Josh writes to ask how confessionally Reformed Christians should relate to contemporary (as distinct from it’s use as a synonym of “historic, confessional Protestant”) evangelicals?
It was wonderful to watch your profession of faith and to see the baptism of your children. We all pray that you (and all our families) know all the benefits of the covenant of grace.
You ask a good question.
Our relations to contemporary evangelicals, who are in congregations that don’t meet the threefold test of Belgic Art 29 are complicated. I think it helps to distinguish between our relations to them as private persons and our ecclesiastical relation to them. As private persons (and ecclesiastically) we have to love everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, as Christ loved us. We must show the same grace to them that Christ showed (and shows) to us. If people make a profession of faith in Jesus, whether in a mainline denomination or in a Roman congregation or the local bible church, we should accept that profession with a judgment of charity.
Our personal relations with others, as private persons, however, doesn’t answer the ecclesiastical question. We have to love those non-Reformed congregations, but that love takes a different form on an ecclesiastical level than it does on a personal level.
We’re not helping congregations if we tell them, “Really, Word and sacrament ministry is no big deal. The means of grace are indifferent.” I don’t see how a confessionally Reformed person can be an ecclesiastical pluralist (beyond the bounds of the Word as confessed by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches) If a congregation doesn’t have the marks of a true church, it isn’t a church. As a matter of fact, we have to accept the anomaly of christians in congregations without the marks. As a matter of ethics, however, we ought to encourage those Christians to unite themselves to congregations with the marks (Belgic 29).
In this regard I think it’s helpful to speak about persons and congregations rather than speaking about the abstraction or universal “evangelical” without definition. A universal, to be meaningful, must have particulars. The only particular that is universal to all contemporary evangelicals is: “has had an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ” or even “has had an intense religious experience in a Christian context.”
Better for us to deal with Christians and congregations. We should love professing Christians but we should love them by encouraging them to unite with true churches.
One of the problems with the equivocal use of “evangelical” to describe confessional Reformed/Presbyterian types or confessional Lutheran types and contemporary QIRE evangelicals is that it sends the signal: “Hey, it’s okay for you to be in a congregation that doesn’t have the marks of a true church.”
We’re not the first to face this crisis. The Reformed (and I assume the Lutheran) churches faced the problem of the Nicodemites in the 16th century. The Nicodemites were those, like Nicodemus, who want to come to Christ (the church) late at night but they don’t want to openly affiliate with it for fear of consequences. Thus, in that context, people would approach Reformed pastors (e.g. Calvin) and say, “I’m with you in the Reformation but I can’t leave my Roman parish because….”
Robert White, “Calvin and the Nicodemite Controversy: An Overlooked Text of 1541,” Calvin Theological Journal 35 (2000): 282-296, defines it well:
In essence, the Nicodemite was one who had appropriated Christian truth but who, for reasons of necessity, personal convenience, or simple indifference, maintained visible communion with the Roman Church on the grounds that no vital principle of faith was at stake. A strategy of silence was followed in preference to one of open confession.
Today Reformed pastors hear this same thing. People can’t leave their megachurches or their local bible churches because “I like the programs” or “My family is there” or “We have such good relationships there” or whatever. There’s nothing new under the sun. You can read Calvin’s approach to this in this volume:
John Calvin, Come Out From Among Them: Anti-Nicodemite Writings of John Calvin, trans. Seth Skolnitksy (Geneva: Protestant Heritage Press, 2001). Unfortunately this volume is out of print and not easy to find outside of theological libraries. You can get it via inter-library loan. Perhaps some publisher would like to put this back into print?