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 HB in 2008]