Do Churches Need Alliances to Say that Churches are Essential?

Brett McCracken tries to rally the gospel allies under the banner of the the notion that church is essential. Of course, as a mild-mannered evangelical, he refuses to to give offense: “I’m not suggesting churches should defy government directives, deeming themselves “essential” even if authorities say otherwise. To do so would only inflame existing culture wars in unhelpful ways.” Can you inflame culture wars in helpful way?

But he does want to push back on a form of privatized Protestantism that encourages Christians to think that the church is non-essential to genuine faith:

Even though Scripture makes clear the church (ekklesia) occupies a central place in God’s eternal plan (e.g. Eph. 3:7–12), our anemic ecclesiology often relegates church to a decidedly non-essential place. If church is just a nice-to-have part of our self-styled spiritual journey—but only insofar as it enhances rather than undermines our expressive individualism—then of course it’s something we can go without for prolonged periods. Church is not essential, we assume, because Christianity is just as easily practiced solo at home. Give me a Bible, some inspiring worship music, and maybe a few spiritual podcasts, and I’m good. Do we really need church to be spiritually healthy?

Maybe this is obvious, but the irony here is yuge! The publisher of this essay, The Gospel Coalition, is an organization that relies largely on the notion that fellowships like theirs are at least as more important for advancing the kingdom of grace as the denominations that actually believe and affirm that the visible church is the institution God has ordained to carry out the plan of salvation. In fact, TGC mainly refuses to take sides on matters that pertain to the health and well-being of the denominations that comprise most of their fellows and board members. That makes sense since weighing in on a doctrinal or disciplinary controversy in, say, the PCA (four of its nine board members and its president are PCA ministers) could hurt TGC’s effort to secure the attention and following of a certain kind of Protestants.

Here, worth remembering is TGC’s original understanding of its work in relation to “the church.”

We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures. We have become deeply concerned about some movements within traditional evangelicalism that seem to be diminishing the church’s life and leading us away from our historic beliefs and practices. (Preamble)

From the very get go, TGC was a fellowship designed to remedy deficiencies of churches. When it came to the organization’s doctrinal affirmations, their statement on the church also indicated that the particular teachings and practices of specific communions — Baptist, Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, independent — were beyond the organization’s scope:

The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. The church is distinguished by her gospel message, her sacred ordinances, her discipline, her great mission, and, above all, by her love for God, and by her members’ love for one another and for the world. Crucially, this gospel we cherish has both personal and corporate dimensions, neither of which may properly be overlooked. Christ Jesus is our peace: he has not only brought about peace with God, but also peace between alienated peoples. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world. (God’s New People)

As generic statements go, that one is not too bad. But it leaves up in the air the differences over doctrine, worship, and discipline that divide the communions (Baptist, Presbyterian, independent, and Anglican) where board members are members. If the church were truly essential, why wouldn’t TGC try to bring all of those evangelicals from the Reformed tradition into a single church body where they could be more than a fellowship — a true communion? Or could it be that fellowship at conferences, video interviews, and in collections of essays is as good as the communion supplied by a church? Your denomination may bring you news about evangelism in East Asia, but the Gospel Coalition gives you Nine Things You Need to Know about Human Cloning.

According to the confession that several board members affirm:

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.

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. (Confession of Faith 25)

If the church does all that, why is a fellowship necessary? Why do you “need” to know about human cloning?

Odd then that McCracken describes the value of churches this way:

Personal spirituality becomes an incoherent mess when it has weak ties to a robust church community. Society at large suffers when local churches aren’t fully functioning. Among other things, churches serve critical needs in their communities (food banks, homeless assistance, educational support, orphan care, counseling, among much else) and contribute to the mental and spiritual health of the larger population.

Churches, accordingly, are good for social capital and community development.

Actually, without “the” church, TGC would not have its council or board members. It is, after all, the PCA that ordained the likes of Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung, that calls these pastors to churches that provide a platform for their standing in their denomination and TGC, that oversees their ministry and holds them accountable (sort of). Without denominations like the PCA and other communions represented by council members, TGC would not exist.

So, yeah, the church is essential. The Gospel Coalition is not.

Pietism and Christian Alliances

It might seem strange to describe something like the Gospel Coalition as confessional when its affect and substance is so much more pietist:

Pietist historians had narrated how much conflict and violence had been begotten by ecclesial differences. And while their hope for the future was to repristinate Christian faith and free it from the old animosities, their reading of the Christian past was one of chagrin and contrition. There were others, far less enthusiastic than they for Jesus, who looked over their shoulders at this same sad history and saw it as Europe’s folly. All those quarrels over the homoousios and homoiousios, Communion from the cup, predestination, apostolic succession, total depravity, infant baptism, and so much else, persuaded this generation that all the bickering had been no more important than the tithing of anise and cumin. . . .

A pietist directly address people who have inherited a confused tradition, and when he or she says that “all property is God’s,” or that “we are all brothers and sisters and call no man teacher,” and that “it is all summed up in love,” the short saying is like a single wink from Alec Guinness near the end of a complex film, a wink that suddenly makes sense of it all to the attentive viewer. But to a patron who walked into the theater in the midst of the final reel the wink might as well be a flirtatious come-on, for it is all the newcomer can see. . . . to someone whose head is so empty as to make confusion impossible, for someone who is starting from an intellectual ground zero, the toss-off could be a quip that becomes the cornerstone of a new and lethally naive Weltanschauung. This ability of the unformed addressee to receive what the pietist intended as a restorative insight, and to mistake it as a freestanding truth instead, and thereby to take in hand terribly less than was handed on, is what has made pietist reforms so powerfully cliched and unstable. (James Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light, 841, 840).

How Broad Can Confessional Presbyterians Be?

The subject of confessionalism in relation to the Gospel Coalition has again come up, this time with a charitable defense of the organization from Ligon Duncan. The article that elicited this response is not at issue here.  I have not read it nor is that as pertinent as what Duncan says about confessionalism:

None of us are a part of TGC because we don’t care about our ministerial vows or because we don’t really believe our Confession.

We are a part of TGC because TGC beautifully promotes certain important things in the wider Christian and evangelical world that are needed, vital, true, good, right, timely, healthful, and which are also perfectly consistent with our own confessional theological commitments, so we want to be a part and a help. We also think that we have a thing or two to learn from our non-Presbyterian friends in TGC that “sweetly comport” with our vows and our church’s doctrine and practice. And we love the friendship and fellowship we enjoy with like-minded brethren from and ministering in settings denominationally different from our own, but committed to the same big things.

Just as Charles Hodge of Princeton (not one shy of his confessional Presbyterian commitments), for similar reasons, was happy to participate in the Evangelical Alliance in the nineteenth century, so also I am happy to participate in TGC.

This is an important historical matter that deserves more attention. What was the relationship of Hodge’s Old School Presbyterianism to interdenominational endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance? And how did Hodge’s own opposition to the 1869 reunion of the Old and New School churches relate to endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance?

One way of answering that question is to notice that the sorts of cooperation in which mainline Protestants engaged after the Civil War, with the 1869 Presbyterian reunion paving the way, fueled ecumenical and social gospel endeavors that produced conservative opposition in the 1920s and 1930s. The Evangelical Alliance was the Moral Majority of its day, wanting immigrants to conform to Protestant norms, opposed to Romanism and communism (for starters), and it provided the vehicle for Protestants to unite to defend a Christian America. Those ecumenical impulses eventually produced the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 and the Plan for Organic Union in 1920, a proposal that would have united all mainline Protestants into one national church — the way Canadian Protestants at roughly the same time formed the United Church of Canada (1925).

What the period of interdenominational cooperation meant for Presbyterians was a 1903 revision of the Confession of Faith. That revision enabled the PCUSA to receive the Cumberland Presbyterians. Revision softened the Confession’s Calvinism to make room for a body that had left the church almost one hundred years earlier over objections to election and limited atonement. Presbyterians going along for the ecumenical ride included the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, who presented the Plan for Organic Union to the 1920 General Assembly. J. Gresham Machen was a first-time commissioner to that Assembly and Princeton’s faculty’s opposition to that plan was start of a denomination wide controversy that forced the 1929 reorganization of Princeton Seminary (to make it tolerant of diversity) and the simultaneous founding of Westminster Seminary.

According to Lefferts Loetscher, who wrote a book with a title that frightened conservatives in the PCUSA and the PCUS, The Broadening Church (1954), the reunion of Old and New School in 1869 touched off developments that saw the PCUSA recover its historic breadth:

Once again in 1869, as in 1758, the Presbyterian Church was restoring unity not by resolving its differences, but by ignoring and absorbing them. Men who had been denounced as “heretics” in 1837 and who had professed no change of theological viewpoint in the interim were welcomed in 1869 as honored brethren. The result was, of course, that the theological base of the Church (especially of the former Old School branch of the Church) was broadened and the meaning of its subscription formula further relaxed. The gentlemen’s agreement of 1869 to tolerate divergent types of Calvinism meant that clear-cut definitions of Calvinism would not be enforceable in the reunited Church, and that it would be increasingly difficult to protect historic Calvinism against variations that might undermine its essential character. (8)

No one actually doubts whether the Old and New Schools were liberal. By almost every measure, both sides would come out as evangelical today (especially if you don’t apply the category of confessionalism). And yet, the breadth necessary for combining both sides also made room for a range of theological ideas that spawned liberalism.

In other words, breadth is not a good thing. Broadening churches are usually ones that become liberal.

So why is an organization that tolerates a diversity of “evangelical” convictions going to avoid that problems that usually surface when you recognize you need to be broader than your own communion is? The answer is not that the Gospel Coalition is going liberal. But an objection to the Gospel Coalition is that it does not have built in transparent mechanisms for identifying and disciplining liberalism.

And here are a couple ways that the Coalition’s breadth could collide with my own Presbyterian confessionalism. If I am a member of the Council and an officer in a confessional Presbyterian church, and my communion has a controversy over someone ordained who does not affirm the doctrine of limited atonement, will I receive support for my opposition to this erroneous officer from my friends and colleagues at TGC? Or what about the Federal Vision? If my church decides that Federal Vision is a dangerous set of teachings that need to be opposed, will my friends and colleagues at TGC support my church in its decision? Will people who write for Gospel Coalition even be clear about the covenant theology that is clearly taught in the Confession of Faith? Or will some of them think that my communion is too narrow in its understanding of Reformed Protestantism? Will they think that the proper response should be one to include a breadth of views in denominations because that is the norm for the Coalition? I could well imagine feeling some pressure to weigh matters before a presbytery or Assembly with my peers in the Coalition in mind? Will I disappoint them? Maybe that’s the wrong way of asking the question. What if they don’t care about the affairs of my communion the way I do? (Why should they care since they are not members or officers of my denomination?)

These are real dilemmas for anyone who has subscribed the Confession and Catechisms and been ordained in a Presbyterian communion while also belonging to an evangelical organization with standards different from the church. They are concerns that have been around for almost 160 years. The Gospel Coalition has not brought an end to church history.

What the Coronavirus Reveals about Protestant Piety

For Lutherans, the question is what do you do?

What precautions should my church take?

  1. Buy large supplies of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Masks too if you feel like it, but masks are not as essential as disinfectant materials.

  2. Establish a single, controlled point of entry to your church which you can use to force congregants to wash their hands and check for disease symptoms.

  3. Strongly discourage people with any sickness in their household from coming to church; the pastor or deacons can make a house call later.

  4. Eliminate non-essential activities at your church like social groups. Consider suspending church schools or peripheral activities.

  5. Communion is your highest-infection-risk element of the service. Avoid passing a communion plate, intinction, or a common cup. The safest way to take communion is in individual cups and pieces of bread, in small groups, at the altar.

  6. Other personal-touch service elements like peace-passing, offering, or attendance books should also be restructured or suspended.

  7. Put more space between chairs or encourage bigger seating gaps in pews.

  8. However, informal interpersonal contact at church and church fellowship time does not need to be cancelled, provided a few basic precautions are taken, like limiting food to individually-packaged snacks.

  9. It is especially important for church workers to wash their hands fanatically, wear masks, and maintain good personal hygiene.

For New Calvinists, the question is what this disease means for your walk with God:

Why should Christians be concerned about the coronavirus?

There are several reasons Christians should be concerned about the coronavirus, and for those who are suffering from the disease. But the primary reason, as the apostle Paul tells us, is that we should “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) and that we “comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4).

As a pastor of a church in Wuhan recently said in an open letter to fellow believers, “If you do not feel a responsibility to pray, ask the Lord for a loving soul, an earnestly prayerful heart; if you are not crying, ask the Lord for tears. Because we surely know that only through the hope of the Lord’s mercy will Wuhan be saved.”

Neither set of advice is wrong. But if you want an index to the way that confessional Protestants and pietists think about life in this world — especially about economics and politics — this is a good measure. Notice too the importance of the church and public worship to the Lutheran outlook. Just saying.

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.

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.

Sanctification Signaling

Big Green Letters is piling on with niceness. Not only has Jared Wilson repeated the charge that Calvinists are mean, but Ray Ortlund re-quotes John Newton’s oft-cited comments about how to pursue controversy with love. (Justin Taylor may be the first Green Letter to appeal to Newton.)

But here’s the thing that Big Green Letters don’t seem to consider — that the pursuit of nice often ignores both sides of a disagreement. It opts for the third way without really sorting out what’s right and wrong in the controverted issues. Which means, that love or nice is its own sort of polemical meanness because in taking no side and offering no alternative except to say “love” or “be nice,” it ignores the people and principles in view. Imagine doing that in a dispute between a wife and a teenage son over mowing the grass. The dad says, “love each other.”

Sure.

This side of Big Green Letters, this religious affectionism, is what makes evangelicals (even those who think they are Calvinist) so unreliable either in ecclesiastical or civil matters. Liel Liebovitz picked up on this in the spat between Sohrab Ahmari and David French over virtue and the current POTUS:

To put it briefly, the Never Trump argument is that they should be greatly approved of, while Donald Trump should rightly be scorned, because—while they agree with Trump on most things, politically—they are devoted to virtue, while Trump is uniquely despicable. The proofs of Trump’s singular loathsomeness are many, but if you strip him of all the vices he shares with others who had recently held positions of power—a deeply problematic attitude towards women (see under: Clinton, William Jefferson), shady business dealings (see under: Clinton, Hillary Rodham), a problematic attitude towards the free press (see under: Obama, Barack)—you remain with one ur-narrative, the terrifying folk tale that casts Trump as a nefarious troll dispatched by his paymasters in the Kremlin to set American democracy ablaze.

By analogy, The Big Green Letters supposedly agree with “mean” Calvinists about Christianity and church ministry (actually they don’t but go along, please), but want to hold themselves up as the party of sanctification because they don’t fight the way “mean” Calvinists do. But what if Big Green Letters had had a little more fight or agreed more with “mean” Calvinists when deliberating about whether to grant a Big Letter to Mark Driscoll, C. J. Mahaney, and James MacDonald?

It gets worse (thanks to Liebovitz) and points to the follow-the-money argument that Carl Trueman has made:

French and the other self-appointed guardians of civility, then, should do us all a favor and drop the civic virtue act. They’re not disinterested guardians of our public institutions; they are actors, working in an industry that rewards them for dressing up in Roman Republican drag and reciting Cicero for the yokels. This is why Bill Kristol, another of the Never Trumpers, could raise money for his vanity website, The Bulwark, and why he could expect his new creation be lauded on CNN as “a conservative site unafraid to take on Trump,” even as the site was staffed by leftist millennials and dutifully followed progressive propaganda lines. Like anyone whose living depends on keeping on the right side of a leftist industry, they understood that there’s only so much you can say if you care about cashing a paycheck—especially when the president and leader of your own party won’t take your phone calls.

The Never Trumpers, of course, aren’t the first Americans to hide cold careerism behind a wall of virtue-signaling. It’s why so many in the professional punditry went the way of Never Trump: More than anything else, the decision to align oneself with a movement that, ontologically, vows to reject the president a priori, no matter what he might say or do, regardless of your own supposed political beliefs, is a way of affirming one’s professional class loyalties, thus ensuring that your progeny will still be accepted and acceptable at Yale.

A YUGE part of Big Green Letters’ brand is nice. It increases hits at the website, registrations at conferences, sales of books, size of celebrity. In which case, if the New Calvinists really want to follow John Newton’s example and practice their niceness within the boundaries of a Christian communion like the Church of England rather than turning nice Calvinism into a movement.

When to Feel Empathy

The Gospel Coalition continues in the mold of George H. W. Bush by trying to find a kinder, gentler, evangelicalism. This time it is remembering the anxiety of women with unwanted pregnancies:

Women facing an unplanned pregnancy often have very reasonable, here-and-now fears. They may fear the loss of financial stability—or the loss of the ability to ever reach it. They may fear the loss of an already teetering status quo in which every available ounce of food is already consumed at home—perhaps by other children they’re already parenting. Pregnant women may lose a job, or they may not get the job they were hoping for. They may fear a violent boyfriend or father.

They may even fear pregnancy itself, which is often full of terrifying sickness, physical pain, loss of emotional control, and embarrassing bodily problems. All of these fears are real and oft-cited at crisis-pregnancy centers the country over. A common theme weaves through most of them: the fear of other people.

Evil often begets more evil. While many who support so-called abortion rights believe they’re serving needy women, they’re overlooking one critical reality: Women are often brought—reluctantly—to the abortion doctor. These women are compelled toward abortion not by their own empowering, my-body-is-my-own sense of autonomy, but by another person seeking control. Angry boyfriends, angry husbands, angry mothers, angry employers—these are so often the wind at the back of an abortion-minded woman.

Women may fear something else, too: adoption. Though morally clear, the thought is often experientially vague: It seems, or feels, much less repugnant to have a hidden medical procedure in the first weeks of pregnancy than to consciously hand over a smiling, babbling baby to a woman whose body never knew him or her. It’s cognitive dissonance, sure, but it’s a real—and understandable—fear.

This logic is not wrong. But it is peculiar the way that progressive evangelicals decide on which issues to project toughness, and on which ones to strike the pose of nice.

Imagine if John Fea had written this way about the fears of evangelicals who voted for Trump.

Imagine if Jemar Tisby had written this way about the OPC shooter in Poway.

And imagine if Joe Carter had written this way about kinism.

Lots of talk in the last five years about confirmation bias. I don’t think we have had enough of a conversation about reading between the lines and noticing agendas.