive to similar trends in the CRC even if evident in much less noticeable ways.

Thanks to arguments by Young and Van Til, for instance, by the second half of the 1960s the OPC’s sensitivity to defective expressions of the doctrine of Scripture was at an all time high and undoubtedly many pastors and teachers detected echoes of a Barthian view in Dutch Calvinist circles. Whether members of the CRC themselves actually resembled Barth or were simply guilty of not condemning Barth’s influence upon the GKN is a debatable point. Either way, the controverted status of Barthianism for Orthodox Presbyterians was certainly a factor in the growing distance between the OPC and the CRC. (161-62)

The OPC did not have a front-row seat to changes in the CRC, but it had more familiarity than most Presbyterian churches. In which case, reading about OPC-CRC relations between 1956 and 1970 is a supplement to Gordon’s post (read: buy the book).

Ecumenism is Radical (and that’s not good)

If conservatives value variety, why do conservative Roman Catholics insist on church unity? Russell Kirk said that true conservatives actually appreciate difference and pluriformity:

[C]onservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

Maybe that makes John Turner a conservative who is not going along with the Reformation as tragedy because it divided the church:

First and foremost, there was no good reason for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the first place. Jesus bestowed the keys of the kingdom on Peter, but it seems clear from the Book of Acts and the Pauline epistles that Peter hardly exercised anything like papal authority in the early church. The historical evidence for Peter becoming the first bishop of Rome (or even being in the city) is unconvincing to one not already convinced. While Protestants obviously sundered the institutional unity of the Western church, it was a sort of unity unauthorized by scripture and unwarranted by the circumstances of the early church. (It also seems snarky but necessary to mention that Rome bore considerable responsibility for the Great Schism between East and West that preceded the Reformation by a half-millennium).

Second, it is not at all clear to me that Jesus’s prayer for Christian unity means that Jesus wanted his church to have an institutional, hierarchical unity along the lines of either the late-medieval or contemporary Catholic Church. The Book of Acts suggests that the apostles in Jerusalem exercised a measured primacy among early Christians, but for the most part Christianity spread around the Mediterranean world and to the East in a way that fostered local autonomy and diversity. This diversity of theologies and even collections of scripture alarmed many Christians, some of whom identified many strands of Christianity as heresy. By the fourth century, newly tolerated and then established Christianity sought to impose theological order on this chaos. The result was the institutionally useful but not terribly New Testament idea that all Christians had to have essentially the same understanding of Jesus Christ and of the relationship among the members of the Trinity. Getting at least most Christians to assent to the fourth- and fifth-century creeds took a considerable amount of viciousness and sometimes violence.

So it’s the church unitedists who also likely go for the United Nations and the European Union (even while in some parts of the world arguing for a “two-state” solution).

We Got This Not

An academic institution where Protestants and Roman Catholics teach together sponsoring a conference about the Reformation is one thing, but a Presbyterian seminary holding a series of lectures on the Reformation that includes Roman Catholics and Protestants? That’s what’s happening at Covenant Theological Seminary this fall. The explanations do not add up:

“Though significant differences still divide Protestants and Catholics, there are real reasons to listen to each other, even learn from each other, so that we might give better testimony to Christ by loving one another across our differences,” said Ryan, professor of religion and culture at CTS and director of the seminary’s Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. “Our goal is to somehow get past lingering caricatures of each other’s positions to find the common ground we share as we seek to bear a more credible witness for the Lord before the watching world.”

Jerram Barrs, CTS professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and one of the speakers at the lecture series, agrees. “It is important that we do not merely endlessly rehearse the reasons as to why the Reformation took place as if neither we nor the Roman Catholic Church have learned any more or changed in any manner since the 1500s.”

The lecture series will feature five speakers — two of them Catholic — discussing topics ranging from why the Reformation still matters today, to the pastoral legacy of the Reformation, to an evangelical and Catholic and Reformed view of faith and culture.

The part that stuck out to mmmeeeeEEEE was about “endlessly rehearsing the reasons as to why the Reformation took place.” Last time iiiiiIII checked, Protestants and Roman Catholics in the United States are seriously in need of learning the reasons for Luther’s original complaints and Rome’s rejection of Protestant proposals. Consider the following:

nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide). But about half (52%) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic belief.

U.S. Protestants also are split on another issue that played a key role in the Reformation: 46% say the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians – a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura. Meanwhile, 52% say Christians should look both to the Bible and to the church’s official teachings and tradition for guidance, the position held by the Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation and today.

When these two questions are combined, the survey shows that just three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. One third of Protestants (35%) affirm one but not the other, and 36% do not believe in either sola fide or sola scriptura.

Pew’s findings corroborate Ligonier’s survey. (And Redeemer NYC’s outreach to skeptics isn’t doing much to put the sola in the Reformation.)

The thing is, works righteousness comes naturally to human beings. That’s why whenever you have the chance to bang the gong for the sufficiency of Christ and the insufficiency of human virtue (not to mention the sin of pride that virtue sometimes encourages), you take it.

If More Congregationalists Read Machen

They might understand the difference between a Baptist and Presbyterian. But to UCC pastor, Peter Laarman, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s proposal to re-brand evangelicalism (post-Trump) is a fool’s errand:

Campolo and Claiborne even get their history wrong. What they regard as the first successful re-branding of Bible-centered “orthodox” American Christianity in the early 20th century was in fact a complete failure, just as their proposed “Red Letter” re-branding will be this era.

They cite Carl F.H. Henry as the principal re-brander in the 1930s, but Carl Henry was not really a force to be reckoned with prior to the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Carl Henry’s beliefs were immediately understood to be contaminated by the same poisons that had fatally tainted Fundamentalism: i.e., a rigid view of biblical inerrancy (including a literalist view of the miracle stories), insistence that mere individual conversion fulfills God’s will, complete acceptance of the old patriarchal frame, etc.

It would be hard to find any daylight at all between the theological commitments of Carl Henry and those of J. Gresham Machen, who was heralded during the 1930s as the single brightest light among the Fundamentalists.

See what he did there? Machen signals fundamentalism (and Laarman didn’t even give Orthodox Presbyterians a trigger warning). Therefore, invoking Carl Henry is really to say you haven’t progressed beyond fundamentalism (yuck!), which makes Campolo and Claiborne even more clueless from a mainline Protestant perspective than even progressive evangelicals can fathom.

The problem is that you can see separation between Machen and Henry if you actually care more about theology, sacraments, and polity than about being in the American mainstream. Henry may have been a Calvinist on soteriology but his Reformedness didn’t go much beyond that (plus his high view of the Bible). Henry also refused to baptize babies, which puts Machen closer to Laarman than to Henry. And then Machen took Presbyterian polity seriously — hello, his church refused interdenominational cooperation in settings like the National Association of Evangelicals where Henry was an intellectual guru.

But that kind of Protestant fussiness only comes up fundamentalist for mainliners. Even though telling the difference between Congregationalists and mainline Presbyterians is impossible (and something you’re not supposed to do in polite Protestant ecumenical company), if you do did in your heels on denominational identity you are merely a separatist. You lack the good graces and tolerant bonhomie of mainstream, well-connected Protestantism. Never mind that after 135 years of ecumenical activism, the UCC and the PCUSA remain — get this — separate. And by all means don’t notice that Congregationalists and Presbyterians descend from the mother of all church separations — 1054, the year that the church Christ founded (as some put it) split up.

Lots of separations out there in church history, but the UCC puts “United” in church unity. As if.

The Parachurch with the Mind of a Superpower

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton said of the United States it was a “nation with the soul of a church.” He was referring in part to the difficulty he had finding an adult beverage, Prohibition being the law of the land thanks to the support of both modernist and fundamentalist Protestants.

Seldom noticed is that American evangelicals think they are the center of world Christianity. Consider this report on what the recent presidential election says about evangelicalism:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the campaign reminded him of the Vietnam War in the way it divided families; he’d heard from spouses who couldn’t discuss it, or watch the news together anymore.

Not everyone sees a major split, though.

“There’s always been a minority of evangelicals that are more liberal in their political leanings,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal evangelical supporters, “and it’ll always be that way, but it’s less divided than I’ve seen it in a long time.”

But Moore makes a distinction even among those who voted for Trump: There were “reluctant Trumpers,” who regarded the candidate as the lesser of two evils, believing he was more likely to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was pro-life than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Then there were “the people who have actively sought to normalize” Trump as the candidate of choice.

“For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that, in many cases,actually waved away major moral problems,” he said, citing the Access Hollywood tape, in which the now president-elect talked about grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly kissing them.

Moore, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump, said that among those evangelicals who were “Never Trump,” or “reluctant Trump,” reconciliation is already underway. But he said those evangelical leaders who have “repurposed the gospel itself in order to defend a political candidate” reveal a problem bigger than a political election.

Falwell sees the divide in evangelicalism as being between its leaders.

“The evangelical rank and file closed in behind Donald Trump long before most of the leaders did,” he said, because those in the pews were “tired of business as usual” and excited by Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as running mate.

For the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the schism is between white evangelicals and African-American born-again Christians, and, as a result of the election it “just grew larger.”

The story links to reactions from historians (and other academics) who study evangelicalism and so you would think might be aware of different ways of evaluating born-again Protestantism, such as global Christianity:

History professor John Fea; authors Preston Yancey, D.L. Mayfield, and Skye Jethani; and author and activist Shane Claiborne all have distanced themselves from, if not abandoned, the label. While still identifying as evangelical, former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty wrote she “can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.”

Earlier this week, Fuller Theological Seminary issued a statement that was nothing short of remarkable for the influential evangelical institution.

“To whatever degree, and in whatever ways, Fuller Theological Seminary has contributed, or currently contributes, to the shame and abuse now associated with the word evangelical,” said the statement, signed by president Mark Labberton and president emeritus Richard Mouw, “we call ourselves, our board of trustees, our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends to repentance and transformation.”

Ever since Philip Jenkins wrote The Next Christendom, global Christianity has become “hot.” Scholars have been amazed at the growth of evangelicalism in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia for starters. Jenkins even argued that by 2050 Christianity in the global North (Europe and North America) would be in the rear view mirror of the churches in the global South.

But when it comes to politics, American evangelicals put the born-again in evangelical Protestantism. What do Canadian, British, Swiss, Nigerian, Australian, Costa Rican evangelicals think about Donald Trump? Did the election divide evangelicals outside the United States? I surely doubt it. But no one really knows because American journalists only follow the cues of American evangelicals.

So why do American evangelicals think that their religious identity hangs in the balance thanks to what happens in the nation’s electoral politics? (The short answer is that U.S. evangelicals, like their mainline predecessors are Christian nationalists and have trouble separating national from religious identity.) Especially when the evangelical academy is supposed to aware of the non-American church among the people of color around the world (and celebrates those Christians when the campaign season is over), all of a sudden the future of evangelicalism depends on white Protestants’ votes in U.S. elections? It’s hard to think of a faith more parochial, nationalist, and introverted.

And yet, somehow the people who voted for Trump are bigoted, intolerant, and mean nationalists.

Evangelicals need to get out more. They need to go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and hear reports from fraternal delegates who minister in churches in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Asia, Scotland, and Switzerland. If they did, maybe their understanding of the church would be more like the one that prevails in the OPC — a communion that transcends national boundaries but ministers in a low key way (if you aren’t all that impressed with word and sacrament) chiefly in a particular nation. As near as I can reckon, neither SCOTUS’s ruling on gay marriage nor the 2016 presidential election is threatening to divide our little, off the radar, church.

That proves once again the Old Life maxim: the higher your estimate of the nation, the weaker your ecclesiology (or vice versa).

Buyer Beware

A common refrain among converts to Roman Catholicism is a lament about the sorry state of Protestantism, especially the mainline Protestant churches. Betsy Fox Genevose spoke for many when she described the lack of Christianity she had experienced while growing up a Protestant:

Throughout my non-churchgoing, non-believing adult years, I had always considered myself a Christian in the amorphous cultural sense of the world. Having been reared on the Bible and Protestant hymns, I was conversant with the language and basic tenets of Christianity. I had, moreover, been reared with a deep respect for the great Hebrew prophets, assorted Protestant leaders and Catholic saints, and even the unique value of Jesus Christ as the preeminent exemplar of loving self“sacrifice. Never, I am grateful to say, did I, like too many secular intellectuals, denigrate or disdain believing Christians, whom I had always been inclined to regard with respect. But for long years, I did not give much thought to joining their number.

So why is it that the communion that was supposed to elevate former Protestants and give them a better grade of faith is entering into ecumenical discussions with one of the churches, mainline Lutherans, that sent Protestants in search of witness firm on sex and the body?

Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. has approved a declaration recognizing “there are no longer church-dividing issues” on many points with the Roman Catholic church.
The “Declaration on the Way” was approved 931-9 by the 2016 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly held last week at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton called the declaration “historic” in a statement released by the denomination following the Wednesday vote.

That’s right. A female bishop welcomed the news of entering into closer relations with church that will not ever ordain women.

But some Roman Catholics are not happy (the unhappy Lutherans are already in a different synod — LCMS):

The ecumenical drive has been part of the check-list of popes before the current pontiff. The joint worship service has been described by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation as a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration” in order to avoid further controversy. Some Catholics, especially traditionalists, have criticized the prospect of a pope celebrating a schism. Another issue that has traditionalist Catholics and some clerics baleful is the issue of the differing theologies held by the Catholic Church and Lutherans regard the nature and the confection of the Eucharist.

On the upside, Betsy Fox Genovese, who died in 2003, will not have to witness her church’s pursuit of unity with her former church.