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.”