On Churchless Evangelicals

I was once a churchless evangelical. As a young Christian I attended a medium-sized (300 member) SBC (Southern Baptist) congregation for a few years without joining. It wasn’t really a problem. Of course they would like to have seen me baptized (as Baptists they did not recognize my baptism as an infant) but it wasn’t a “deal breaker.” In fairness to the congregation, I attended fairly regularly through high school but then my attendance started to lag.

There was a period, as I started to investigate aspects of Reformed theology, when I was “in between” congregations and I drifted. I attended worship services sporadically but was a member of no congregation. For most of my early evangelical existence and even as I began to become Reformed, I was a churchless evangelical. I considered that I was a member of the “invisible” church so I did not have to be a member of a visible congregation. There was even a notion that perhaps the visible church was for those who were less “spiritual.”

In the years since joining St John’s Reformed Church (Lincoln, Neb), especially since becoming a pastor in 1987, I discovered that I was not alone. There are many evangelicals, i.e. they’ve had a personal encounter with the risen Christ, who are members of no congregation and who are quite content to leave things that way.

Why should these churchless evangelicals join a congregation? After all, they say that they love Jesus and they may have private devotions. Some of them even outwardly profess “the doctrines of grace” but to whom?  What does James 2:14, 17 say about such professions?

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him? … 17 So also such faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James was not teaching acceptance with God by works. He was challenging here dead faith, i.e., mere outward profession. He’s calling for evidence of true faith. Works do not save but they do give evidence of true faith.

A private, churchless, profession of faith is not enough. The doctrine of the church (and sacraments) is where most evangelicals, even predestinarian evangelicals, “hit the wall.” They come so far toward the Reformation but no farther. Why? The biblical and confessional doctrine of the church challenges two cultural assumptions of North American evangelicals and two of the most sacred idols of the culture: autonomy, i.e. the notion that one is a law unto oneself, and the evangelical (and liberal) love for a disembodied Jesus.

The doctrine of predestination is inherently anti-modernist, but one can become a predestinarian evangelical without really confronting the issue because autonomy gets shifted from soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). Hunting down human autonomy is like trying grab hold of mercury. It keeps squirting away. So, the autonomy of the churchless evangelical, even after having surrendered to the sovereignty of God in salvation, squirts away to reassert itself when it comes to the church.

Were these churchless evangelicals to unite themselves to a local church, they should have to relinquish their autonomy. They should have to submit themselves not only to a particular expression of the historic church (which is distasteful enough) but they should also have submit themselves to a “church order” (a way of doing things) and to elders and to discipline. Even more fundamentally, they should have to agree and submit to “means”  or media of grace, to a human ministry (administration) of the Gospel and the sacraments. No longer can Christianity be a purely private affair. It would now be public and it would entail being accountable to humans and being served by Christ through human ministry.

In the church Christ ordinarily operates through ministers who preach the gospel and from whom we receive the sacraments. In the church, the Spirit has not promised to operate extemporaneously, but through divinely ordained, physical means. We meet Christ in the announcement of the Good News and we are reassured that it’s all really true in the sacraments, real bread and wine, and in real baptismal water.

The very physicality of these means raises another problem for churchless American evangelicals and liberals. As Mike Horton noted in 1991 and as Harold Bloom observed in 1992 that there is another theory about American religion, insofar as it is truly American, that it is gnostic, i.e., it is born of distrust of the material and physical world. Gnosticism and related errors was the great heresy faced by the ancient church. Our great theologians of the second and third century battled gnosticism relentlessly. They consistently defended the goodness of creation (over against the gnostic suspicion of creation as evil), the simplicity of God (that there are not two gods, an earthy OT “demiurge” and a “spiritual” NT loving God), the true humanity of Jesus (against the claim that Jesus merely appeared to be human) and the unity of the covenant of grace. Indeed, Irenaeus and Justin appealed to the biblical teaching on “the covenant” (of grace) in much the same way Reformed theology has done, since the early 16th century, against the Anabaptists and other such groups who radically reject the unity of the covenant of grace.

The theory that American religion, since the late 18th century, is gnostic explains a great deal of American religious history. The Jesus of American Christianity has become increasingly disembodied as American Christianity has become increasingly disembodied.  Stephen Nichols has illustrated this phenomenon in his recent book on images of Jesus in American Christianity. If there is a “Hawaiian Jesus” (I saw a poster many years ago), an Afro Jesus, and a Swedish pietist Jesus (once pictured in living rooms across middle America) then we’re not really talking about the historical Jesus, God the Son incarnate, in time and history.

These two reasons, the American tendencies toward autonomy relative to all external authorities and institutions and the American tendency toward gnosticism, explain why American evangelicals (and, in their own way, liberals) have so little interest in concrete, material institutions such as the church and sacraments. Becoming churchly entails becoming entangled with the historical church, and Americans are suspicious of the past. Becoming churchly entails coming to grips with real sinners and a real, truly human Savior in Jesus the Christ. American religion (whether liberal or evangelical) is not terribly interested in Christ of history. The liberals prefer a disembodied moralist, the Jesus of faith, and the evangelicals prefer a disembodied spirit with whom they can commune privately, subjectively, and ecstatically.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it countless times: “I’m not a member of any local congregation. I’m a member of the invisible church.”  When one hears this, one is tempted to agree with John Murray that it would be better not to speak of the invisible church. As tempting as it is, in face of Bedside Baptists and Prostrate Presbyterians, to reject the distinction between the visible and invisible church, we should resist the temptation. The cost is too high. Further, the abuse of this distinction by the ignorant or the willful is insufficient reason to discard it. The idea that one can be a member of the church invisible without being a member of a particular congregation reveals a profound confusion about what we mean when we speak of the church visible and invisible.

The church has two aspects, visible and invisible, but they are two aspects of the same body. In other words, ordinarily, there are no members of the church invisible who are not also members of the church visible, i.e. an identifiable congregation of believers that bears the marks of a true church (the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of church discipline).

Yes, it’s possible for one, in extraordinary circumstances, to be a Christian apart from a congregation and the means of grace, but it’s the exception that tests the rule. Lying in bed on the Sabbath or shopping or whatever one does in place of attending to the means of grace is not the same thing as being on a desert island or being crucified alongside our Savior.

Claiming membership in the church invisible without membership in a congregation is like claiming membership in 24-Hour Fitness without belonging to any particular branch.

“Do you belong to a gym?”

“Yes, I do. 24-Hour Fitness.”

“Great, which branch did you join?”

“Well, I haven’t actually joined any branch, but I like the commercials on TV and I identify with their approach to fitness.”

That’s insane. If you’ve never walked into a particular branch of a gym and signed the papers and paid the fees, you’re not a member. To test this claim try to walk into your local 24-Hour Fitness gym on the basis of your claim to membership in “the invisible gym” or on the basis of your agreement with their approach.

By analogy, the church invisible is composed of those who are, have been, or shall be, members of a visible church. if you’ve never sworn membership vows and confessed a common faith with a congregation, you are not a member of the visible church and if you’re not a member of the church visible, by definition, you are not a member of the church invisible. The former is a prerequisite for the latter.

When we speak of the church invisible, we’re speaking of that great congregation of the elect considered across time and space. It’s a way of speaking of the holy catholic church, that church in all times and places. It’s a way of speaking of the church considered in the past (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Boethius, Gregory, Gottschalk, Bede, Lombard, Thomas, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, Luther, etc.), the church presently scattered across the globe, hidden from the world, and the church as it shall be in the future, until Christ comes. It transcends congregations and denominations but is composed of elect who are members of congregations. It includes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.

The visible church, on the other hand, is a particular collection of those who profess faith in Christ, who’ve been baptized in recognition of their status as covenant children or who have made profession of faith. The church visible is a mixed, disciplined assembly. This is an important difference from the church considered as invisible. The latter may be said to be composed only of the elect, but there have always been, as our older writers used to say, “hypocrites and reprobates” in the visible community. The visible church has always been made of Jacobs and Esaus. This is why Paul distinguished between Israel outwardly considered and Israel inwardly considered. Not everyone who is Israel outwardly considered is Israel inwardly considered (Rom. 2:28). This is why our theologians, churches, and confessions distinguished between the covenant of grace considered externally and the covenant of grace considered internally.

It’s easy to show the foolishness of speaking about the church invisible in the way that so many do, as if it’s possible to be an “invisible” Christian, as if it’s possible to be a part of the church catholic without being part of the church visible and militant.

To whom were the gospels written? They were written to local congregations in particular places. To whom were the epistles written? They were written to particular congregations in particular places. How does one write an epistle directly to the church of all times and places? They are God’s inspired, infallible, inerrant Word, but that Word was given by the Spirit, through human authors, in a particular time and place. The Word speaks to the church of all times and places but it does so from a particular time and place. The only way to hear that Word, in its original setting, was to be in a congregation.

When Jesus instituted the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16) he gave them to officers (apostles) to whom he gave spiritual authority to bind and loose. When he instituted church discipline he authorized particular congregations to confront sin, and to take steps to correct it (Matt. 18). It is not possible to “tell it to the church” if, in this instance, “church” means “the church” considered in its invisible aspect. The background to the word “church” there is the OT term for the visible covenant assembly gathered in formal session.

Further, the churches gathered occasionally to work together on common problems (Acts 15). That sort of action and the “decree” issued by the assembly would be impossible without the existence of particular, local congregations who sent delegates (including the Apostles!) to assemble together.

It was to visible congregations that our Lord entrusted the ministry of the Word (Matt. 28; Acts 2, 10; 1 Tim; 2 Tim; Titus) and sacraments. The church invisible does not, by definition, observe sacraments. They are observed in congregations, with duly ordained ministers and elders. Jesus commanded us to administer baptism. He commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper. The apostolic church did that, in congregations (1 Cor. 11). They didn’t always get it right, but they did meet, they did worship, the Word was preached, the sacraments were administered, and discipline was observed (1 Cor. 5). Particularity is essential to these acts.

It has been widely held by liberals and evangelicals alike that the model by which to interpret the NT and the early church is the Kerygma to Dogma model. In this model, the early church (apostolic and early post-apostolic) was a Spirit-led community that was completely spontaneous, without structure, without form, without offices or officers. Only later was that Spirit-led spontaneity lost as the church gradually acceded to the idea that Jesus was not returning in their lifetime and that some formal structure would be necessary to the continuance of the church.

The evidence is overwhelming that the apostolic and early post-apostolic church was highly organized. For example, there is positive evidence of record keeping (membership lists) in the NT church. The problem in the daily distribution of bread in Acts 6:1 assumes some sort of record keeping of eligible widows. In 1 Timothy 5:9-16 Paul speaks explicitly about a list of names of Christian widows who were eligible for financial assistance from the church. He even lays out the qualifications to be on the list. If the church kept such lists for financial aid, can we reasonably assume that these widows were not on a membership roll? Moreover we cannot help but notice that again Paul’s instructions regarding widows presupposes some sort of organized visible body of Christ who administered this aid to its members.

The evidence is that, however vital their expectation of Jesus’ return, they were organized, structured, with offices, officers, sacraments, and discipline. Read on its own terms, without contemporary, evangelical, individualistic anachronism (reading our time and practices back into theirs), there is every evidence that the NT church was a structured, visible, organized (and not mere organism) institution.

We know where the early congregations were. We know what their circumstances were and we have some idea of what happened to them. For example, see Colin Hemer’s Letters to the Seven Churches or Greg Beale’s Commentary on the Revelation or Dennis Johnson’s, Triumph of the Lamb.

If today’s evangelicals would follow the Apostolic model, they should join themselves to a true church. Truly to be an “evangelical” one should be “gospeler” (as the Puritans sometimes put it). The gospel is good news preached by preachers (Rom. 10) who are ordained by Christ’s church to announce that message. It’s an authorized message with authorized messengers in and to a congregation that is united together by a common faith, by mutual submission to the Word and to the church. The faith is necessarily practiced in community, in congregation and not merely individually, separately, privately.

 So far the case has not been terribly difficult or painful. However many evangelicals may be wandering in the churchless wilderness without any congregation whatsoever, there are few responsible evangelical theologians who, however much they may not wish to talk about the doctrine of the church, would actually advocate a policy of avoiding the local church. Thus, the first two posts have been on the order of house cleaning. With this post, however, we go from preaching to meddling. Hold on to your britches.
For decades after World War II we relied on the Gallup Poll numbers that told us that 40% of Americans attend church. This notion was probably behind the popular notion of “Christian America.” More recent studies have found, however, that American church attendance is actually much lower and much more sporadic. The more recent picture makes sense of the fact that, if the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals is correct and there are 60 million evangelicals in the USA, then evangelicals make up close to 20% of American Christians. And were those evangelicals as devoted to the visible church as once thought, church attendance figures should be higher than they actually are. Weekly attendance is probably actually something like 10%. This means that on any given Sunday morning (forget Sunday night!) about 35 million folks are at church. I think there are something like 60 million Roman Catholics in America and let’s say that among the mainliners there are 7 million. If we impute a church attendance of 40% to each group, we get our 10% figure of 35 million. Whatever the actual figures in each of the group (it might be slightly higher in one group than in another), it’s unlikely that much more than 50% of the 60 million evangelicals are actually in church on any given Sunday.

So, as a practical matter, even if most evangelicals are members of congregations, where there is some sort of actual record of membership and some sort accountability structure (i.e. discipline). it seems likely that most evangelicals have unchurched themselves simply by opting for shopping over the means of grace (assuming they exist in our putative evangelical congregations). If we figure for the number of megachurches where the gospel is virtually non-existent, the number of angry fundamentalist churches trying to reclaim their socio-political place in the culture, and Pentecostals and Charismatics blissed out by the Spirit, one can begin to understand why our evangelicals skip the whole thing. They may be doing today what liberals began to do in the ’60s and ’70s– just stay home. What’s the point of hearing the minister do poorly what Bob Schuller or Joel Osteen or Charles Osgood can do much better?

For our churchgoing evangelicals, however, let’s assume that they attend some congregation even if it might not have a formal membership procedure or the practice or possibility of discipline. With this picture in view there is a another way in which most of the 60 million or so American evangelicals may be said to be churchless.

They may be churchless because, despite attending a congregation, that congregation may not have the marks of the church. This language of “marks of the church” is very ancient. In substance it goes back to the Patristic (most ancient post-apostolic) church’s struggle against the Gnostics and other heretical groups claiming to be “the church.” By the time of the Reformation, the Reformed Churches identified three marks of the true church.

The Scots Confession (1560) identified two “notes” (marks or indicators) of the “true kirk” (ch. 18):

So it is essential that the true Kirk be distinguished from the filthy synagogues by clear and perfect notes lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace, to our own condemnation, the one for the other…. The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst. This is not that universal Kirk of which we have spoken before, but particular Kirks, such as were in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and other places where the ministry was planted by Paul and which he himself called Kirks of God.

This is the same conception that one finds in the Belgic Confession Art. 29, adopted by most of the European Reformed Churches beginning in 1561. The French Confession of 1559, in Art. 27 uses essentially the same categories. Thus, by the mid-16th century, there was a widespread consensus among the Reformed Churches of Europe and Britain that there are clear, inherent marks by which the true church may be distinguished from the false church and sects (Belgic 29) or from “filthy synagogues” (Scots Kirk).

If this way of thinking about the church seems strange that ought to alert us to how far we have drifted from our Reformation moorings. In practice, however, we use these categories daily. We just fail to apply them to the church. Not everyone who shoots baskets is a basketball player. A true ball player moves a certain way. He or she has a certain fluidity on the court. A true ball player is in the right place at the right time, he or she holds the ball a certain way, dribbles the ball a certain way, plays defense a certain way. There are marks of genuine ball player. Either one has them or one does not.

It’s the same way with a church. Just because folk who love Jesus and claim to have had an encounter with the risen Christ meet on Sunday morning does not make them a church. What is essential to the existence of a “church”? First, according to Scripture, in Gal. 1, it is possible to corrupt the gospel so that it becomes what Paul calls “another gospel.” If a congregation institutionalizes that false message or fails to preach the true message, it lacks one of the essential marks of a church. The gospel is the proclamation or the announcement that Jesus the Messiah has come, that he was born of a woman, under the law (Gal. 4), that he kept that law (Rom. 5), that he was crucified, dead, buried, and raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15) and that he is ascended to the right hand of the Father in glory (Acts 2). The good news is that sinners are justified by the undeserved favor of God, through faith (trusting) in Christ and his righteousness alone (Gal. 2). Anyone who preaches anything other than that or any congregation that routinely ignores or distorts that message lacks an essential mark of a church. They may be a gathering of good Americans and there may be Christians present. They may be earnest. They may be any number of things, but together, without the gospel, they are no church.

So far, so good. I suppose that most thoughtful evangelicals who still remember the teaching of Packer, Stott, Graham, and Henry (the founders of the older British and American neo-evangelical establishment) would probably agree with the first mark of a church. Let’s say a church is gathered around the gospel but there is no structure (either on the pretense of being truly apostolic or because of sinful fear or laziness) and that no one is held accountable for their behavior after they have made a Christian profession. Again, I suppose that most of the older evangelicals would probably have said that such a congregation probably lacks an essential mark of the church. It was the absence of this mark that caused conservatives to leave their mainline churches in droves for sixty years from the 1920s to the ’80s. For decades, in the mainline churches, conservatives were frustrated by the fact that ministers were able to deny the faith publicly without any sanction against them or their errors. Eventually, people voted with their feet and they left the mainline (liberal, Seven Sister) denominations.

After all, the one-two punch of Jesus and Paul on church discipline is hard to miss. Jesus lays out a structure and an order for discipline in Matt. 18, and Paul demands that it be enforced in 1 Cor. 5. If there are members who are openly contradicting their Christian profession, either by denying the faith or by scandalizing the church and its gospel, or by living in open sin and rebellion against the law of God, they must face some sanction (see Heb. 6 and 10)–in the hope that the rebellious one will recognize his need of a Savior, turn to Jesus in faith and begin living in a way that is consonant with his profession of faith. If there is no sanction against open and willful sin or heresy, then there is no church.

Whatever agreement we might have been able to generate on marks 1 and 3 is likely to evaporate as we come to the next mark. It is so difficult that the old neo-evangelicals simply avoided it altogether. It is the line that many contemporary evangelicals will not cross and it is a line that many, perhaps most Reformed folk, will not cross today. It is virtually universally accepted among evangelicals and even among Reformed folk today that we must be pluralists when it comes to the holy sacraments. Indeed, I guess that most people regard the Quakers and the Salvation Army as “evangelical” even though they do not practice the holy sacraments. If one can be an evangelical without sacraments, the movement is certainly not well positioned to say that a certain practice of them is essential to the church.

Nevertheless, that is exactly what the Reformed Churches have done since the middle of the 16th century. I realize that this is scandalous to all evangelicals and to most Reformed people today, but it’s the clear implication of the Reformed confession and it was the standard position of the magisterial Reformers.

The debate is most pointed and painful when it comes to baptism. An overwhelming majority of modern evangelicals hold Baptist convictions of one sort or another. If it is the case that rejecting infant baptism is sufficient to unchurch a congregation, i.e. to deprive them of the status of being a “church,” then there are very few actual churches in North America, to pick but one global region.

To many such a thought is impossible. It was quite difficult for me to reach this conclusion, but I didn’t reach it carelessly or quickly. For most of my life in the Reformed world since 1980, I shared the assumption that, though I disagreed with my evangelical brothers and sisters over the question of baptism, their congregations were still churches. It’s only been in the last few years that the other shoe has dropped.

Consider the Reformation argument against the Anabaptists. The Reformed had a number of issues with the Anabaptists including Christology (many Anabaptists held to a docetic Christology, i.e. they held that Jesus had what they called a “celestial flesh,” a view which has no relation to the catholic doctrine of the true humanity of Jesus), a defective view of the Christian’s role in civil life, and a unanimous rejection of justification sola gratia et sola fide.

On the Christological and soteriological issues alone, the Reformed were warranted in describing the 16th-century Anabaptists as “sects.” There was, however, another issue which the Reformed mentioned consistently as providing grounds for such a label, i.e. the Anabaptist denial of infant baptism.

However orthodox modern Baptists are on the other issues, they continue to share with the Anabaptists this fundamental conviction: that however valid infant circumcision was prior to the incarnation, the New Covenant is such that there is no place for infant baptism as a proper recognition that the children of believers are members of the covenant of grace just as much today as they were in Abraham’s day.

This rejection of the status of Christian children as such introduced (and continues to perpetuate) a principle of radical discontinuity between Abraham and the Christian, i.e. a radical principle of discontinuity in the history of redemption and in the covenant of grace. This principle of radical discontinuity, this denial of the fundamental unity of the covenant of grace as symbolized in the administration of the sign and seal of the covenant of grace to covenant children, is serious enough to warrant saying that any congregation that will not practice infant initiation (baptism) into the administration of the covenant of grace is not a church. The Protestants criticized the Anabaptists on these very grounds. Denial of infant initiation is a denial of the catholicity of the church stretching back to Abraham and it is too much like the Gnostic denial of the unity of the covenant of grace in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Of course there are great difficulties in applying the Reformed critique of the Anabaptists to modern Baptistic evangelicals, because there are great discontinuities between the two groups. As I say, however, they do have that one thing in common and it is one of the things that the Reformed mentioned consistently in their treatises against the Anabaptists and in their confessional documents. The question is whether the modern Baptist repentance of the other Anabaptist errors and heresies is enough to rescue them from the category of “sect.” Another way to put it is ask whether the administration of the holy sacraments may be so marginalized that they are not a mark of the church any longer. It does not appear that Baptists actually think so, and Reformed folk should not think so.

This is why the Belgic Confession says, in Art. 29, “the pure administration of the sacraments.” The Anabaptists and the Romanists practiced the sacraments, but, according to the Reformed Churches, they did not practice them purely. The adjective “pure” is decisive.

The reader should be aware that the view I’m advocating here is not widely accepted, even within my own NAPARC circles. Doubtless it will seem radical to many, but consider a few things. My Baptist friends and students (of whom I have many) do not consider me baptized. What happened to me in 1961 was, for them, nothing than mere magic or sentiment, but it was not baptism. Therefore, I and all such persons are, in their view, unbaptized. For most of Christian history, to say that someone was unbaptized was to unchurch them. In other words, to call me unbaptized is to say that I am not really a Christian. I may profess faith but if I have not been baptized then my profession is, at best, hollow and hypocritical so long as I persist, in their eyes, in being unbaptized. As an unbaptized person, I certainly have no right to the Lord’s Supper and therefore, on their principles, they quite rightly bar me from the table.

To be clear, because we are not Baptists, because Reformed  Churches recognize all Trinitarian baptisms, we do regard our Baptist friends as Baptized. According to the Westminster Confession (1647), “it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance…” but so long as they are baptized in the triune name, they are baptized, even if it is late in coming. When they gather thus, in congregations, I regard them as being rebellious, as having a poor view of redemptive history, as having an over-realized eschatology (this is not the age for the unmixed church), but I can’t regard their congregations as “true churches.”

From the Baptist point of view, what are congregations of unbaptized persons? Are they true churches? The London Baptist Confession (1689) doesn’t say explicitly, but let’s make some inferences. From the Baptist perspective, we paedobaptist Reformed Churches may have the gospel, and that’s a good thing, but we are necessarily undisciplined. After all we’re all unbaptized and no one is doing anything about it, and, worse, they celebrate our unbaptized status. Certainly, from the Baptist point of view, we corrupt the sacrament of baptism and a correct view of Baptism would seem to be of the essence of being a “Baptist.”

Thus it is not just the Reformed who are bound to insist on the presence of all three marks, the Baptists do as well. At least they unbaptize all baptized only as infants and thus they effectively unchurch us, even if they don’t like to follow their logic to its conclusion. Most evangelicals are not as thoroughgoing about their doctrine and practice as the so-called Reformed (i.e. predestinarian) Baptists, but they do have a common view of baptism, to the degree that evangelicals have any particular view of the sacraments at all.

From a historical perspective, since the 18th century, on this particular question, the Anabaptists have “won.” They haven’t won the theological argument but they’ve won demographically. There are many more “Anabaptists” when it comes to baptism than there are paedobaptists among the evangelicals and Reformed. Thus it seems shocking for the minority to unchurch, as it were, the majority. Yet, this is precisely what the theology of the majority does to the paedobaptist minority: it unchurches us. We cannot both be right. Either God’s promise and command to Abraham is still in effect or it has been abrogated. Either there is a fundamental unity to the substance and administration of the covenant of grace or there is not.

Whoever is right about baptism it isn’t really a matter of narrow-minded Reformed confessionalists unchurching their Jesus-loving evangelical friends. The difference is that, for Reformed confessionalists, the sacraments are at the heart of our theology, piety, and practice, and, because we’re the minority in late Modern America, we feel the tension with the majority.

If the Reformed confessionalists are right, that there are three marks to a church and if they are right that most evangelical congregations lack one or more of those marks, it leaves the relations between most evangelicals and most consistent confessionalists in a very tenuous place indeed.

If Jesus did institute the Holy Sacraments, however, if he really said, “This is my body…take, eat….do this in remembrance of me” and if he commanded the visible, institutional church to administer baptism to converts and to their children (Acts 2:39), then these are not mere options or second blessings but essential to the life of the Christian and to the life of the Christian Church.

Even if the confessionalists are wrong about whether the evangelical congregations are really churches, no one could fairly say that the evangelical congregations are marked by devotion to and rigorous practice of the Holy Sacraments. Even on a more latitudinarian or pluralist approach to the question of the status of evangelical and Baptist congregations, the evangelical piety must be regarded as virtually sacrament free and that alone should give my more broad-minded brothers reason to pause and take stock as to whether most evangelical congregations deserve the title “church.”

[This post first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2008]

Here’s a related post by Jay Adams on “church tramps.”

The Synod Of Dort On Election, Conditions Of Salvation, And Fruit

The Reformed churches have endured discussions and disagreements about salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) before. Beginning in the late 16th century a Reformed minister in Amsterdam began offering significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Early on critics accused him of corrupting the faith but he was allied by marriage with some powerful families and therefore was protected. When a teaching position opened up at the most prestigious university in the land he was nominated to fill the post. Despite misgivings by faculty members and others he was appointed and almost immediately there was controversy. He was accused of replacing orthodox textbooks with unorthodox ones. He was accused of denying the Reformation doctrine of salvation. He denied the charges and always, throughout the controversy, played the victim—a rhetorical stance which has become standard for his followers since. Over the years it became clear that this revisionist was not merely trimming the edges of Reformed theology but advocating a revolution. His movement not only placed the churches in jeopardy but threatened to become a cause of civil war. Within a year after his death, his followers published a five-point summary of what he had been teaching, four points of which conceded what had been charged against him. The fifth point, on perseverance, was deliberately obscure and finally, in 1618, 9 years after his death, an international synod met to address the crisis and to stem the spread of the movement he had unleashed. Of course we are talking about Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609) and the Remonstrant movement he created, Arminianism.

One of the theological motives of the Remonstrants, which is not always fully appreciated, was that they had concluded that the Reformation doctrine of salvation (e.g., definitive justification and consequent progressive sanctification) would never produce the sort of godliness and good works they thought ought to mark the life of the Christian. Thus, they created a system whereby good works are not merely the fruit and evidence of salvation but an antecedent condition thereof. That is, where the orthodox Reformed had faith as the “sole instrument” or antecedent condition of justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (salvation), the Remonstrants had faith and works.

In the Remonstrant theology even election was said to be conditional. The Remonstrants taught that God had determined to save those who “shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere.” Salvation, they taught, was conditioned upon foreseen faith (fides praevisa) and upon our cooperation with grace. They used the word grace, as moralists usually do, but the clear effect of their revision was to take the Reformed churches back to the medieval system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace or salvation by grace and works. Indeed, their doctrine of the election was worse than some taught by the medievals since Gottschalk (d. c. 867), Thomas (d. 1274), and e.g., Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) had taught unconditional election before the Reformation. The Remonstrants turned the gracious Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide on its head. Note carefully how vociferously and with what terms the Synod rejected the Remonstrant theology:

We reject the errors of those who teach hat Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for any one, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error (Rejection of Errors 2.3).

The Reformed churches of the Netherlands, France (in absentia), Great Britain, the Palatinate, Geneva, Bremen, Zürich, and elsewhere with one voice rejected these revisions in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618–19). These canons (or rulings) of the Synod are helpful in the current discussions about sanctification, conditions in the covenant of grace, good works, and salvation. The Canons are organized under 5 “heads of doctrine,” corresponding to the Five Points of the Remonstrance.

Conditions
The term “conditio” occurs about 10 times in the Canons. It occurs first in Canons 1.9 and that use tells us a good bit about the concerns of the orthodox about the Remonstrant theology.

This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: “He chose us [not because we were, but]…that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph 1:4).

One of the most fundamental things that the Reformed needed to re-assert was the total inability of fallen man and the radical, free favor (grace) of God, in Christ, toward helpless sinners. The Remonstrant revision had it that we are not as sinful as Augustine and the Reformation had said. They posited some ability to cooperate with grace. Indeed, arguably, they collapsed grace into nature. By nature, even after the fall, we had sufficient ability to do our part. In this scheme, grace becomes a helper but not the marvelous, sovereign free favor earned for us by Christ and given unconditionally to sinners. According to the Synod, there are no conditions that we must meet in order to warrant God’s favor in salvation. Rather, by contrast, the Reformed taught that election is the “fons (the source) of all salvation (fons omnis salutaris). Notice that the divines singled out not only “foreseen faith” but also “the obedience of faith, sanctity, or other good quality and disposition.” The Remonstrant position had the effect of moving the ground of our salvation from Christ’s righteousness for us (pro nobis) back to qualities intrinsic to us. According to the Remonstrants we are saved partly on the basis of things done by us and wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. Such a system raises the question: how much must one do, in cooperation with grace, in order to be saved? That such a question necessarily arises tells us that we are no longer living in the house of the Reformation and that we are not talking about “grace alone” and “faith alone” but grace plus works. The Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works (E.g., Rejection of Errors 2.2).

We know that the orthodox Reformed concern was the reception of eternal life because the Canons themselves say so. That is why the Reformed churches re-asserted that “faith, sanctity, and the remaining saving goods, and then eternal life itself flows from (profluunt) and is the effect of ” God’s sovereign, unconditional election. We are not elect because we are sanctified or obedient or because of foreseen faith but but we are being graciously, gradually sanctified by God because of God’s unconditional electing grace in Christ.

This was the doctrine of art. 10 also. The “cause” of our election is only (solum) God’s good pleasure (Dei beneplacitum). Salvation is not the outcome of our sanctification and good works. Rather, our sanctification and the consequent good works are the result of our salvation. The Remonstrants had set up “possible human qualities and actions” as a “condition of salvation” (salutis conditionem). The Reformed taught that God unconditionally, freely elected out of the “common multitude of sinners” (communi peccatorum multitudine) some to salvation. Their proofs? Romans 9:11–13 and Acts 13:48. Jacob believed and was saved because he was unconditionally elect. The Reformed make salvation a benefit freely given to sinners in the covenant of grace.

Fruits
According to Canons 1.12, God’s free, sovereign decree of election comes to expression in history “in due time” in various ways. In other words, our experience varies. Even though our salvation is as sure as God’s free grace and election our subjective experience of assurance varies. It is interesting then to note how the divines spoke of the “infallible fruits of election” (fructus electionis infallibiles). According to the divines (and contrary to the popular caricature of Reformed theology and piety) we are never to ask “Am I elect?” Rather, the divines would have us ask, “Do I believe? Is there some evidence of true faith?” God’s grace produces observable effects. We are not to rest in but we are to observe the effects of election: true faith in Christ (vera in Christum fides), a filial fear of God—not a servile fear. Believers are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. We respect (timor) our holy God but we do not fear him as if we are under judgment. Christ has endured that judgment for us. Because we have been saved and are being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone we have a genuine sorrow (dolor) for sin, a hungering and thirsting for our own actual righteousness. Our sanctification and good works are the fruits of God’s gracious election and salvation, which he bestows unconditionally upon his people.

The divines were aware of the Remonstrant doctrine that there are different kinds of election: “general and indefinite” (general et indefinitam) and “singular and definite” (singularem et definitam). We have faced the exact same threat in our time in the self-described “Federal Vision” theology, which posits two kinds of election, eternal and conditional. The Reformed approach to assurance is to start with the objective, Christ’s work for us, which is credited to us and received by us through faith alone (sola fide). We observe the fruits of God’s grace and give thanks to him for them. We rest in Christ and his promises (gospel) but we recognize that he is working in us, however slowly that almost imperceptibly that work may sometimes seem to us. We do not have to choose between the objective and the subjective. We embrace them both. Neither do we need to become de facto sacerdotalists by turning baptism into magic so that our only answer to doubt is “I am baptized” (and ergo necessarily saved ex opere operato). No, baptism itself is not salvation but a sacrament of our salvation, i.e., a sign and seal of what is true of those who believe. Baptism is not the “sole instrument” (Belgic Confession art. 22) of our salvation. Faith is is the alone instrument of our salvation (sola fide).

The divines also, however, rejected as an error the notion that there is an election unto faith (electio ad fidem) or unto justifying faith (ad fidem justificantem) but which nevertheless leaves one “without a preemptory election to salvation (absque electione peremptoria ad salutem; rejection of errors 1.2). The Remonstrants were trying to set up a system where our salvation is in stages. We are justified now but not yet saved, which is the second stage. Here was their opportunity to make room for our good works and cooperation with grace co-instruments of our salvation. According to the Reformed churches, however, under such a construction, “the doctrine of election is corrupted” and the “golden chain of our salvation is dissolved” (auream hanc salutis catenam dissolvens). To that end they re-asserted the ordo salutis (order of salvation) by quoting Romans 8:30. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (ESV). This fact should give us pause when we encounter those contemporary writers who wish to “move beyond” what they dismiss as “ordo salutis thinking.” There is an order to the application of redemption. It is the elect who are given new life, who come to faith, who through faith are justified, united to Christ, adopted,  saved, and glorified. Our salvation is not contingent upon our performance, even if that performance is qualified as “cooperation with grace.” Any such construction necessarily turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

One consequence of abandoning the biblical and Reformed order of the application of redemption is our current confusion over the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come), conditions in the covenant of grace, and the role of good works. This confusion is not new. There was confusion in the 1590s and in the early 17th century leading up to the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants were not satisfied with the Reformation doctrines. They wanted our cooperation with grace and our good works to be more than the fruit and evidence of our justification and our sanctification, more than those necessary accompaniments to true faith and sanctification. In response the the Synod made not only our sanctification and good works but our new life and our faith to be fruit and evidence of our unconditional election. In so doing, they effectively re-contextualized the whole debate. Where the Remonstrants, who denied the pre-lapsarisan covenant of works, had put believers in a covenant of works for salvation, the Reformed churches re-asserted that believers are in a covenant of grace for salvation. As a result of the Synod’s reassertion of the Reformation against the Remonstrants, the question concerning good works was no longer, “How much must I do to warrant salvation?” but “How should I respond in gratitude for God’s unconditional favor to me in Christ?”

The Fifth Article Of The Remonstrance
Now we want to consider the fifth article of the 1610 Remonstrance, on perseverance. It was vague and confusing and must be read carefully, word by word, phrase by phrase, and clause by clause. It began with promising language, by speaking of those who are “incorporated into Christ by a true faith,” who have “thereby become partakers….” This sort of language was very familiar to the Reformed and created a false impression that the Remonstrants were more sympathetic to the Reformed cause than they really were. As I always say: keep reading. According to the Remonstrants, we are partakers of Christ’s “life-giving Spirit….” This is a subtle move since the truth is that it is the Spirit who has sovereignly and unconditionally made us alive (regenerated us), given us true faith, and who, through the sole instrument of faith, united us to Christ. We are already partakers of Christ’s life-giving Spirit.

The second sentence of 5 could expresses the underlying Perfectionism of the Remonstrants. B. B. Warfield saw this connection and identified two sources for the Perfectionism he encountered in the 19th century: Mysticism and the Remonstrants. According to the Remonstrants, those so united to the Spirit have “full power” to “win the victory.” This language may be interpreted more or less favorably but it is not exactly that of Heidelberg Catechism 56, which speaks of “the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long…” nor of Heidelberg 60, which testifies that even as a Christian, in union with Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit nevertheless “that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil….” One document is full of the spirit of Paul, Augustine, and Martin Luther and the other is not.

The Remonstrants always find a way to put the believer “on the hook” for his final salvation. Grace is never really free. It is never really amazing. As with Rome, grace is reduced to a helper. The Remonstrants wrote of “the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus Christ “assists” us poor sinners “if only” we are “ready for the conflict and desire his help, and are not inactive….” Here the true nature of the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance emerges: God helps those who help themselves by cooperating with his “assisting grace.” This is quite another picture of salvation. Here God has not parted the Red Sea and led us through, by the hand, as it were (Jer 31:32; Ex 14:16). Rather, according to the Remonstrants, God has covenanted to co-act with those who do what lies within them (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam). The Remonstrants turned Reformed theology into the Pelagian covenant theology of the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–95). Those who meet these antecedent conditions—the Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works—cannot be plucked out of Christ’s hands. If we only read the first few lines and then let our eyes slip down to quotation of John 10:28 we might get entirely the wrong impression. Once, however, we read the words in between the picture becomes much clearer. The Remonstrants re-contextualized John 10:28 and the evangelical (in the original, sixteenth-century sense of the word), Protestant, Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Then comes the last part of the article, in which the Remonstrants feigned modesty and uncertainty about whether it was possible for one, who had been regenerated, “through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace….” Whether that might be true, the offered, “must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.” In light of history we may say with confidence that the Remonstrants made up their minds quickly.

Synod Reasserts The Reformation Doctrine
Of course, the Synod was having none of it. They categorically rejected this doctrine as Pelagianizing, to whom or to which heresy they referred no fewer than 8 times. Remember, what is at stake here is the salvation of the elect. What is the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come)? Is it by “assisting grace” and sufficient cooperation with the same or by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide)? In the Rejection of Errors under the Fifth Head of Doctrine (on perseverance) Synod explicitly labelled the Remonstrant doctrine “Pelagianism:”

We reject the error of those who teach: That God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere ( sufficientibus ad perseverandum viribus), and is ever ready to preserve these in him if he will perform his office (si officium faciat); but that, though all things which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God will use to preserve faith are furnished to us, even then it ever depends on the pleasure of the will (pendere semper a voluntatis arbitrio) whether it will persevere or not. For this idea contains manifest Pelagianism (manifestum Pelagianismum), and while it would make men free, it make them robbers of God’s honor, contrary to the consensus (consensum) of evangelical doctrine (evangelicæ doctrinæ), which takes from man all cause of boasting, and ascribes all the praise for this favor to the grace of God alone (soli divinæ gratiæ); and contrary to the apostle, who declares that it is God who “will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8).

This paragraph alone makes clear that, for the Reformed Churches of Great Britain, France (in absentia), Geneva, Zürich, the Palatinate, Bremen, and the Netherlands the Reformation was at stake. Under the guise of promoting greater sanctity, the Remonstrants were attempting to lead the Reformed Churches back to medieval moralism: salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. That scheme they could only say that our cooperation with grace was tantamount to the doctrine of salvation by works condemned by the Apostle Paul: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6; ESV).

Where the Remonstrants posited salvation by assisting grace and sufficient cooperation with grace by those who are willing , the Reformed taught that it is by God’s grace alone that we persevere. We are justified by grace alone. We are sanctified by grace alone. We are saved by grace alone. One ground of their insistence upon grace was their stout Pauline, Augustinian, and Protestant assessment of the human condition. The Remonstrants downplayed the effects of the fall. The Reformed understood Scripture to teach that, by nature, we are desperately wicked (Jer 17:9), dead in sins and trespasses (Rom 1–3; Eph 2:1–4). The Remonstrants had collapsed grace into nature. As far as they were concerned, God had endowed us with all we need, if only we will exercise our free will to “do what lies within us,” as the Franciscans had put it. Just as the entire confessional Reformation rejected the Franciscan covenant as Pelagian, so also the Reformed rejected the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance as its latest manifestation.

Whereas the Remonstrants implied the possibility of perfect sanctification in this life (Perfectionism), the Synod rejected it. Though we are “though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world” (5.1). As long as we are in this life all our good works shall be spotted with sin. This is a cause of humiliation that causes us to turn Christ and by his grace to put to death the old man and to be made alive in the new. We press forward toward heaven, where perfection rests (5.2). The Synod rejected the over-realized eschatology of the Remonstrants.

Left to “what lies within” us, to cooperation with assisting grace, we would be lost. Instead, the churches declared, “God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end” (5.3). Where the Remonstrants said “we can,” the Reformed said, “But God.” The Remonstrants gave us law but the Reformed preached the gospel of free grace in Christ to helpless sinners.

Because of our struggle with sin in this life. Sometimes we are not always “so influenced and actuated” by the Spirit as ought to be. That is why we sometimes “sinfully deviate from the guidance of divine grace.” That is why we do not always experience the presence of God (5.11) and the strong sense of assurance that is ours by right. Sin and the struggle against sin are both real. That is why we confess that it is the “power of God who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace…” (5.4). It is by the “righteous permission of God” that we, like David, Peter, and other believers “actually fall into these evils…” (5.4). Such sins are truly offensive. They grieve the Spirit. They interrupt the exercise of faith. They wound the conscience and we may even, for a time, lose the sense of God’s presence (Ps 51:11). In such cases we have not fallen from grace. We have not lost our salvation but we have given ourselves great cause to lament our fallen state, our actual sins, and to repent of them and to seek, by grace alone, to mortify them. Whatever our experience may tell us, the Gospel tells us (5.10) that God never abandons his people. He never permits “them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.” (5.5,6). Even in sanctification (mortification and vivification), the Christian life is still a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. Assurance is restored to believers as their property under the gospel (5.9).

In order to produce sanctity among believers, the Remonstrants sought implicitly to put Christians back under the law, under a covenant of works, for salvation. In contrast, as the Reformed churches understood that it is by grace we are saved, through faith (Eph 2:8–10) unto good works appointed by God for us. God’s grace produces in us a desire to be conformed to Christ (5.13). It is not by the law that we are sanctified, though those who are being sanctified seek earnestly to bring their lives into conformity to God’s holy law. Rather, Synod said:

And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the Sacraments (5.14).

The ground of the Christian life, of perseverance is the gospel of God’s free (to us) favor earned for us by Christ and received through faith alone. By his grace he strengthens us. By hearing his Word, by meditating on the gospel, we are drawn back to Christ. By meditating on the law—the threatenings of what happens to those who do not believe—we are driven back to Christ’s righteousness for us but we are not placed under a covenant of works. It is impossible for believers, those for whom Christ died, to be placed back under works for salvation.

Conclusion
As the churches said (5.15), this doctrine will not be received favorably by all. The Socinians rejected it for the same reason as the Remonstrants. Both were essentially rationalists—thus explaining why so many Remonstrants became Socinians after Dort—and wanted to remove the gospel mystery of sanctification and perseverance. To those who know the greatness of their sin and misery and how utterly dependent they are on Christ for salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) the doctrine of perseverance by grace alone, through faith alone is a great consolation. It is explains our experience. It is a roadmap. It teaches us what to expect and how to understand our experience. Sinners sin but believers repent and seek to be conformed to Christ. We shall not reach perfection in this life but Christ was perfect for us. We shall be perfected after this life or at Christ’s return, whichever happens first. In the ordinary providence of God we shall endure periods of doubt and struggle but God has promised not to abandon us, whatever our experience may suggest. Christ has met the conditions of the covenant of works for us. We, who believe, are in a covenant of grace: All that he did is credited to us and God has graciously worked in us true faith, the sole instrument of our salvation. The Spirit has united us to Christ and is even now sanctifying us in Christ’s image and he shall glorify us.

Why the Mission Needs the Marks

Introduction
Doubtless the one of the most significant movements within evangelicalism at the moment is the “emergent” or “emerging churches” movement. The adjectives “emerging” and “emergent” designate different wings of the movement. Generally, the “emergent” wing is more radical and the “emerging” wing a little less radical. Just as frequently, however, in the contemporary rhetoric from both wings of the movement no distinction is made and this essay will speak of the “emerging movement” (hereafter, EM). Like their older evangelical brothers and sisters, the EM also rejects (at least elements of) fundamentalism and revivalism. In their place, they are constructing a cross-traditional, eclectic synthesis. Christianity Today writer Andy Crouch describes the approach to worship and theology of Mars Hill Bible Church (Grand Rapids) as simultaneously “echoing and subverting a fashion-driven culture of cool.”1 This hip veneer covers an intentional theological synthesis. As pastor Rob Bell puts it,

We’re re-discovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don’t deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don’t speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God.2

An eclectic approach to Christianity, with somewhat different results, also marks Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, in which he describes himself simultaneously as a “missional, evangelical, Post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”3 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger characterize the EM thus:

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging (1) churches identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.4

Scot McKnight gives his own list of 5 characteristics. The emerging churches (which he distinguishes from “emergent” churches) are “prophetic (or at least provocative). They are “postmodern,” “praxis-oriented,” “post-evangelical,” and “political.”5

The Problem of Defining “Missional”
If the EM is hard to define, it is even more difficult to understand what they mean by the word “missional.”  Perhaps no single word in the EM is used more than the word “missional.” No single word is more central to their identity and purpose and yet it is not easy to find them defining the word “missional.”  They often use it as a crucial qualifier for their understanding of Scripture or the Christian faith. For example, on his blog, Scot McKnight has been publishing a series of studies called “Missional Jesus” wherein Jesus life and ministry are analyzed in “missional terms,” with the result that Jesus appears quite similar to the EM movement. Judging by the accounts by the EM and judging by their characterizations of the adjective “missional,” the two seem to be used as synonyms. In other words, if one will be genuinely “missional” one must agree with the EM theology. Further, if we compare the basic attributes of the EM’s self-description with the accounts given by scholars of pietism they are virtually identical.6 Thus, in other words, to be identified with the EM is to be missional and viewed historically, the EM/Missional movements, are simply contemporary ways of re-stating Pietism. For all the new rhetoric, what we have is, at bottom, an argument between those who value religious experience as the highest good and those who, while valuing religious experience—I call to the stand the Heidelberg Catechism, William Perkins, and John Owen—value an objective theology, piety, and practice above subjective religious experience.

What are confessional Reformed Christians to do with these movements and particularly with this adjective “missional”? This essay argues that we must do two things: First, if we are to apply it to ourselves, we must challenge the prevailing EM definition of “missional.” Second, we must recognize that the Reformed theology, piety, and practice presents a clear alternative to the EM definition of “missional” because, unlike the EM, Reformed theology has a doctrine of the church, which confesses that it is in and through the church that the Triune God is accomplishing his mission. For us to say “the mission needs the marks,” is to say that without the visible, institutional church, there is no mission. In order to have a proper definition of what it is to be “missional” we must have a proper definition of what the church is.

First, the definition of the adjective “missional.” There is a some controversy in the EM over whether the word “missional” is being “co-opted” by folk such as we who are not entitled to use it. Anthony Bradley asks whether the term “missional” was being “hijacked” by traditionalists of various sorts. He raises the question whether “missional” types need another adjective to describe themselves.7 He complains about the fact that “Church Growth” guys are now using the term. He cites a document by Tim Keller—who actually provides something of a definition of “Missional”8 and says the term is being co-opted by “the traditional/seeker/program oriented ‘ministries’ driven church”).9 The problem, he says, is that none of these folks are genuinely “missional.”  He asks, “Can you really be missional if your personal relationships are confined to the Christian shire? If your church has no non-Christians attending? If adult baptisms of the unchurched aren’t a regular occurrence, if the church is not serving the needs of the local community, etc?”  The folks at “Reformergent” define missional as:

Social action, community involvement, and sacrificial hospitality is primary in lifestyle living. There is once again an interest in being light and salt in a broken world. This involves primarily politics and culture. Although the emerging church sometimes lacks an emphasis on evangelism as part of missional living, there is still value in their approach to how we can be ‘in this world, and not of it.’10

They give three marks of what it means to be “emergent” and “missional.” Those marks are a concern for “social justice,” “authenticity,” and an “unstructured ecclesiology.”11

It should be clear by now that the definition of “missional” raises serious questions. What is at stake here is the very nature of Christianity. This is not simply my assessment; this is the assessment of leaders of the EM. For example, in response to Driscoll’s criticisms, Doug Pagitt says, “I think that we’re basically talking about two different versions of Christianity” and Tony Jones agrees.12 Spencer Burke, says that his goal is to radically re-shape the visible, institutional church. He says,

I challenge the institutional church, where are you spending your R&D [research and development] money now? … If it’s trying to figure out the next big church, I think you should not spend your money that way. … I actually believe that you will see major organizations in the next few years investing in R&D because of the missional question … because of the things they are discovering now…13

Confessional Reformed churches should share this concern. It is a fair question whether building mega-churches is the mission of the church. As he continues, the picture becomes clearer:

I really believe the institutional church will die to itself … even though it will destroy our Sunday morning event … even though it will mean no longer investing in training biblical teachers for the one-hour event … for the greater good, the greater cause, the missional opportunity….14

Let me be clear, if Reformed folk are to apply the adjective “missional” to themselves, it must be defined clearly and that definition must be quite distinct from that used by the EM. Indeed, if we are to use it to describe ourselves we must, to use Bradley’s terms, hijack it or co-opt it.

Let’s us begin doing so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this use as an adjective relating to missions or missionary work, but this is not what the EM means by it. According to the EM, Sunday mornings are no longer considered the Christian Sabbath or the Lord’s Day morning, the day of public worship, the divinely appointed time and place for the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Sunday morning is just an event and not even a “missional” event at that! Tripp Fuller says,

There is much to learn and keep from the Reformation, a movement that was thoroughly modern, but there is reason to give pause to returning to it with a clenched fist. Right now I think the last thing the Church needs are white dudes with clinched fists, especially when what they are clenching is ‘God’s Truth.’ Throughout modernity white Dudes have had God’s truth in their hands too much, and behind them are ditches filled with God’s and/or their enemies. (This confusion is easy when you have truth tightly gripped in a fist.) … I am confident that, as the Church finds its bearing in a new world, we don’t need any more clinched fists, for it is God’s world and God’s truth after all.15

We see a similar anti-ecclesiastical approach to mission in The Missional Church edited by Darrell L. Guder and co-written by five different authors.16  They agree with many of the EM writers who reject the “Western mission” as a “European-church-centered enterprise.”17 In its place they seek a “theocentric reconceptualization of Christian mission.”18 In the EM/Missional movements there is a turning away from the church as organization and toward the church as organism. They regard the institutional church as a remnant of “Christendom,” the medieval church-state complex.19 Many of the EM/Missional theorists seem to accept, to greater and lesser degrees, the nineteenth-century theory that the apostolic church was purely kerygmatic and charismatic and that organization was a later, post-apostolic corruption of authentic Christianity.20 On that premise they seek to recover some version of primitive Christianity. In the chapter on the church drafted by George Hunsberger, Missional Church contrasts the a missional approach to the doctrine of the church with the “heritage of a functional Christendom and forms of church life shaped by modern notions of voluntary association and rational organization.”21 This is at least partly true and helpful, but they continue by calling into question the very notion of the “marks of the church.” They write that, though the Reformers did not intend it, the result of speaking of “the marks of the true church” has been that Protestants have come to think of church as “a place where certain things happen.”22 The argument throughout the chapter is that we must move beyond a conception of the church as a “place where things happen” to a dynamic community caught up in the mission of God in the world. They are more helpful, however, when they note that the verbs most often used by the New Testament in association with the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven” are “to receive” and “to enter.”23 That the kingdom is not something we can usher in through evangelism or cultural action is a truly important point.

Finally, in contrast to a good bit of the contemporary literature coming from the EM/missional movements, Christopher J. H. Wright provides one of the most helpful approaches to the question of a missional theology.24  He argues that we should use a “missional” hermeneutic on analogy with our Christocentric hermeneutic.25 Just as we read the Bible to see how it progressively reveals the person of God the Son in Christ through the history of redemption,26 so too we ought to recognize that the mission of God is also progressively revealed in redemptive history.27 Thus, e.g. he distinguishes between the missional character of Israel’s relation to the nations, inasmuch as they existed to fulfill the divine intention, and the Christian mission to preach the gospel to all the nations.28 In that respect, he argues that though it is true to say that the Bible teaches a mission, it is also true that the Bible itself is the product of God’s mission.29 The whole history of redemption is the history of the outworking of the divine plan moving from creation, to fall, to redemption, and finally to glory.30

What the EM/Missional Movement Gets Right
There are a number of fundamental disagreements between the EM/Missional movements and the Reformed confession. Nevertheless, there are at least five points about the EM/Missional movements that confessional Reformed churches should appreciate.

  1. Christendom was a mistake and more importantly we live after Christendom. Christians ought to engage the whole world with all of God’s revelation. The attempt to recapture or reconstitute Christendom is a great diversion from our true vocation and the mission of God at this stage in redemptive history. The gospel may not be safely identified with any particular political program (left, center, or right) and it may not be identified any particular cultural program.
  2. Christianity has always been and will always be a global phenomenon. As we think about our relations to the “mission of God” in the world, we need to reckon with the fact that we are part of a much larger enterprise. We, in North America, are not necessarily the center of world Christianity. For example, we can learn much from our one million brothers and sisters in the Church of Christ Among the Tiv (NKST) in Nigeria about what it means to be truly submissive to the mission of God as they live their faith before a largely hostile and often dangerous culture.
  3. The “mission of God” has very little to do with the contemporary evangelical obsession with programs. The “program-driven” church is probably much more about satisfying the social needs of middle class suburbanites than it is about the mission of the church.
  4. The modern church is too closely associated with particular cultural forms. We are not nearly as critical of our own debt to our own time and place as we need to be.
  5. The modern evangelical church is too easily reckoned as just another voluntary organization. This is why evangelicals shop churches. They do not think of the institutional church as a divine institution to which they have a sacred moral and spiritual obligation and connection. The local congregation has become just another service provider.

What the EM/Missional Movement Gets Wrong
As many things as there are to appreciate about the EM/Missional movements, there are at least nine points of serious disagreement between the Reformed faith and the EM/Missional movements.

  1. The EM/Missional movements are unhelpfully vague about exactly what the “mission” of God is and as a consequence they are unhelpfully vague about what the “mission” of the church is.
  2. When the EM/Missional movements do speak clearly about the mission of the church that mission has precious little to do with the mission of God and the history of redemption and revelation as Reformed churches have understood it. Almost invariably the mission is re-cast in activist, social-gospel, and even Anabaptist terms. This is not my judgment, it is the judgment of EM/Missional advocate Scot McKnight, who says of Brian McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change: “Truth be told, Brian is an Anabaptist [sic] as I am reading him….”31
  3. The EM and Missional accounts of church history seem unaware of a century of criticism of the old and outdated “Kerygma to dogma” model of church history in which the EM and “Missional” groups attempt to re-capture or re-create the “authentic” “kerygmatic” and socially conscious apostolic communities in our time to get past the ossified “dogma” with which Christianity has been encrusted. I understand why they are attracted to it, since it is just a slightly more sophisticated version of the sort of evangelical and fundamentalist primitivism that they are offering now. The great problem with this model is that it just is not true. The whole Kerygma to dogma model assumed, a priori, that the apostolic church could have no institutions, offices, or organization. Any evidence of such organization only meant that portion of the NT could not be taken to be authentic.The repeated claim that the Reformation was a modern phenomenon has no basis in actual history. The Reformation occurred a century and a half before modernity began to dominate the West. The Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed churches were pre-modern people and they were hotly critical of modernity when it appeared. The leading critics of Rene Descartes were not Pietists, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. The leading critics of modernity, as it began to appear, were the orthodox Reformed. It was the Pietists, the forebears of the EM/Missional movements who conceded Christianity to modernity. The nineteenth-century German liberals who laid waste to the faith, who laid siege against the Scriptures were all the children and grand children of Pietists. The EM/Missional movements seem to be counseling us to drink more deeply from the very wells that brought about the destruction they lament.The great irony of the EM/Missional complaint about orthodoxy as “modernist,” is that the Modern creed had four great points, to which most segments of the EM/Missional movement give assent.
    1.  The Modernist creed confesses the universal Fatherhood of God. In the modernist religion, the utterly transcendent (or immanent) deity is everyone’s God/god in precisely the same way. It is not confessional Calvinism, but the EM/Missional movement that includes universalists in its midst.
    2. The Modernist creed confesses the universal brotherhood of humanity. In the modern religion, all human beings are all one great human family without distinction before the deity in any way. Of course, confessing as we do double predestination and limited atonement, it is unlikely that confessional Calvinism will be confused with modernity, but how distinct from the modern creed is the EM/Missional movement?
    3. The Modernist creed confesses human and social perfectibility. If you are of a certain age, you may remember the slogan, “we’re getting better every way and every day.” As dark Calvinists with our doctrine of the depravity of every human faculty we are not good candidates for alignment with the Modernist creed, but the same cannot be said for many elements of the EM/Missional movement.
    4. The most basic Modernist confession is that of human autonomy, the ability to will the contrary to all other wills, even God, is what makes one human. As confessors of human depravity and divine sovereignty, confessional Reformed theology utterly rejects this foundational Modernist doctrine, which is a significant reason we are seen as unreasonable and even anti-human by Modernists. It is far from clear that the EM/Missional movements find themselves with the same antithesis to Modernity on this basic point.
  4. The EM and “Missional” complaint about the close association of the church with cultural forms could be taken as a form of Gnosticism. Our Lord took on a true human nature. As a true man, born of a virgin, he entered human history, spoke a natural language, and was, as a man, completely embedded in a particular culture and time. He commissioned his apostles, also embedded in a particular culture and time, to preach the gospel that transcends all cultures and times, to every language, tongue, and tribe. The paradox of the mission is that the transcendent, triune God entered history to accomplish the great mission, to redeem his people in the fullness of time, and he committed the proclamation of the reality of that fulfillment to the visible church, which shall always remained embedded in time and history until there is no more time and history.Let us also remember that it was the Anabaptists, with whom the EM/Missional movements seem to be so enamored, who overtly and repeatedly denied the true humanity of Christ and who adopted the Docetic doctrine of the so-called “celestial flesh” of Christ. The Definition of Chalcedon better serves the biblical and holy catholic faith than the Christology of the Anabaptists does.
  5. Though the EM and “missional” movements often write as if they were distinctively post-modern, there is little evidence that they really are genuinely post-modern. In many ways it is not a modern movement, beginning with late modern assumptions. The first “modern” people were the Anabaptists and then the Pietists. It is they who made the faith wholly private and personal and who divorced it from history and made it chiefly about the Quest for the Illegitimate Religious Experience.By “modern” I mean they accept the premise that the subject of the verb is “I.”  This is the great difference between Christian antiquity, where the overwhelming consensus was exactly opposite that of modernity, and modernity. The pre-modern church assumed universally that God had spoken, that his revelation is objective and normative for all people, in all times and places. The great question of Christian antiquity was not whether God has spoken but what has God said.The great modern question is has God really said? Of course that question has ancient and diabolical roots, but never until the Modern period did it become the dominant question, the dominant assumption. It was in reaction to the ascendancy of the modern question and the accompanying assumption of personal autonomy that Christians began to regard the faith not about objective, verifiable historical truths such as creation, redemption, resurrection and return, but about the personal experience of the divine. Calvin and Luther are one thing, and Friedrich Schleiermacher is another. The EM and “Missional” movements have much deeper roots in the liberal Pietism of Schleiermacher than they do in the confessional, churchly Protestantism of Calvin and Luther.
  6. The EM/Missional movements are much to be faulted for their lack of clarity about what the gospel is. The Scriptures are unequivocal that the gospel is the announcement of deliverance from judgment and damnation on the basis of the righteousness of Christ and received through faith alone in Christ and his finished work. This is not the clarion call of the EM/Missional movement.
  7. The EM/Missional movements fail consistently to distinguish between the two kingdoms. According to God’s Word there are two kingdoms in this world, one from heaven and the other of this age. Christians live in both kingdoms simultaneously. The visible, institutional church, the “true church,” represents the spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of God as we confess in the Belgic Confession Art. 29. Here, we should credit the chapter in Missional Church that gets this aspect of the question right.32 Only the baptized live in this kingdom outwardly and only believers inhabit this kingdom spiritually. All humans, however, live in another kingdom, the civil or earthly kingdom and much of that to which the EM/Missional movements are calling the church actually belongs to the civil kingdom. Christians may and should work to alleviate suffering, but the visible, institutional church, as such, is called to only three tasks: To preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to administer discipline. We confess these as the marks of the true church. We confess:

    The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it (Belgic Confession [1561], art. 29).

    When we adopted the three marks of true church, we were in a situation very much like ours today. It was difficult for Christians to know where they should worship and to which institution they should give their allegiance. They needed clear, objective indicators of where the true church could be found. That need has never been greater than it is now. That is why we chose three objective marks that can be tested by empirical evidence. Listen to the sermons, is the gospel preached? That is not a trick question. Either the gospel justification through faith alone in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension is present or it is not. Are the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper administered? By our lights, if as often happens in our hyper-spiritual age, they are absent or fundamentally corrupted in favor of “new measures,” then the church is also absent. Finally, it will become clear soon enough if a congregation is disciplined. If the minister is unaccountable or if there are no elders or gross sin and error are winked at, then there is no discipline.

    It is often said that we should add a fourth mark, If we add to these marks then we gain nothing and risk losing them all. To be sure, there are subsidiary obligations in the church. For example, we must love one another, but there are good reasons why “love” or charity is not a mark of the true church. At first glance, the evidence for making “love” a mark of the church seems overwhelming, after all Paul is very clear in 1 Cor 13 that, whatever else is true of us, if we have not love, we are of little use to the kingdom. The chief problem with adding love or any other virtue to the list of marks is that the list becomes useless. If we make “charity” a mark of the visible church so that one can look at a congregation and determine whether it is a true church on the basis of whether it has love, then who gets to say “how much”? Who gets to define what counts as love and what does not? If we may add “love” as a mark of the church, then why should we not add holiness and if holiness then why not other virtues? On what basis do we stop adding virtues to the list of marks?  We know the answer to that question as soon as we answer another. Which congregation on the face of the earth has all the necessary virtues or even one of them in sufficient quantity to qualify as a true church?

    As it happens, the Reformed churches already considered this question. We assign the virtues to the marks of the Christian. Those marks are also in Belgic Confession Art. 29. “As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.”

  8. They love the true God and their neighbors, they love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. In our theology, piety, and practice, there is no question whether faith, hope, and love are necessary. We are not Donatists. The lack of perfection in the saints or even in the ministers does not disqualify the church. What matters most about the church—between Reformed confessionalism and evangelical pietism there is, on this question, fixed an unbridgeable gulf—is what the church confesses, what it preaches, whether and how it administers the holy sacraments, and whether it administers discipline. In our view, however, the visible church, i.e. the congregation of the saints in stated worship services where the Word is preached and the sacraments and discipline are administered are exactly “places where things happens,” and those assemblies are ordinarily the only such places where such things happen.
  9. To say that the mission needs the marks is to say that the mission needs the true church. One of the greatest faults of the EM/Missional movements is that they seem bent on destroying or circumventing the visible church. Perhaps this is because of their context? Perhaps they see the visible church as disposable or worse, as an obstacle, because they are in mainline churches where dead heterodoxy seems to flourish or they are in mega-churches where the main “mission” seems to be to fill the seats?The Reformed understanding of the Scriptures is that mission is impossible without Christ’s visible church just as the accomplishment of redemption was impossible without Christ’s human nature. In Matthew 16 our Lord gave the keys of the kingdom to his designated representatives, to the visible institutional church. He did not give the keys to any other entity. In that sense, then, the visible church is unique among all human institutions in that it alone represents the authoritative, official proclamation of the Gospel of the kingdom. To the visible, institutional church alone Christ gave the power to remit and to bind. In Matthew 18 we see the same pattern. When our Lord instructed his disciples to “tell it to the church” he did not have in mind the “invisible church” of all times and places. He had in mind the visible, local, congregation with officers. Indeed, the Apostles were deeply concerned with the local church as the center of the administration of the kingdom of God on the earth. The Apostle Paul devoted about half or at least a generous portion of most of his epistles to addressing the practical administration and life of visible, true congregations churches. He spent a considerable amount of energy seeing to the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Those who denied the humanity of Christ, in the churches of Asia Minor, “went out” from actual congregations because they were never really, spiritually “of” those congregations.
  10. As the intellectual and spiritual children of Pietists and Anabaptists the EM/Missional movements seem to lack altogether a doctrine of what our forefathers called “the means of grace.” The EM/Missional movement seems entirely taken with the modern, pietist, autonomous, and individualistic approach to spirituality and piety. The candles and labyrinths of the EM/Missional piety are just medieval trappings over pietist individualism. The piety and spirituality of the EM/Missional movement is still Bonaventure’s journey of the mind into God or the piety of the ascent of the soul to the divine.Reformed piety is covenantal. It recognizes that God the Son administers his grace through visible means, that we are baptized into a community, that we are redeemed into communities, and that we are brought to faith by the public proclamation of the gospel (Rom 10:17) and that faith is strengthened and confirmed through our baptism and the regular use of the Lord’s Supper. Confessional Protestants confess that every day we repent and die to self and live to Christ and, in that way, we daily renew our baptism. Lord permitting, each week, after we hear the gospel in our ears, we receive it again with our mouths confessing that, as certainly as I receive the elements from the hand of the minister, so surely are the promises of God true for those who believe.

Conclusion
If the mission of God in history is to announce, accomplish, and apply salvation to all of his people in all times and places, in that case the marks of the church are absolutely essential to the mission. Throughout the whole history of redemption, the divine mission was always executed through his covenant people beginning in the garden, after the fall, through Noah, Abraham, national Israel, and finally in the New Covenant church. In every epoch there was always a visible representation of the kingdom and covenant. Nothing has changed. Our Lord Jesus cut a covenant with his people in his blood and he administers his salvation, which is the essence of the mission, through that people. The marks of Christ’s church have always been evident: Gospel, sacraments, and discipline.

Therefore, so long as we continue to accept the Reformed reading of redemptive history, we cannot accept the EM/Missional movement’s definition of “missional.” By these lights, in order to be “missional” we have to reject what we understand to be the gospel and we should have to reject what we understand to be the mission and finally, to embrace the EM account of “mission,” we should have to adopt an Anabaptist doctrine of the church.

Fortunately, none of this is necessary. We should take the EM/Missional movement as a challenge to reinvigorate our vocation to take seriously our doctrine of the church as the covenant community, as the visible representation of the kingdom of God, and the external administration of the covenant of grace. Let us agree with the EM/Missional movement where they remind us that the mission of the church is grounded in the mission of God and the mission of God is expressed in the voluntary submission of God the Son to his Father, whose “food” was “to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Our work is, first of all, to “believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29) and out of those missions, the institutional church must manifest the marks and so doing to go as we have been sent (John 20:21) by the him who was sent for us.

NOTES
* This essay first appeared online in 2008.

1. Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today, November 2004, 38.
2. Ibid.
3. From the cover of Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). For a critique of McLaren’s attempted synthesis see R. Scott Clark, “Whosoever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church? Meet Christian Dogma,” in Reforming or Conforming, ed. Gary Johnson and Ronald Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
4. This is condensed from Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating a Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 43–44.
5. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today, February 2007, 36–39.
6. For a more extensive treatment of this phenomenon and a confessional invitation to the citizens of the “Emergent Village” to visit Geneva and Heidelberg see R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007).
7. http://bradley.chattablogs.com/archives/060218.html (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
8. “adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community,
and service—so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it” http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Missional_Church-Keller.pdf (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
9. http://bradley.chattablogs.com/archives/060218.html.
10. http://www.reformergent.org/?p=4 (accessed 10 October 10, 2007)
11. http://www.reformergent.org/?p=4 (accessed 10 October 2007).
12. http://theoblogy.blogspot.com/2007/10/different-versions-of-christianity.html (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
13. http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/missional-has-it-been-shrink-wrapped-too (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
14. Ibid.
15. http://pomopirate.blogspot.com/2007/09/driscoll-acts-29-and-demerging-church.html (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
16. Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
17. Ibid., 4.
18. Ibid.
19. See e.g., ibid., 5–6.
20. The writers of Missional Church recognize that a missional church must be “historical” (p.11) but it is not entirely clear what this means.
21. Missional Church, 77. Remarkably, the chapter calls us to do exactly that which William Willimon has charged us not to do, i.e. to continue doing theology in “translation mode.” On this see William H.  Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 9.
22. Missional Church, 79.
23. Ibid., 93–97.
24. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006).
25. Bearing in mind Richard Muller’s recent caveat about the difficulty of using this adjective. See Richard A. Muller, “A Note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology,” Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 253–60.
26. See R. Scott Clark, “What is the Bible All About,” Modern Reformation 16 (March/April, 2007): 20–24.
27. See, e.g., 26, 30–32.
28. Ibid., 24–25.
29. Ibid
30. Ibid., 62–63.
31. http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=2917 (accessed 12 October, 2007).
32. Missional Church, 102–09.

What The Spirit Is Doing Or What We Are Saying? Distinguishing Reformed And Pentecostal Piety

Introduction
Since the early 19th century American Christianity has been largely dominated by a revival of the original Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. One can transpose much of what took place in the 19th century over the first generation Anabaptists (1520s) and it matches up quite well. The original Anabaptists would have understood completely the Millerite eschatological fervor of the 1820s–40s. They would understand completely the claims of continuing revelation made by Joseph Smith and the Mormons in the same period. At least some of the original Anabaptists would have understood the bald Pelagianism of Charles Finney (1792–1875). The Cane Ridge Revival (1801) would have made perfect sense to the original Anabaptists as it fit their vision of piety almost perfectly.

Evangelical Christianity in America as it has been received in the 20th and 21st centuries is very much the product of that revived Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. The Second Great Awakening (hereafter, 2GA) was a radically democratic, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, enterprise. Theologically, it was by turns mystical and rationalist. Further, the 2GA did not just happen out of the blue. It did not fall out of the sky like golden plates and magic spectacles. There is a direct, organic connection between the First Great Awakening (hereafter 1GA) and the 2nd but we will press on lest we move from preaching to meddling.

The enthusiastic (in the strict sense) piety of the 2GA faded in the second half of the 19th century but “fresh light” broke forth again in the revivals in Topeka, KS and Azusa Street (Los Angeles) at the turn of the 20th century. The patterns established in the earlier “revivals” have been formative for American evangelicalism.

One aspect of that revivalist pattern is the claim to renewed apostolic phenomena. Suggestions were made in the 18th century and proclaimed loudly in the 19th and 20th centuries that the apostolic phenomena had been restored to those with faith to receive and exercise them. Since the 19th century at least evangelical Christianity (defined broadly) has been divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” i.e., those who claim to have recovered the Apostolic gifts and powers.

The Gift Of Interpretation
As a consequence of these claims many evangelicals simply assume that when a contemporary leader claims to have the gift of “tongues” that what is seen and accepted as “tongues” is identical to what occurred in Acts and what is described in Acts. Such assumptions of continuity between the apostolic period and contemporary expressions of religious piety and enthusiasm have strongly colored evangelical assumptions about the nature of piety. It is a paradigm: it is assumed that spiritual vitality means reproducing apostolic phenomena. Any Christian who is not receiving direct revelations from the Spirit, exercising apostolic gifts and power is reckoned either to lack faith, to be missing out on a potential benefit, or to be making a false profession of faith.

Since the 1970s a somewhat milder version of neo-Pentecostalism has come to great influence in evangelical circles: the charismatic movement. This varied movement usually asserts less continuity between the Apostolic period and the post-canonical period. It has eliminated some of the more socially embarrassing aspects of neo-Pentecostalism (e.g., being slain in the Spirit) in favor of a moderated, more middle-class, suburban piety of direct revelations that are not considered necessarily equivalent to the canonical Scriptures and occasional exercises of prophetic gifts that may (or may not) be considered authoritative. When it comes to healing, the line separating the older Azusa Street piety from the Calvary Chapel charismatic piety is a little fuzzy.

Even in Reformed circles, which are typically cessationist, i.e., which typically do not accept the widely-held assumption of strong continuity between the apostolic period and the contemporary church, there are attempts to mediate between the neo-Pentecostalists, charismatics, and non-Pentecostalists by adopting the vocabulary of the charismatic movement. It is common for Reformed folk to say, “The Lord led me” or “The Lord showed me” or even “The Lord told me.”

Sometimes one suspects this is a defense mechanism. If we speak this way then perhaps we will not be accused of denying the ongoing work of the Spirit. In the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic paradigm, the assumption is that anyone who does not speak thus is implicitly denying the abiding presence, activity, and work of the Spirit. Some of this is cross-cultural or cross-paradigm communication. We have taken to speaking like charismatics in order communicate our conviction that the Spirit is at work in our communions and people.

The adoption of charismatic language to describe our experience comes at a cost, however, because we come to believe that what is being said is literally true. As Reformed folk read Scripture, the apostolic gifts and powers ended with the close of the apostolic age. As best we can tell, no one is actually speaking in natural foreign languages (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12–14) by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. None of us is being carried about from place to place by the Spirit (Acts 8:39) or healing the lame (Acts 8 and 9). None of us is putting people to death (Acts 5) or raising people from the dead (Acts 20) and none of us is impervious to the bite of poisonous snakes (Acts 28). None of us even is so indwelled by the Spirit that others are healed merely by touching our handkerchiefs (Acts 19).

Reformed And Pentecostal?
Genuine, confessional Reformed piety is warm, Spiritual, and vital but we understand that the Spirit works through means (Word and sacraments). This means that there are two distinct paradigms before us. Christ’s presence mediated v. the unmediated experience of God (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, QIRE). In some cases, however, the issue is less a matter of genuine difference but rather about how we should speak.

Historically, even though the church has often and rather conveniently fuzzed the boundary between the canonical and post-canonical periods (e.g., the hagiographies of the early church) as a matter of doctrine the main Patristic writers tended to recognize a distinction between the apostolic and post-apostolic periods. The scandal of the Montanists was that they claimed to represent a revival of the apostolic phenomena, a claim that most rejected.

As Warfield showed in 1918, the so-called “miracles” claimed by the neo-Pentecostalists simply do not measure up to apostolic standards. The apostolic miracles were of a different order than anything that is claimed today. It was not a matter of “so and so said that he heard that in Pakistan in 1937 x happened.” That is what passes for the miraculous in our day. There is a word for that: credulity. The genuine thing was obvious, public, and empirically verifiable. They had nothing to hide because they had real power. They did not need ear pieces (Robert Tilton) or camera tricks and the like. There was no agony of deceit.

The truth is that those leading evangelical proponents of gifts tacitly admit that they are not really apostolic. One leading advocate admitted to a gathering of theologians that his first attempt to heal failed because he lacked sufficient faith. That is not apostolic. Paul shook off the serpent at Malta because he had apostolic power not because he had sufficient faith (as if he would have died had his faith flagged for a moment). Paul sustained several stonings and other attempts on his life. We would not. We are not apostles.

I am not saying that the Spirit cannot do today what he did in the first century, in the Exodus, in the flood, or in the resurrection. I quite expect to see Jesus return bodily. I expect to see a bodily resurrection and a metaphorical flood (1 Peter) but we are not there yet. God has not promised to do in our age, in the post-canonical time between the ascension and the parousia, what he did in the canonical age.

What happens is that contemporary evangelical and charismatic folk describe ordinary phenomena in extraordinary, apostolic terms. They identify non-apostolic phenomena as apostolic. That is cheating but it is rhetorically powerful and persuasive. Many evangelicals do not want to live in the post-canonical, in between time. It is a drag. People want a power religion. Judged against the neo-Pentecostal and charismatic claims, Reformed Christianity seems decidedly weak and powerless (see all of 2 Corinthians).

What Should We Then Do?
I propose that we speak the truth in love. Instead of making claims that we cannot back up we should speak simply. Instead of claiming implicitly that we know what the Spirit is doing just now (we do not—you do not know where the Spirit comes from or where he is going) we should say what is true. Instead of saying “the Spirit told me” or “the Spirit led me,” we should say what we actually know to be true: “I had a strong desire to pray” or “in the providence of God it turns out that as I was praying x was happening at the same time.”

Does the Spirit lead us, give promptings? Sure. That is not in question. What is in question is what we should claim about them. The Word tells us that the Spirit is constantly, powerfully, and actively accomplishing his purposes. Confessing that truth is one thing. Claiming that we know just what he is about at any given moment is quite another. We say, “The Spirit was really present” when what we know to be true is that “we had an intense experience.” In fact the Spirit is always present. We may become conscious of certain intense feelings or experiences and if those are good and holy, praise God.

Implicit in the claim to know what the Spirit is doing is an unstated knowledge and claim to power. “It is not in the Scripture but I know what the Spirit is doing in this instance.” That does not accord with what we believe about the immensity of God, the omnipresence of God and our doctrine of the providence of God. He is always sustaining, governing, upholding all things. We know that he is with his covenantal people in a particular way. That presumes knowledge of the Spirit’s work that we do not have. It is powerful and seductive but it is powerful precisely because it fills in the sorts of blanks we want to have filled in. It sounds and seems more “spiritual” to say, “The Spirit led me to do/say/think” rather than “after prayer and study I did/said/thought.” The latter is corrigible and the former is less so. It is really a sort of implicit claim to power, authority, and knowledge that, as far as I know, in the post-canonical era, no one has.

Why cannot we simply do good, useful, edifying things without attributing it directly to the inspiration of the Spirit? Why do we have to know whether it was directly from the Spirit? Partly, I think, because we feel guilty for being cessationists because the non-cessationists seem to be having all the fun.

Conclusion: We Have Our Own Paradigm
Brothers and sisters, the Reformed are not charismatics or neo-Pentecostals. We have a different paradigm. We should learn to be content with Scripture and with our own paradigm instead of seeking to plunder the Pentecostals. We do not believe that God occasionally drops into history to do the spectacular but rather we believe that he is constantly with us. We believe that he accomplishes extraordinary things through the ordained and regular ministry (Rom 10). Which takes more faith? To believe that the Spirit is knocking people over, inspiring them to make incorrect prophecies, or to believe that God uses the foolishness of the preached Gospel (1 Cor 1–2) to raise spiritually dead (Eph 2) sinners to new life and to grant them faith and through it union with the risen Christ?

Thanks to J. P. Sibley for editorial help with this essay.