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.
Here’s a related post by Jay Adams on “church tramps.”
[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]