Reformed and Evangelical Redux

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?

Hi Josh,

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?

Related posts:

They aren’t really addressing the issue yet

Are Reformed “Evangelicals” or “Evangelical”?

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  1. Thanks again–I asked some more questions in response to your excellent answers.
    Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your answer. It was very helpful. In light of the above, would you feel comfortable with praying with an evangelical in a non-ecclesiastical context? Of course we don’t want to send the message that it’s OK for them to not have the three marks ecclesiastically; I wonder if praying with them would send that sort of message.

    I appreciate your distinction between ecclesiastical relations and individual relations. Now, when the Belgic says “outside of this true church there is normally no salvation” (hope I’m not misquoting), do we assume that if a church is not a Reformed church, that those members of this “church” are normally not saved?

    Sorry for all the questions; this hits close to home with me because Angela and I have family and friends who are evangelical. I want to do the right thing in interacting with them. I did read an article from a URC minister that referred to evangelicals as our “brethren.” But, I want to see what the cash value of this is and I want to interact with them properly and biblically to honor Christ and His Church.

    Perhaps if you have the time you could help me to see how I should practically interact with evangelicals on an individual basis (e.g., should I pray with them?, should I call them “brother”, “sister,” etc.? should I speak to them about “our common faith” etc.?).

    Thank you again for your time sir. I look forward to growing in fellowship with you at the OURC.

  2. Scott, you said, “As a matter of ethics, however, we ought to encourage those Christians to unite themselves to congregations with the marks (Belgic 29).”

    Is there a formal or informal mechanism by which this happens? Do you know of any congregations, thus invited, who have actually made this step?

  3. Of the Westminster Standards and Three Forms, my favourite is easily the latter, but it’s on points like this that I appreciate the intensity of the WCF’s detail. There’s this concept of the “more or less pure” church, according to the purity of its worship (understanding the term in an inclusive sense) [WCF XXV.4]. Of course, the Belgic doesn’t deny that, but I find it helpful that it’s laid out like that.

    It’s a liberal (in the good sense!) way of looking at things, because it means that we can acknowledge what’s good in a church and not simply what’s wrong. So over this side of the pond, in the lovely city of York, where I would have to travel over an hour to get to a decent Presbyterian church, I can see that the Baptist church where I worship is the best available place for me, without needing to fret that somehow they don’t meet all the criteria in every particular. For sure they’re imperfect, but so, as the WCF goes on to remind us, are even the purest churches.

    The personal/ecclesiastical distinction is extremely helpful. I’m friendly with the local Syrian Orthodox bishop, who lives in York, but I’d be worried if my chuch and his started doing pulpit exchanges.

  4. Philip,

    What makes one think that the Westminster Divines or the receiving churches who subscribed the WCF (e.g. The Scottish Presbyterians in 1648) regarded denial of infant baptism (and rejection of the validity of infant baptism so that the entire assembly was regarded as unbaptized) as a “less pure” church? It’s possible but I’m skeptical given the heated polemic between Presbyterian and Anglican defenders of infant baptism (e.g. Thomas Blake) and the Baptists. Isn’t it rather more likely that, in context, “less pure” was a way of describing the Anglican communion? There were plenty of Presbyterians and congregationalists who regarded the C of E as “but halfly reformed.” Many of them separated from the established church because they couldn’t live in what was then “the mainline.”

    That seems to me to be a better, more historical account of what “less pure” probably meant and should be taken to mean today.

  5. For those who think I’m being unduly narrow, let me say that I agree with my Baptist friend Mark Dever. We agree that mere profession of faith in Christ is an insufficient basis for table fellowship (or church membership). I appreciate very much how highly Mark values the sacraments and the visible church. We disagree categorically about who should be baptized and how to define the visible, institutional church but we’re both trying to be faithful to the Scripture as understood by our confessional traditions and by our churches. Mark is plain in saying that paedobaptism is an error and I’m just as plain in asserting the Reformed view. That doesn’t stop me from regarding Mark as a dear friend and a terrific scholar and pastor. We had Mark out here a while back and he gave excellent lectures on Sibbes. I highly recommend his book. It’s first rate.

  6. John,

    I don’t know of any formal mechanisms. I suppose a consistory could write to a local congregation or could instruct an errant visitor to repent of their disobedience regarding infant baptism. I’m not sure what you have in mind.


    What I have in mind is that believers should exhort other believers. I do wish that those paedobaptists with influence should make it clear that the church and sacraments are not optional doctrines, that we’re not pluralist on those things, even though we regard our orthodox evangelical friends with Christian affection.

  7. Scott, I’m not sure what I have in mind either. I am about half way through MacCullough’s “History of the Reformation” and I am very much struck by the great degree that non-theological and non-doctrinal things had to do with the separations among the Protestant denominations (such as politics, for example). And for that matter, how really little consideration that “official Rome” gave to the Reformation doctrines, or had to be confronted with them. I am wondering if at least some of the theological discussions that happened back then could be re-had today, in a less political climate, if some or many of the divisions among Protestants could be re-considered.

  8. John,

    You’ll have to keep reading into the 17th century. We had those discussions.

    I’m not against having them again. As I’ve said, I would be happy to sit down with Rome and talk about our catechism and their catechism.

  9. What makes me think that Baptists are “less pure” is that the only classification beneath “less pure” (and of course, there are gradations of “less pure”, aren’t there) is “synagogue of Satan”. I’m guessing you’re not walking that road.

    Anyway, isn’t the pertinent question whether you would receive a Baptist baptism as valid? If so, then they baptise, but not entirely properly. It’s no great stretch to suppose that they administer the Supper, more or less obediently (grape juice!). Likewise, they preach the Gospel, more or less purely. They administer discipline, more or less appropriately.

    Would you say, today, that the Anglican Communion is more pure than, say, Mark Dever’s church?

  10. Philip,

    Those are good points. The Baptist administration of the supper can be quite defective, especially when it comes to open communion or it is reduced to annual communion and where there is no doctrine of the true presence of Christ. Grape juice etc is about mode. I would be more concerned about the hyper-Zwinglianism of most Baptists.

    I’ve been in some very good C of E congregations. St Ebbes, Oxon, when I was there had a terrific preacher, David Fletcher. The RPW goes out the window of course, but the preaching was very good. Vaughn Roberts was curate back then.

    Today, if I’m DC, and my choices are a run in the mill Episcopal congregation and Mark Dever’s congregation, I’d attend Mark’s but it’s not really a fair test. The ECUSA is a disaster. The African bishops are beside themselves and threatening to leave over it. That wasn’t the choice faced by the divines. The question is whether they would have attended a Baptist congregation then or whether, ordinarily, they would counsel us to do now? I doubt it, but I don’t know with certainty.

    There were Anglican delegates to the Westminster Assembly. The first prolocutor was Anglican! There were no Baptist delegates to the Assembly.

    It’s a fair question whether they regarded Baptist congregations as synagogues of Satan or whether they were saying that. I don’t know. I don’t think we can rule it out a priori just because, today, we wouldn’t do it. Living with the Baptist schism for a few hundred years has changed our perspective. It was still pretty scandalous then.

  11. Baptist hyper-Zwinglianism is what killed any ideas I might ever have had about being a Baptist. Mercifully, it’s not what’s taught at our church, although some even on the diaconate espouse the view.

    I thought you’d say it’s not a fair test, and of course you’re quite right really. In addition to St Ebbe’s, there’s All Souls, Langham Place; St Andrew the Great, Cambridge; St Helen’s Bishopgate–and yet more besides!

    But on the whole, the situation in the UK is very patchy. You’re as likely to find a good Baptist church as you are a good Anglican church; in fact, probably more likely if you count in all the independent baptistic evangelical churches. And like I say, there’s about nine good Presbyterian churches in England: Scotland, Wales and N Ireland are better off, although of course, not all their Presbyterian churches are alike.

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