What Does Evangelicalism Have to Do with Church Membership?

A recent Gallup Poll shows church membership dipping below 50% for the first time in eight decades. The results have provided observers with a chance to take the temperature of religion in the U.S. Some worry about America’s national identity if faith declines. Others regard this as evidence that religious “nones” are almost as numerous as evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Still others notice that the drop has been most significant for Roman Catholics and Democrats who are religious. And among evangelicals, the lesson to learn is either that church membership is necessary and biblical or that Americans are leaving churches because evangelicals are — believe it or not — hypocritical.

What few seem to notice is that evangelicalism, for one, is not a church. It is an impulse or dynamic that turns Presbyterians into Presbyterian evangelicals, or Anglicans into low-church Anglicans. Evangelicalism is not a communion.

For another, the very point of the new birth, as George Whitefield explained it, was to place church membership several rungs below (in importance) a personal relationship with Jesus:

The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion. . . . it is certainly a blessing to have the outward government and discipline of the Church exercised; but then, if you place religion merely in being of this or that sect–if you contend to monopolize or confine the grace of God to your particular party–if you rest in that, you place the kingdom of God in something in which it does not consist. (“The Kingdom of God,” 1741)

That stress upon the internal as opposed to the external of religion, on the heart over the head, on experience over liturgical forms, is one reason why evangelicals may not be as troubled by the decline in church membership.

Thomas Kidd, who wrote a biography of Whitefield, applies the logic of the evangelist’s sermon to the recent data:

The overall picture of declining church membership should be of interest, but not special worry to Reformed and evangelical believers. We’re not so much concerned with “mere” church members, but “regenerate” church members. And evangelicals have been at their best—such as during the First and Second Great Awakenings—when they had to work hard at drawing people into church with crystal-clear proclamation of the gospel, and with caring service to the needs of congregations.

Because of this elevation of conversion over church membership, perhaps the evangelicalism in its aggregate character is more like Antifa than the church. Here is how Mark Bray described Antifa last May:

Trump cannot designate “ANTIFA” as a terrorist organization because antifa is not an organization. Rather, it is a politics of revolutionary opposition to the far right. There are antifa groups, such as Rose City Antifa in Portland and NYC Antifa, just as there are feminist groups, such as Code Pink. But neither antifa nor feminism is itself an organization. You cannot subpoena an idea or a movement. That’s not to say that antifa doesn’t exist, of course. Antifa is “very real,” . . .but not in the monolithic, hierarchical way in which he and many other Americans are accustomed to thinking of political associations.

The same applies to evangelicalism. It is an experience, a piety, a sentiment, but not an organization. Fuller Seminary or The Gospel Coalition may be evangelical organizations. But evangelicalism is not monolithic or hierarchical. Evangelicalism does not function like a Christian church.

Tim Keller Plants, New York City Gives the Growth

In the ballpark of always affirming, always sunny religious journalism comes Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s puff piece on Tim Keller’s retirement at Redeemer NYC. I am not sure that this is the kind of analysis of context that Joe Carter had in mind for the Gospel Coalition’s journalistic forays:

The three main forms of journalism we use at TGC (opinion and advocacy journalism; reporting and narrative journalism; explanatory journalism) are all used to help the church think more clearly about the gospel and how it leads us to interact with the world.

Although, since Carter thinks journalism at TGC should promote revivals, Zylstra’s piece certainly does that. Her account shows, whether she intended or not, how much Keller’s position in New York City made him stand out in ways that no one else among the Allies could. If you do a word count on Zylstra’s story, she mentions the PCA twice, Presbyterian six times, and New York 37 times. As for the work of the Holy Spirit — nada.

If religious journalism at TGC is supposed to promote revivals, that would place Zylstra’s rendering of Keller more on the Finney than the Whitefield side of pretty good awakenings since Finney wasn’t big on the Holy Spirit either.

What I don’t understand is why Mark Dever doesn’t get more attention in the TGC world. There he is ministering in the nation’s capitol, the center of American power, the place from which the United States leads the free world. And yet, to get traction as an urban church planter you need the mojo of the nation’s biggest city, the place that nurtured and shaped Donald J. Trump.

What’s up with that?

Certainly Not Calvinist But Not Even Baptist

How do you explain selectivity (cafeteria Protestantism) about — wait for it — the Ten Commandments? But the Allies have their ways of satisfying itching ears. Here’s the latest — positive thoughts about Nativity Scenes:

I’ve changed my views because our culture has changed. As society becomes increasingly secular, it seems to me that just about anything that ties Christmas back to the historical account of Jesus’s birth provides an important point of connection. These small displays are an opportunity for engagement and conversation between those in our communities who celebrate nothing more than Santa and those who love the message of the Jesus’s incarnation.

In fact, I’m always intrigued when someone is offended by the presence of a nativity scene. It’s quite fascinating that people can be offended by a collection of miniature ecclesiastical characters. Why do people get upset? Perhaps it’s because they recognize that what’s being said in that small scene is challenging and even personal: “This happened, this is history, there is a Jesus, and you have to deal with him one way or another.” The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.

Actually, it may be that the people who most often miss the message of the nativity scene are Christians. How easy it is to rush through the whole Christmas experience—the music in the mall, the services in your church, the presents in your house—and be left with sweet sentiments but no real worship in your heart. How easy it is to sing along to “Once in Royal David’s City”—

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all.

—and feel neither awe nor offense, but simply nothing much at all.

My point is that it’s not only non-Christians who trivialize Christmas. It’s us. The claims the Bible makes about the first Christmas are either fact or fiction, so they’re either awesome or offensive. They should move us to worship or to resistance. But so often Christians seem to be pursuing a pristine Christmas experience that more reflects the store-bought nativity scene than the costly and messy account of the Bible.

Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas. They avoided also any representation of any member of the Trinity. The same goes for Baptists. Until the twentieth century, non-Episcopalian and non-Lutheran Protestants didn’t do Christmas or display its wares. They only way to get around the second and fourth commandments (for the fourth, one day in seven is holy, not Jesus’ birthday) is if you so elevate feelings or evangelism and argue that rules don’t matter (sometimes). That’s more Whitefield than Edwards. In which case, the Allies can’t even honor properly their “homeboy.”

Just to keep score: justification is supposed to result in sanctification.

Good works constitute indispensable evidence of saving grace. Living as salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world that is dark, believers should neither withdraw into seclusion from the world, nor become indistinguishable from it: rather, we are to do good to the city, for all the glory and honor of the nations is to be offered up to the living God. Recognizing whose created order this is, and because we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doing good to all, especially to those who belong to the household of God. The kingdom of God, already present but not fully realized, is the exercise of God’s sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation. The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom. It therefore inevitably establishes a new community of human life together under God.

Maybe the Allies problem with the Decalogue is that they think of obedience too much in the context of the city and not being ye separate. Don’t want to take God’s word too far.

Hard or Soft?

Yesterday I participated in an ETS panel on The New Calvinism. (Here is one of the presentations. Here is evident of another ETS sighting.)

One thing that I kept asking myself and then asked everyone in open discussion was why so few New Calvinists ask hard questions about the movement. People talk a lot about how big, successful, important, and spiritual the whole enterprise is. People even mention the phrase, “work of God.” But who is willing to ask whether it is a work of God? And if you ask are you guilty of Pharoah’s disease — hardness of heart? And yet, it sure seems to me that one of the biggest differences between the Old and New Calvinists is that the former ask hard questions and make hard distinctions. Newbies don’t ask hard questions. Their softness of heart makes them see the good in everything. And that leads to a squishiness of conviction and teaching.

To illustrate the point, I submit a post by John Piper Tony Reinke (thanks to our southern correspondent) on celebrity pastors. The bottom line is that we can’t condemn them and we certainly can’t do without them. “Choose ye this day?” Do we have to? (And yet these are the people who are supposed to oppose lukewarm going-through-the-motions Christianity.)

Piper is interacting with Tommie Kidd about George Whitefield:

It doesn’t always work perfectly, but there’s no reason why a Christian celebrity should exist without accountability to a plurality of elders and congregation in a local church. The New Testament pattern for the local church is sufficiently capable of caring for celebrity Christians. The key is commitment and intentionality. “Celebrity preachers and artists would do well to build in real accountability structures for themselves within their church — and are they actually connected to a church to begin with? Some Christian celebrities today, if you scratch under the surface, are actually not involved with church. That is a serious warning sign” (Kidd).

Hello! Whitefield was a priest of the Church of England. He was supposedly under the oversight of a bishop and he wasn’t a mere Celebrity Christian the way that Amy Grant is/was a Celebrity Christian. He had taken ordination vows. His status as a preacher derived in part from his membership in the Church of England. So how much integrity did he have when contrary to church laws, laws he had vowed to uphold, he acted like those laws didn’t matter and went fellowshiping around with Protestant Dissenters?

Inquiring Old Calvinists want to know.

Here’s another hard question: do you ever worry about appearing to be self-serving?

Rejecting Christian celebrities on the basis of their fame is foolish. Paul tells us to do the opposite, and to see faithful Christian celebrities, not as idols, but as divine gifts. “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21–23).

In other words, celebrities like Whitefield and More are part of God’s cascading eternal gifts. In the end, if you can anticipate a day when you will inherit the earth, then you have begun to discover the freedom you need to humbly and joyfully embrace every celebrity God has given the church — celebrity teachers, preachers, artists — as gifts. Such wide-hearted gratitude is the antitoxin for the poison of elitism.

Love Celebrity Christians. Love George Whitefield. Love John Piper.

One last query: could it be that fame clouds the way a Celebrity Christian sees himself? If you think it’s all a work of God (and forget that we have been here before with the First and Second Pretty Good Awakenings and the revivals of Billy Graham), that is, if you accent the positive and look at hard questions as just so much evidence of the lack of the fruit of the Spirit, then you may be the soft underbelly of the body of Christ.

For my (body of Christ) part, put me down for the pain in the neck.

Does My Local Church Have the Authority to Contradict George Whitefield?

A recent survey indicated that 90 percent of evangelicals think the local church has no authority to declare whether a person is a believer. The responses from evangelical leaders indicated that upwards of 90 percent of those with authority in the church think the church has authority. Go figure. Here are a few of the responses (and notice the failure to invoke the “keys of the kingdom”):

Jesus charged the church with responsibility for its members. Those who are not behaving as Christians are to be held accountable, and the ultimate form of accountability is church discipline where someone who refuses to repent of known sin is removed as a member. J. Carl Laney, Bible professor, Western Seminary

Of course the local church has this authority. This is actually its responsibility, and it is exercised by every congregation that requires a credible profession of faith for membership—though the church cannot declare this with eternal certainty. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Many U.S. evangelicals think not. But historically, the church clearly has the right to say someone is not living in harmony with the gospel and to separate from them. And if being a Christian includes membership in the community of faith, then this does call their salvation into question. Brad Harper, Bible and theology chair, Multnomah University

As glad as I was to see these responses even if no one appealed to the keys — Protestants wonder how Peter could have monopolized them when he had so little to write for holy writ — I had to wonder how these evangelical leaders would have responded to George Whitefield’s sermon “The Kingdom of God” where he asserted:

The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion. . . . Again, as the kingdom of God does not consist in being in this or that sect, so neither does it consist in being baptized when you were young. . . . take care that you do not make a Christ of your baptism . . . . [N]either does [the kingdom] consist in being orthodox in our notions, or being able to talk fluently of the doctrines of the Gospel.

Say what you will about Whitefield and the qualifications he tried to make, his understanding of the new birth pulled the plug on the work of the institutional church — church membership, sacraments, and catechesis, for starters. So when will evangelical leaders understand that in backing the new birth outlook of a Whitefield or a Billy Graham, where church membership, doctrine, ceremonies are merely external matters that don’t fathom the import and depth of internal realities, they have sown the seeds of the laity’s disregard of church leaders?

When Neo-Calvinism Started to Stop Making Sense

Mark Edwards, Spring Arbor University, has touched a nerve among historians who profess some version of Protestantism by commenting on the new book, Confessing History, edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller and suggesting that the Conference on Faith and History is the intellectual arm of the Religious Right. The historians involved in this discussion don’t mind Edwards reservations about Christian history but are not wild about associations between talk of doing Christian history and the project of evangelical politics (can you blame them?). Edwards explains (courtesy of John Fea):

To me, it concerned the larger issue of “integration of faith and learning” which seemed to underlay CFH at least at that time. For many historians, integrationist language is ALWAYS theocratic code and thus, to them, relative to the Religious Right.

This strikes me as eminently sensible since if you are going to invoke the Lordship of Christ (a Kuyperian trope that informed the Conference on Faith and History from its earliest days) when it comes to academic life, why not also appeal to Christ’s Lordship over the state (as the Religious Right has done in a variety of idioms)? In fact, I began to suspect the weakness of neo-Calvinism when I wrote a piece about the history of the Conference on Faith and History for History and the Christian Historian. I detected that objections to secular scholarship were not far removed from arguments against secular politics. Here is an excerpte:

Apart from the Christian narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation, what meaning or purpose can a Christian see in history? And how have Christians historically been able to see this purpose in history? The answer is from some special and authoritative revelatory power, whether it be Scripture or the Magisterium. This means that a Christian historian wanting to understand God’s purposes in the French Revolution or the rise and fall of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium) needs some special revelation – unless, of course, Christian historians all have become charismatics and now receive a word of knowledge whenever they sit down at the computer.

The kind of Christian historical agnosticism advocated here even extends to events like the First Great Awakening, the incident that sparked the debate between [Harry] Stout and [Iain] Murray. The latter thinks that Whitefield’s efforts on behalf of the colonial revivals were the work of God. From Murray’s perspective Whitefield’s revivals benefitted the church, both through the spread of sound theology and through the conversion of vast numbers. But how does Murray know that the Great Awakening was the work of God? Did God tell him? His answer would no doubt be that Whitefield’s work conformed to the teaching of Scripture and that mass conversions were a confirmation of God’s blessing. But this is not the only Christian perspective on Whitefield’s revivals. Roman Catholics would no doubt take a different view. So too would those within the Protestant fold, such as confessional Lutherans and Reformed. Furthermore, is God only at work in history when things go well, when saints are added to his church? Or does the doctrine of providence teach that God is also at work in the revivals that Murray questions, such as those crusades associated with Charles Finney and countless other not-so-Calvinistic evangelists? In fact, the doctrine of providence teaches that God is at work in everything, both good and not so good. But to determine what God intended by a particular event is another matter altogether. In other words, without the special revelation God gave to the apostles and through the risen Christ, twentieth-century Christians, just like the early church, cannot know the meaning from God’s perspective of any historical event, even the crucifixion.

This strong assertion brings us back to the question of whether such a thing as Christian history really exists. Are Christian historians better able to discern the hand of God in history than non-Christians? Are their criteria of evaluation any different even from that of an elder in a local church who has to judge whether or not the person meeting with the session is making a credible profession of faith? And if Christians cannot see into the soul of someone else to tell definitively whether God has intervened, are Christian historians any better able to do so with political, economic or cultural events?

In the end, Christian history is nice work if you can get it. It would be marvelous if, because of faith or regeneration, Christian historians were able to divine what God was up to in all subjects of research and teaching. But Christian theology says we cannot discern God’s hand in that way. It also reminds us that we need to trust that God is in control of human history even if we cannot always see that control, that God providentially orders and governs human affairs to protect his children. No matter how much the historical profession says that history moves from antiquity to modernity, the Bible tells Christians, whether historians or not, that the real direction of history is from the first to the last Adam. Only with a sense of history that culminates in Christ and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth will we finally have a Christian history. The problem for CFH members is that of trying to connect the meta-narrative of redemption to the narratives of the United States, ethnic groups, or western civilization, stories all of which are fascinating and part of God’s providence, but that may distract from the grander history of salvation.

From agnosticism about the workings of history, it was relatively easy work to get to agnosticism about political arrangements and candidates, sometimes called A Secular Faith.

Between Whitefield and the Vatican

A winsome Oldlifer reminded me yesterday of how troubling the First Great Pretty Good Awakening was and is. He was referring specifically to George Whitefield’s sermon on Romans 14:17, “The Kingdom of God.” There Whitefield does exactly what John Williamson Nevin detected when he experienced a revival, namely, the outlook of revivalists that the church and her ordinances “are more a bar than a help to the process” of becoming a Christian.

Here are three points that Whitefield makes:

The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion.

. . . neither does [the kingdom of God] consist in being baptized when you were young. . .

. . . neither does it consist in being orthodox in our notions, or being able to talk fluently of the doctrines of the Gospel.

These are sentiments that explain why Whitefield can express the sort of disregard for denominational differences that would become common among Protestants in the so-called ecumenical movement and continue to afflict The Gospel Coalition (and which by the way would make mid-twentieth-century mainline historians and ecumenistsfans of the First Great Pretty Good Awakening):

. . . there are Christians among other sects that may differe from us in the outward worship of God. Therefore, my dear friends, learn to be more catholic, more unconfined in your notions; for if you place the kingdom of God merely in a sect, you place it in that in which it does not consist.

Whitefield is arguably one of the biggest problems facing confessional Protestants because his effort to do justice to the Spirit winds up doing an injustice to the Word and the ordinances the Bible prescribes. Consequently, when confessional Protestants become sticklers about worship or church government or even doctrine (as we tend to do with Gospel Coalition types), then followers of Whitefield construe us as as being liberal Protestants (only protecting the order of the church) or even Roman Catholic (having too high a view of the church).

Seeing support for Whitefield among conservative Presbyterians (Iain Murray, for instance, but the vast majority of Presbyterians in the U.S.A. after the Plan of Union, 1758) who subscribe the Westminster Standards, is equally frustrating since the evangelist took dead aim at the confession’s teaching (whether he knew it or not):

2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

3. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (ch. 25)

So the line confessional Protestants walk is the real via media, between the enthusiasts who justify what they do by appealing to the Spirit (without the Word) and the Romanists (who rarely let the Spirit get in the way of the magisterium). The Reformation was about Word and Spirit, about ordinances and godliness, about a churchly pattern of piety. It is too formal for Whitefield and too loose for Rome. But that’s where we are — in the moderate middle, plain, vanilla, simple, buttoned-down (but never perfect).

Ben Franklin: Patron Saint of Applicatory Preaching?

I came across the follow excerpt while teaching a few weeks ago and it was striking that the self-made man and pursuer of virtue, Ben Franklin, was no fan of doctrinal preaching. I suspect that his objections to the preaching of Jedediah Andrews, the pastor at First Presbyterian in Philadelphia, would have also applied to redemptive historical sermons. Here is what Franklin observed:

Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us’d to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagin’d, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin’d himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more. I had some years before compos’d a little Liturgy, or form of prayer, for my own private use (viz., in 1728), entitled, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. I return’d to the use of this, and went no more to the public assemblies. My conduct might be blameable, but I leave it, without attempting further to excuse it; my present purpose being to relate facts, and not to make apologies for them.

This is not meant to be an expression of guilt by association, as if those who want application in preaching share Franklin’s views about religion more generally. I personally continue to be impressed by Franklin in a host of ways — his industry, his humor and style, his remarkable literary interests, and his statesmanship. But he wasn’t right about everything. People are complicated. That likely includes preaching and revivals (he was a fan, after all, of Whitefield).

Scott Clark Has a Point

(Or, show me your confessionalism!)

In Recovering the Reformed Confession, Scott Clark argues for and understanding of the Christian ministry and piety that informed the confessions of the Reformed churches pretty much all the way down to when Boy George (Whitefield) set foot in the North American British colonies. Among the points Clark makes is that the teachings affirmed and practices prescribed in the Reformed confessions are a better gauge of Reformed identity than the sort of zeal and experience that the likes of Whitefield encouraged and sought.

One way to test Clark’s argument is to ask by what measure do we evaluate a college that claims to be Protestant. Some who are sharply critical of Clark have recently faulted one of the leading evangelical institutions on two grounds: first, a majority of the faculty voted for Barack Obama; second, its teachers education program encourages students to embrace notions of tolerance and diversity that various secular state teachers’ agencies affirm, thus forcing Christian college education majors into a secular mold of “social justice.” (The same critics of Clark have faulted Covenant College for its faculty’s support for Obama in the 2008 presidential contest.)

What does not seem to matter in such evaluations is whether the college’s faculty are members or attend churches where the Reformed creeds are the confessional standard. In fact, one could well imagine a college qualifying as a flagship institution because it was consistently pro-Republican (as long as the pro-life plank of the platform was in place) and minimally doctrinal. If memory serves, this was exactly the kind of place that Wheaton College was before 1990. Culturally activist while doctrinally tolerant on dogmatic minutia is likely the ideal for Clark’s critics, meaning that creeds and confessions do not matter significantly when evaluating Christian higher education.

So why do such critics object if the confessionalist shoe does not fit? It isn’t an accusation of infidelity (though it has implications for this.) It is simply a question of definition: do the creeds inform the way you assess Christianity or do you have a different list of allegiances and personalities that in effect constitute your confession? If you are confessional you are going to evaluate Christian institutions and expressions on the basis of the creeds, as well as the health of the communions with which an institution affiliates. But if you are more inclined, in this case, to Whitefield and Edwards, you end up criticizing a school for its politics. In other words, pietism generates activism; while confessionalism nurtures perseverance.

Put another way, a confessional “world view” (as much as I hate the phrase) esteems the cult and the culture in inversely proportional relations. The higher one’s view of the creeds, the less one cares about politics. And the more one cares about culture, the less the creeds matter.

Makes sense to this confessionalist.