On Churchless Evangelicals (pt 1)

An HB Classic

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.”

Part 2.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]

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  1. Good stuff, Scott.

    I recall reading Lutheran Don Matzat describing the two kinds of modernism: the mainline liberal elevates reason over scripture, while the evangelical elevates experience over scripture. Both have little to no use for the church, of course. At best, it’s a glorified stop-over that, amonsgt other things, sees worship as homeroom and a place to simply rally the troops to go back into moralistic (culture war) and therapeutic (the inner life) battle.

  2. This is my story too in many respects. Thankfully I broke through the wall several years ago, even though that has meant joining and submitting to a church that many of my evangelical brothers and sisters consider “dead” and “formal”. They’re nice enough not to say that to my face, but I can sense the bewilderment.

  3. This was vary much my story as well. I grew up in a nondenominational charismatic church (emphasizing divine healing, speaking in tongues) which became more word-faith as I became an adult. It had the worst of all worlds – the emphasis on autonomy (name it-claim it) and gnosticism to the core (emphasis on getting saved in one’s spirit!). When I went to college (Oral Roberts U.), I had a tough time joining a church, so I spent many Sundays in the prayer gardens, ditching church. I’m so thankful for God’s grace as I was rescued from all that when I discovered the doctrines of grace almost ten years ago through Modern Reformation and a few Reformed radio preachers. I now have to deal with much of family and many friends who are still in a terrible predicament and don’t understand my love of the creeds, a liturgy and esp. the RPW.

    • Chris,
      When did you go to ORU? I graduated in the ’70s.

      While there, there were times I didn’t go to church. Once you were there for a while, you got an instant recognition of when certain rules would be enforced and when they would not be. Most of the time, I would go to Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church because I grew up in the PC USA.

      BTW, I was one of the few reformed theology students at ORU. And since my rooms tended to be at the end of the hall, I was often delay getting to my room because of the many attempts to convert me.

  4. Great post, now what is the solution to those who hold to the position of membership into the invisible church? Many churches who can’t get their own members to serve, go out and hire those who are not members to serve.

    • Hi Charles,

      I’ve known a Reformed congregations to hire an Adventist musician. It never seemed to occur to them that perhaps we could do without the musician or the organ. (Duck! incoming brickbats!). It’s probably the case that many congregations are doing many things they don’t need to be doing. The church is ordained by Christ to do three things: administer the Word, administer the sacraments, and administer discipline. The minster(s) and elders do those things. We could add to it, the administration of mercy and that belongs to the deacons. We don’t really need much more than that. Congregants are called to fulfill their vocations in the world during the week and to love one another. If someone is ill, do we need a program or an administrator to have people bring by meals? We might need a deacon to get things going. We might need a church secretary. Is there no one in the congregation who can do a little secretarial work?

      Much of the stuff that congregations do could be done by private organizations and, in many cases, it wouldn’t matter a great deal what they believed as they are civil, not spiritual, functions. I do care if my childcare provider believes in cannibalism or in Molech worship. In that case I would probably pick another childcare provider! Otherwise it doesn’t matter much who leads the aerobics class so long as they know what they are doing.

  5. If we bunged our organist that would be a few more bucks saved so we can buy every family in the congregation a copy of “Recovering the Reformed Confession”! And we wouldn’t have to hear anymore 1800’s hymns on the organ either… Woohoo!

  6. Great read.

    The mercury analogy is very well said in relation to autonomy.

    You said “submit”, i.e. obey.

    We are skeptical to trust other sinners and skeptical that Christ would create such intended obedience. Scripture is way too clear on this score.

    Still, we ask, “Did God really say . . .” The ancient echo of the serpent in this question is denied . . . because we are asking it.

    Still, trust and obey for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

    Yes, but the undertow of the present zeitgeist makes this feel impossible.

    When Christ returns will He find faith on the earth?

  7. There is a flip to to all of this. People have gone to church, left the reformed churches, or remain quite discontent because of the overemphasis on doctrine and the lack of involvement and dialog with the world. They see the Church as a club of those who think the right theology but who don’t do near enough to help others or be opposed to the injustices in the world.

    The Reformed Church, as have much of Christianity and the Western religions, failed to speak with a prophetic voice against the social evils of the status quo, according to Cornell West. Yes, the conservative churches are great at address private sins, but nothing beyond the abortion issue draws their ire.

    So we have the emerging church filled with people who have seen doctrine so tightly associated with complacency and complicity in their old churches leave all of it in order to find meaning.

    The above is what I have both read and heard from people.

    • Curt,

      You seem to assume quite a lot.

      Please show me a single instance of the NT church speaking prophetically as an institution against the evils of the world.

      Christians exist in multiple spheres simultaneously. Augustine said we live in two cities. Luther and Calvin said that we live two kingdoms simultaneously. The writer to Diognetus said the same thing c. 150 AD. He offered no social program for the visible church. He only asked that Christians be left alone to live quietly.

      Arguably, what you call complacency the NT calls living in all godliness and quietness.

      You seem to have a highly developed eschatology (whether you realize it) and you seem to want to impose that on the church and with it a new law—that the visible, institutional church must take up your social vision for face your wrath for her failure. You’re not alone. Lots of folk have done the same but the call always rings hollow for lack of biblical support. Like the Christian right, whom you ironically and apparently unconsciously mirror, you write as if the USA were national Israel and you and OT prophet. The national kingdom ended at the cross. The national covenant ended at the cross.

      The visible, institutional church is an embassy of God’s trans-national eschatological kingdom. Her ministers, in their office, are ambassadors of that kingdom and king. The church as such is called explicitly by Scripture to attend to the kingdom that Jesus brought.

      As private citizens, Christians are called to be good citizens of the earthly kingdom where ever they find themselves. In this country, Christians as private persons, as citizens, have formed all manner of organizations (and properly so) to speak prophetically to a wide range of evils and from every perspective on the political spectrum. Surely you must know this. You cite an example from the political left and examples could be cited from the right. So, where’s the beef?

      • Dr. Clark,
        I don’t have time to give an extended answer right now but I will try to answer some points. First, I think you misread my eschatology. The main reason I find for the Church to speak prophetically is found in the second great commandment, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.

        Second, I have found the conservative contingent of the Church to, out of tribalism, be supporting the status quo. Only the Left is pointing out certain sins that we anonymously participate in as members of society. The illegal and immoral wars, the economic oppression stemming from a systematic consolidation of wealth, the systematic growing wealth disparity, and the attacks on our environment in the name of increasing short-term profits are being preach against by the Left only. The Right preaches against abortion and overreach of the gov’t but the latter is a concern only when the Democrats are in power. Otherwise, the Right supports the status quo and discourages people from challenging it in the name of being good citizens.

        There is part of the beef. Will address the other points later.

      • Dr Clark,
        You write that we are to be good citizens of the earthly kingdom regardless of location. So the question I have is this, was the resistance practiced by the White Rose against the Nazi German regime an example of good citizenship?

  8. My pastor says that “Church is God’s idea of a good time…not necessarily ours.”

    You really want to see the Holy Spirit at work? Then look around at the sinners in the pews.

  9. So, Curt, in other words leftward evangelicals have the correct social gospel and the rightist evangelicals have the wrong one. This is the sort of thing 2kers eat with a spoon, the topping being rightists who decry social gospel by which they mean the other guy’s social gospel and not their own (sort of like how political correctness really means the leftists’ politics, because rightists could never possibly be guilty of group-think).

    • Zrim,
      The answer is no. I look at both as having incomplete social gospels. In addition, both support practices that are wrong. Therefore, what I am proposing is that both can learn from each other.

  10. Curt, how can there be any learning when each side thinks heaven is on his and is opposed to the other? All there can be is fighting and self-righteous indignation. But the only thing more fun than watching social gospelers fight is watching others try to bring harmony and learning between.

    • Zrim,
      When thinking is done in all or nothing terms, you are right. Then again, when our all or nothing thinking leads us into self-righteousness feelings of superiority, we contradict the Gospel we say we believe in.

      And have fun watching others try to bring harmony and learning. But first think is God laughing besides you on this or does God want those who are trying to bring harmony to succeed. Realize who you could be laughing at.

  11. 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.

    But the means of grace are administered to visitors as well as members — are you targeting those who attend but neglect membership, or those who also neglect attendance?

  12. And rather than compete with 103 (old!) comments on the next part 2 post, I’ll just say here:

    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.

    Yes, instead of “invisible” which sounds innocuous, it would be better for such a one to realize that they are actually claiming “I’m a special case of one who is in the invisible church by emergency rules, because of extraordinary circumstances”

  13. Curt, the point is that it’s impossible to make a case for any type of social gospel from the Bible without simply morphing into some form of Kantian religion or glorified ethics program. More honest promoters of it will readily admit that historical Christianity is allergic to social gospel, that historical Christianity must actually be overcome. Maybe you’re also ready to admit that, but most left and right evangies aren’t, so they linger somewhere between.

    • Zrim,
      It isn’t that I am making Christianity into any type of social gospel. It is whether social responsibility or a social gospel is a legitimate component of the Gospel.

      BTW, what do we mean by historical Christianity? Is it the Constantinian Christianity that was promoted by the Reformed Tradition or is the historical Christianity the Christianity that preceded Constantine?

      Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in being Reformed that we can’t read the Bible without wearing our Reformed glasses when really it should not read the Reformers without wear our Bible glasses.

  14. Curt,

    You don’t distinguish between law and gospel. That’s not a Reformed distinctive! That’s basic Protestant theology. I don’t blame you entirely. You were a victim of your education.

    Social progress is not “gospel” or part of the gospel or even a consequence of the gospel!

    To say that is of the ESSENCE of the social gospel. I think you are a social gospeller and you don’t seem to be aware of it.

    So, you know how to read the Bible without any context? How exactly do you manage that? You’re reading the bible in a 70s-inspired biblicist context. That’s an Anabaptist hermeneutic. Reformed folk want to read the Bible with the church catholic and with the Reformed churches, which are not just some gathering but an institution established by Christ himself.

    • Dr. Clark,
      What makes you think that I don’t distinguish between law and Gospel? I just don’t think that the Gospel ever intended to save us so we could be righteously selfish afterwards.

      In addition, I think we Reformed Theologians can personally invest so much into models that we misread movements. For example, before you commented on my eschatology based on my comments about social justice. Eschatology is hardly the issue here. The issue is how much do we care for others. Do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And since technology has increased the size of most people’s neighborhoods, both our reach and responsibilities have grown.

      Take Chomsky’s statements on the common good. There is no hint of eschatology in what he says nor grand vision toward which he is marching. Rather, the question is quite simple. Are to care for others who are in need and with whom we have no contact? The question, “should we care?” is not eschatological, it is moral and is answered in the affirmative by God’s Word. And one of the reasons why we need the Gospel to save us is because we have utterly failed here.

      How we express that care is very debatable. But that we should is another matter. That is the obligation placed on everybody and we are not relieved of that obligation just because we believe. In fact, we have a greater responsibility to care after we believe because in so doing, we come closer to modeling the love God has shown us in Christ and the more we model that, the more we are preaching the Gospel.

      So where is the eschatology when the challenge is to live lives that model the love and care that God showed when He sent His Son? Where? This isn’t a pre-post-a millennium issue. It is what we owe God both before and after we believed. Please realize that when others show more care for strangers than Christians do, God is not honored and the Gospel is discredited and discredited by its believers, not its content.

  15. “Some of them even come to embrace…justification by grace alone, through faith alone). Isn’t that enough? / No, it’s not enough.”

    So, in other words, something more needs to be added to faith alone and grace alone? Faith alone and grace alone are not enough apparently. You heard it here first!

    • Jose,
      Faith alone for our justification before God is what I embrace. But let me ask this, if I believe, do I need to be sexually pure or should not because I am justified by faith alone?

    • Of course I agree with you. But on the Internet it seems that everyone who asserts that one must be sexually pure is attacked by rabid internet hyper-calvinists with claims that they are adding works to faith alone and are therefore Pelagians.

      • Jose,
        Certainly, we have to protect justification by faith alone. At the same time, we can’t make faith a spiritual product that is exercised when we click it to put it in our electronic shopping carts.

        According to Paul, faith, believing the Gospel that brings us the Spirit in full and as a result of being in the Spirit, we bear the fruit of the Spirit.

        Is not loving by helping our neighbors whom we have opportunity to help not the fruit of the Spirit?

    • Jose,

      Nonsense. My intent is clear. Yes, people may extraordinarily be saved outside the visible church but people ought not to content themselves by saying, “I trust in Jesus. That’s enough. I don’t need the church.” No, it’s not enough. A trust that does not issue in fruit, is not real trust.

      Okay, I’ll be more precise. Those who refuse to identify with the visible church may profess faith but we have reason to doubt that profession.

  16. I may be using the terminology wrong, but to mean “hyper-calvinist” means one who is so hyper on justification by faith alone that to them anyone who says “wait a minute; justification by faith alone is not intended as a license to immorality” is labelled a Pelagian by them.

    • Jose,

      Hyper-Calvinism refers to an approach to predestination whereby the decree of predestination is used as a pretense to wipe out the free, well-meant offer of the gospel, the ministry of the gospel, and sometimes even sanctification as the Spirit-wrought response to grace.

  17. Dr. Clark,
    From the beginning, my reaction to this post has been mixed. That is because I think that just as there are some who remain churchless for the reasons you cite, others do so as an indictment against the Church. The dissatisfaction I hear among some young Reformed Christians is that the Reformed churches are too doctrinely minded to be any earthly good.

    You mentioned the need to read the Bible in context. But defining context can be tricky. Certainly the Reformed traditions like the writings of Luther & Calvin, the confessions and the catechisms, can help. In fact, when used inductively, I think they provide the best help. But they only help if we use them inductively rather than authoritatively. By this I mean that as we read the Bible, the Reformed traditions can help us gain insight after insight, but they do so fallibly. When we use the Reformed Traditions as the authoritative source for providing structure and context for what is said in the Bible, we end up using those traditions as cookie cutters that mold and shape what the Bible can and cannot say and we soon fall in a hole we can’t climb out of. We can tell whether we use the Reformed Traditions inductively or authoritatively by whether we use the Bible to understand these traditions more than we use the traditions to understand the Bible.

    From when I first started contributing on this blog, I wrote that the charge from the Left is that the Church is just another institution of indoctrination for maintaining the status quo. That, like many other institutions, it must, out of self-preservation, first align itself with wealth and power and thus dares not speak against it. Perhaps some evangelicals who do not join the church do so because they sense this. I say this because some of the young people I know who are in the church, are saying this. They say it because they see the Reformed Church be so eager to prosecute individuals for their sins but not institutions and the system. These people are told to ignore the sins of those with power and wealth because our only charge is to seek peaceful and quiet lives and to obey the authorities. Or as one Calvinist commentator use to put it, we are to seek “personal peace and prosperity.”

    Yes, many who remain churchless, and we can also include the emerging Church too, are at fault. But again, their wrong reactions can at least partially be in response to some wrong situations. And it is when the Church preaches repentance to all, to both individuals and to institutions and the system, without favoritism, that we might have fewer churchless evangelicals.

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