Putting the Nationalism in Denominationalism

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

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

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

I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministry Inside the Bubble

Redeemer NYC has been in existence for almost twenty years and by this point it may be worth asking whether Tim Keller and company have transformed or been transformed by the bubble. Consider, for starters, that Redeemer spawned churches that cover Brooklyn — bubble central — about as well as Verizon. Notice as well that Keller speaks of the dangers of white nationalism the way many in the academy, Hollywood, Washington, and the Times do (though he also worries about secularism).

More substantive than these atmospheric impressions are the way that the Kellers promote the big city and its culture. Does anyone remember how Kathy Keller lauded the benefits of living in the city?

Lifestyle Benefits

simplicity more possible—you collect less stuff in small apartments

immediate family is closer physically, harder for kids to isolate themselves; meals together more likely

apt cleaning/care is easier, less time-consuming than a house

you don’t spend all your free time on house/yard chores

no scraping off your car in icy weather—enjoy walking in the snow instead

no school snow days—the subway is always working

sense of community, bonding, in your immediate neighborhood

for new parents, especially stay-at-home moms, you don’t experience the isolation and despair of being stuck at home all day, unable to go out or even see another adult person—just a trip to the laundry room gives you someone to talk to, and a stroll outside brings you to the world

many large American cities have something like Fresh Direct: order your groceries online and have them delivered the next day, boxed, to your kitchen; great if you are sick or time pressured

fresh fruit and cheap flowers at corner stands rival expensive shops elsewhere

great food in every restaurant—no bad meals . . .


airline prices are cheaper to/from larger cities; fewer transfers

closer to ministry opportunities, especially diverse groups, the poor, ethnic communities (instead of traveling many miles to reach a people group); virtually all people groups are in the city, especially Africans, Russians, and South Americans

less expensive for getaways; can travel by subway to a new neighborhood or a cultural enclave for a change of pace; so many unique experiences close at hand

wealthy people in cities are always happy to lend their vacation homes to ministry families for weekends and getaways, as long as you are flexible; since ministry happens on weekends, mid-week getaways don’t generally conflict with the owners’ desire to use it on weekends

easier to reach the suburbs from the city center than to reach the city center from the suburbs

access to the best of the best in: professional sports, cultural interests (museums, lectures), entertainment (theatre, music, improv), educational opportunities/options, shopping, influencers in every field, restaurants, medical care

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of cities for many of these reasons. But Ms. Keller doesn’t seem to understand that urbanism separates her from lots of other Americans, while signalling to urban dwellers that she and her husband’s ministry “get” — nay, love — the city (even if the big steeple PCA churches in the South or the social justice warriors in St. Louis do not: “bless their hearts for being urban, but they don’t know NYC the way we do” – read they aren’t bubblicious). How do you then challenge the bubble when you’re on the same side as the bubble?

Tim Keller himself earlier this year showed that he was not as comfortable with urban artistic life as many might assume given Redeemer’s Faith & Work Center:

Contemporary art is dominated by either critical theory or commercialism. Much art is aimed at transgressing and debunking all social norms in order to liberate the individual. Or it is designed to provoke in such a way that attracts eyeballs and income. It’s possible that gospel-changed Christians in the arts would bring far more hope and less nihilism, and could express visions of community and shared values.

Isn’t that all the more reason to wonder whether Redeemer’s ministry did anything to prepare New Yorkers for what happened on election day. Or, were they part of the constituency that Saturday Night Live mocked?

They pride themselves on being open-minded, but they actually close themselves off to contrary arguments; The Bubble is a “community of like-minded free-thinkers—and no one else.” They think they’re more thoughtful and intellectual, but they’re really just confirming each other’s biases; a “wide array of diverse viewpoints” is two people doing nothing but agreeing with each other. They think they’re well-informed and cultured, but they draw from a very narrow range of trendy lifestyle fads and “only the good websites.” They think of their lifestyle as simple and accessible, but only the well off can afford it. (“Anybody is welcome to join us,” the ad proclaims, but a one-bedroom apartment starts at $1.9 million—not far off from reality in Manhattan or San Francisco.)

They say they are above racial division, but they’re the ones obsessing over it. (“We don’t see color here—but we celebrate it.”) Then there’s the preening, condescending race-consciousness of the privileged white “progressive”—who, in this sketch, ostentatiously points to the “black power” button on his lapel and gets a subtly exasperated roll of the eyes from his black co-star.

Most important: They depend on the support and protection of blue-collar workers who don’t share their values and culture.

Can’t Presbyterians ask what happens to Presbyterian frogs in the New York City kettle? Isn’t that what Presbyterian polity is about? Or are we supposed to be awed by Redeemer exceptionalism?

Can We Reach Them (and Can We Afford To)?

Are sounds of doubt and uncertainty beginning to echo out of the Big Apple?

First, Tim Keller writes a book notice on Matthew Bowman’s The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism. Although he sounds confident that New York City now has churches who teach “historic orthodox doctrine” and are “also intellectually robust and socially engaged,” he also seems worried.

There are at least 100 churches that we can discern that have been begun over the last 20 years in center city New York (and some older churches renewed) that are closer to the older kind of Christianity that used to flourish here. However, we too face the issue of a culture that is not interested in what we have to say. How do we reach them?

Add to that the recent reflections of an Englishman, Andrew Wilson, about Christianity and the churches in New York and you begin to wonder if all the money spent on Redeemer PCA is going to amount to much (aside from pastoral celebrity):

One of the pastors at Redeemer Presbyterian Church was interviewed on his/their ways of doing youth ministry. His first comment was that, because it is hard to believe in New York City – only around 3% of Manhattan is made up of evangelical Christians, although it is closer to 8-9% in the other boroughs – they affirm doubt. They acknowledge the force of objections to Christianity, and encourage people simply for being in the city and remaining Christian, because they recognise how hard it is. . . .

although the Christian world has mostly heard of Tim Keller and Redeemer, they are tiny in the city. (One of their assistant pastors said that Dimas Salaberrios, an Ethiopian pastor from the Bronx who spoke at the conference, is more well known in the city itself than Keller, even though most Christians outside the city have never heard of him.) A church of six thousand in eight million is a drop in the ocean. But another pastor mentioned the disproportionate influence they have had, simply by demystifying and detoxifying the city for evangelicals. “If they weren’t there, we could never do what we’re doing,” he said. . . .

New York seems both incredibly exciting and incredibly difficult as a place to live, and to plant and lead churches. The energy, creativity and diversity of the city are unparalleled, but the city is less Christian than the rest of the nation (in contrast to London, which is more Christian than the rest of the UK), and the pressures on price and space are even more intense in Manhattan than they are in other global cities. The fact that Manhattan is a separate island makes a big difference here: in London, you can lead a church in the West End, live in Brixton and have your offices in Fulham – and some previous contributors to this blog do – but in New York the equivalent is virtually impossible, because it would mean living, working and leading on three different islands. I’ve just mentioned the six-person family in a two-bedroom flat, and church premises are just as extortionate: many churches share their buildings with (at least) one other congregation, and the one recent building purchase I heard about cost $50 million. (By way of comparison, Kings Church London just opened their newly refurbished building in Lee, which used to be a school, and it cost them around £6 million.) All of which makes church planting here spiritually demanding, financially challenging and emotionally draining, but also exhilarating and rewarding.

If these comments reflect a trend, then they may signal that if you can affirm doubts about Christianity to show you are not a Stepford Christian, you are also allowed to have second thoughts about TKNY and Redeemer PCA.

Now Lutherans Are Tightening My Jaws

Triumphalism is always bad but I never knew it was possible from Lutherans who generally keep the rest of us Christians honest with a tenacious theology of the cross. Anthony Sacramone picks up on Gene Veith’s post to argue for Lutheranism’s superiority to Reformed Protestantism. Since Anthony spent time at Redeemer NYC, he may not understand the difference between Reformed Protestantism and Calvinism, which explains his account of Reformed Calvinist strengths:

Calvinism, like other evangelical movements, offers new beginnings. Under powerful preaching, even the baptized come to believe they are starting a new life in Christ. Before they may have experienced, or been subjected to, dead religion with its rituals and liturgies, but now they have living faith — a personal relationship with the Risen Christ. They often mark their lives by the day they came to faith (which had nothing to do with water baptism) and how nothing was the same after that. We love the idea of the do-over. The Lutheran teaching of continual repentance does not have the same psychological effect (nor is it intended to).

Calvinism also offers some of the more potent expository preaching you will hear. Where are the Lutheran Spurgeons or Martyn Lloyd-Jones? Or, for that matter, Tim Kellers? The Law-Gospel paradigm in the pulpit does not lend itself easily to the kind of dynamism, for lack of a better word, often found in Reformed pulpits — preaching that often offers specific direction to the person in the pew, over and above repentance. Lutherans can roll their eyes at such preaching, but it is precious in the life of Reformed Christians, as far as sustaining their life of faith goes.

There is also the call to young men to (a) discipline themselves and (b) engage the culture. This can be very invigorating to young Christians. 2K theology reads too often like defeat in the public square — “Christ is for church on Sundays; at your humdrum job, just keep your head down, do your duty, be obedient, pay your bills, and wait until the Eschaton.” And double predestination, as horrifying as it is, at least makes a kind of logical sense and also has a role to play in motivating the baby believer: “God chooses whom to adopt. And since everyone born deserves to go to hell because of sin, we should be grateful he chooses to save anyone at all.” That’s actually comforting — if you’re convinced you’re one of the Elect. Then you can rest in the fact that you can never fall away, that your faith will never ultimately fail, that God has plucked you out of the garbage bin that is Gehenna* — and for a purpose: not only to grant you eternal life but also to glorify Him.

But how can I know I’m elect? Calvinists have no problem with the subjective element in faith. Romans 8: 16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Read 2 Peter — it talks of believers making their calling and election sure. (It also talks of making “every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.” Try and preach that in a confessional Lutheran church and you’ll be slammed for confusing law and Gospel.) The Lutheran doctrine of predestination makes little sense to most non-Lutherans: a monergism that also says you can lose your justification. Doesn’t the Scripture say that God will glorify all who are justified? Etc. Etc. That subjective element in Calvinism is then balanced by weighty tomes of systematic theology to exercise your noggin.

Odd, but almost none of this is Calvin. It may be Puritan and experimental Calvinist, or Tim Keller and New Life Presbyterian. But it is not the conviction or practice of the original Reformed churches.

Sacramone goes on to explain why folks burn out on Reformed Protestantism Calvinism and turn (like all about him) to Lutheranism:

1. They come to believe that limited atonement is simply not biblical. It may be the logical consequence of double predestination, but if the Faith were reasonable in that sense, where do you begin and end? What is “reasonable” about the Incarnation or the Cross?

2. The lack of ecumenicity (or even simple courtesy). Lutherans are often slammed for teaching closed communion, but it does not deny the name “Christian” to Arminians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or, for that matter, the Reformed. Many Reformed do not believe Catholics and Orthodox are Christians, because these communions embrace a false gospel. But that means the overwhelming majority of all Christians who have ever lived got it so wrong that they are almost certainly lost. Which leaves an Elect pool of about 11 people, relatively speaking. Then what constituted the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, for all those centuries before Calvin, Zwingli, Beza, Vermigli, et al.? For a communion that prizes logic, this doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense.

3. Endless debates and factions — including the paedo-/credo-baptism controversy. Now, Lutherans have seen their splits, too. Pietist vs. confessionalist. Mainline (ELCA) vs. “conservative” (LCMS, WELS, and others). But when you start debating whether God hated the reprobate before the Fall or only after the Fall, it’s time to go do something else with your life.

4. The sacraments, as they’ve been understood, again, by the overwhelming majority of all Christians throughout time: baptismal regeneration and the real bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist**. (I would add auricular confession to an ordained minister/priest and absolution.) Calvinism has this gaping hole in its center — a hole that the Federal Vision folk have tried to address by “thickening” their concept of covenant baptism and the Real Presence, which has raised the ire of those who believe FV types have rejected key points of the historic Reformed confessions. (Google all of R. Scott Clark’s blog posts contra Doug Wilson, and also the Peter Leithart heresy trial.)

Well, if Jesus died for everyone, how about Esau, the Cannanites, the Perizites, the Hittites, and all the other tribes Joshua conquered?

Complaining about whether one Christian regards another as a genuine believer is not an index to ecumenicity, though it is common for experimental Calvinists to assess someone else’s profession as illegitimate (think Gilbert Tennent). Ecumenicity has to do with churches (even if the word has “city” in it and makes Redeemerites go knock kneed). For one example of Lutheran ecumenicity I suggest Sacramone check here.

The point about factionalism is a point that others who have come through Redeemer NYC have also made, though some of those wound up in the place where “real” unity exists, fellowship with the Bishop of Rome. But does Sacramone actually think Reformed Protestants have split over infra supralapsarian debates? If he meant to be funny, then hilarity it up.

And one more time he needs to read the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms on the sacraments and get back to us on gaping holes.

The consolation is that this may not be the reflection of a real Lutheran since it exudes so much triumphalism. Makes me think Sacramone has not gotten Keller out of his system.

Has Keller Lost His Mojo?

solarflareAlmost no one in the blogosphere seems to have noticed that last week Pat Robertson interviewed Tim Keller on “The 700 Club.” The Redeemer pastor was there to promote his new book, Counterfeit Gods.

The reason for calling attention to Keller’s appearance with Robertson is not to raise questions about would-be unholy alliances between conservative Presbyterians and Pentecostals. The appearance was a good way for Keller to promote his book, and talk shows like Robertson’s are good ways to do this. (Anyone who has watched the HBO series, “The Larry Sanders Show,” knows how the talk-show formula is supposed to work.)

Instead, the question that arises from the Keller appearance is one about the trajectory of the New York City pastor’s celebrity. Back when The Reasons for God came out and Keller gave a talk at Google as part of the company’s Authors@Google series, the pastor’s fans lit up the blogosphere with links to and comments on the event.

But with his new book, Keller is apparently settling for CBN and Robertson, and his fans do not seem to notice. (It may actually be a healthy sign that New Life Presbyterians are not watching CBN.) From Google to “The 700 Club,” from the blogs agog to silent bloggers, one wonders if we are witnessing the first phase of contemporary Presbyterianism’s brightest star’s burn out.