It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

6th Century Genevan Baptismal FontWhy do evangelicals become Romanists, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglo-Catholics, i.e., Anglicans who identify more with Rome than with the historic Protestant Anglican confession (e.g., the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Anglican Catechism)? Al Mohler reflected recently on a Wall Street Journal story on two brothers, twins, who grew up Southern Baptist but who left the SBC. One became Romanist and the other Anglican. Baptist News has a story on this (which is helpful since the WSJ story is behind a paywall) in which Mohler is quoted as saying that the WSJ articles is a

judgment upon all those who missed the opportunity and failed in the responsibility to ground these young boys as they were then in the Christian faith, in the truth and the beauty of evangelical Christian doctrine, in the theological principles that based upon long biblical consideration and the long argument of the church have meant the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity — the differences between the understanding of a Scripture-centered Christianity and one that is centered in the sacraments, as is the Roman Catholic system, and at least much of Anglicanism.

When we consider the question of evangelicals who become Eastern Orthodox, Romanist, or Anglo-Catholic there is more to the story. I first saw this phenomenon first-hand when I taught at Wheaton College (1993–95), where I met young people who came from Baptistic evangelicalism but who were enamored of Eastern Orthodoxy or Anglo-Catholicism. Some of it seemed to be a way of rebelling against parents. Some of it, however, seemed to be a reaction to what the students perceived to be an aesthetically sterile liturgy—every congregation has a liturgy. The question is whether a congregation has a biblical liturgy or some other. When I was among the Southern Baptists (1976–79) we certainly had a liturgy. We sang revival songs for a while. There were prayers. There was a fiery sermon which concluded with more revival hymns and an altar call. There was a very deliberate and consistent, structured, pattern of ostensible spontaneity. Mohler is quoted as saying, in effect, that if the twins had been better taught as Southern Baptists they would not have wandered.

I left my SBC, however, in search of answers to my questions about the books of Romans and Ephesians. I understand that in Founders Movement congregations those books and the doctrine of grace therein is better taught but I was also searching for something else. I did not know then exactly what it was but realized later that it was some sense of genuine connection to the historic Christian church. As an evangelical I had the sense that the Christian faith came to me from the Scriptures but that the evangelical understanding of Scripture and the evangelical piety and practice to which I was introduced was disconnected from the broader Christian tradition. The sketchy picture of church history and the broader church suggested a narrative like this: the apostles anticipated evangelical theology, piety, and practice but it was lost shortly after and recovered in the 19th century. Church history consisted of a doughnut hole.

Recovering the Reformed ConfessionI found the answers to my questions about Romans and Ephesians in a local Reformed congregation, St John’s Reformed Church, which in those years met near the university just north of campus. There I also began to discover that there were other, more ordered liturgies. The morning I walked into St John’s the congregation was saying the Apostles’ Creed and my first thought was that these Reformed folk were Roman Catholic. In our SBC congregation we did not say the creed. I thought only Romanists said the creed. I was wrong. At St John’s there was not a lot of laughing and joking during the service but the sermon was a careful exposition of the Word delivered with passion by the pastor, Vern Pollema. We sang from the old blue Trinity Hymnal to the accompaniment of an organ. Later I would learn that the original Reformed practice was to sing Scripture without musical instruments (a cappella). Indeed, later I learned that singing God’s Word a cappella was the apostolic practice and singing a cappella was the Christian practice until the 7th century. Nevertheless, in the Reformed tradition I found a rich liturgical heritage. I found a biblical approach to worship that valued the Lord’s Supper as more than a memorial. I found an account of the Supper that took seriously our Lord’s words: “this is my body,” that taught that in the supper believers are fed with the “proper” and “natural” body and blood of Christ (Belgic Confession art. 35). I found the mystery inherent in the institution narrative.  I found a liturgical pattern of call and response, centered around the Word, deeply rooted in Scripture. I learned that creeds were not a Romanist corruption of the faith but rather the biblical way of teaching the faith. I learned that the Reformed theology, piety, and practice was deeply rooted in the history of the church. In the Reformed confession I found a genuine connection to the Christian family tree, as it were.

There are a number of reasons people leave evangelical and even Reformed congregations for Rome, Constantinople, or Pusey House. The two major reasons are the QIRC and the QIRE. E.g., In the article one of the twins lamented the lack of iconography in his Baptist upbringing but he would have been disappointed with the New Testament church, which left us no icons of Jesus. he would have been disappointed until the 8th century. That suggests that he was looking for the wrong things, in the wrong place. The Romanist seeks certainty ultimately through implicit faith in the Roman magisterium.Our  Eastern Orthodox friend tells us that we’re too obsessed with “western” questions regarding soteriology and offers us a way of ascent into the presence of God. Both are misguided. The history of the church tells us that the magisterium is no place to rest one’s implicit faith but God’s Word is. To Constantinople we can only say that the Apostle Paul was  not a westerner yet he was arguably “obsessed” with soteriology—he wrote the book of Romans (in Greek!) and it’s the story of Christ coming down for us not of our ascent to God. We can try to persuade Christians that QIRC and QIRE are dead ends. They are both misguided attempts to overcome, in their own ways, the Creator/creature distinction.

I understand my dissatisfied evangelical friends. For my money it is Geneva, Heidelberg, or Edinburgh you want. Before you make your trip to Rome, Constantinople, or Pusey House give us a visit first. Please do not assume that you already know the Reformed faith, that you’ve already “been there, done that.” You probably haven’t. To my Reformed friends, when the pilgrims visit please be hospitable and make sure that what you offer them is the real thing and not a cheap imitation.

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  1. Great commentary here. If I may be permitted a recounting of my own journey.

    I was brought up a Roman Catholic and my mother would bring me (not necessarily drag me kicking and screaming) to Novenas and stations of the cross, Midnight masses, and the very anticipated night before Christmas. I was baptized, given the Eucharist, and Confirmed by the Bishop. My confirmation name is Luke.
    Years later I would confront the Redemptrist Priests and demand answers to no avail. Finally I made my break after a brief time with a street missionary from Canada with ties to the OMF. Every question and objection I had he met with Scripture – the power of the Word was exhilarating.
    It was after my stint in National Service in Singapore that my questions once again arose – some of them with deep clarity in the midst of sin.
    While I went through my moment of regeneration and faith, I took up and read. It was simply a matter of going to the Christian bookstores in Singapore. At first I read the neo-orthodox (A. M. Hunter – SCM press) and came to reject them (Barth, Brunner, Bultman, the Niebuhrs and etc) and in the process ended up in the Charismatic movement. However, my mind was still full of questions.

    My first really eye-opening book was A.W. Pink’s “The Sovereignty of God”, unfortunately the Banner edition. My first inclination was to fling it across the room! God’s Sovereignty, Election, Predestination – what had I gotten myself into – read the Bible – my Catholic edition of the RSV (with apocrypha).
    While at the Charismatic church I found myself in a gazebo on the rooftop within which were bundles of microfiche and a machine. Moments later I was in the middle of Charles Hodge and Hylozoism! The BB Warfield’s volumes on Perfectionism. I came to reject Watchman Nee and Witness Lee! Then I read Frederick Dale Brunner’s “A Theology of the Holy Spirit and soon after left the Charismatic movement. At this time I also discovered the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

    After meeting with the SBC missionaries in Singapore, I found myself on a journey to Texas and college. After a year of disillusionment, I joined the OPC, I discovered Cornelius Van Til and presupossitional apologetics and pretty much everything else he wrote. I had his whole collection.

    While working for Nokia in central Florida, I came across Francis Turretin’s “Institutes’ finally published by P&R, finally I was able to put to rest (in my own mind) the ridiculous arguments (made by others) that Reformed Orthodoxy was cold and all head but no heart. I then found Dr. Richard A. Muller’s work and the books edited by Trueman and Clark and van Asselt. I then read Oberman, Trinkaus, and then Kristeller.

    Now going back to the issue of why so many evangelicals are turning to the ritualistic (I call it smells and bells) groups is because of the starkness of North American evangelical churches – I remember in the early part of my journey, sitting in an Anglican Cathedral in Singapore, looking up and being awed by the majesty of God – the God of the newly discovered Westminster Confession of Faith!

    There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

    I reconciled myself to the fact that in proper liturgy, discipline, church order, the Regulatory Principle (which fewer and fewer are heeding – Frame?) and etc should always focus our minds on the preaching of the Word of God. It is the life of the mind – our focus in worship should be on Jesus Christ our Lord and not on us and “our felt needs” – a phase that only hell could have spit out. I lean toward a capella with the psalter and hymns should only be sung in the aftermath of the church service because I still enjoy Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

    The real failure I believe is the lack of emphasis in discipleship – the teaching of the catechisms and confessions. The disinclination to discipline professors at seminary when they come up with less than orthodox teachings (Shepherd, NPP, Federal Vsion and on an on). Now here’s the real culprit not requiring much for church membership. I can understand this however, once someone has joined, they should undergo a continued process of learning, attendance, bible study (by qualified elders), catechizing, along with classes in apologetics and on what the latest heresies are.

    So in the life of the mind, I chose Mystery and not Mysticism, Miracle and not Magic. When one reads Scripture it should bring one into the presence of the Godhead who dwell in Light Unapproachable.

    Finally, when I began to do some research into my mother’s people, they were not Roman Catholic but they were Dutch Reformed – I had returned to the faith of my fathers.

  2. Amen! Great post, and always timely. I also appreciated Richard Celvan’s comment. My own story is similar (referenced in the Heidelblog in “Why I Wrote Recovering the Reformed Confession.” ). We in the Reformed churches really do have an invaluable treasure, and I want to underscore that the sense of connection to the historic church is indeed to be found in the Reformed tradition.I pray that the churches of that tradition will not drift toward b road Evangelicalism but rather rediscover the treasure of the theology, piety and practice of the Reformed confessions. We should all read RRC!

  3. Given that the Southern Baptist church is the greatest source for future members if cults like Mormanism & Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’d posit that something greater is broken with it that what is mentioned here. Sadly, I’ve so little experience with the SBC that I dare not posit the answer myself.

  4. Thank you for this article. My experience is the reverse of the twin brothers. I was raised in Anglo-Catholicism, (i.e. ritualism, as J.C. Ryle would call it), and always had a tendency to view my Baptist relatives as “lacking”. But by the grace of God, over time He freed me from this snare and brought me into an authentic saving faith in Jesus Christ and him crucified. Through God’s Word, and honest study I learned Truth, and the attraction of ritual and sacramentalism faded away. In fact it actually became repulsive to me, for which I am thankful to God! I have been evangelical and Reformed for many years now. It grieves me to hear of young people (and any age people for that matter) who leave evangelical/Reformed churches for various forms of Catholicism or one of the various Orthodox Churches- for the Truth is not in them.

  5. Growing up in the WELS we recited the Apostle’s Creed. I’ve never had any desire to swim the Tiber or join the visually-obsessed EO. And leaving Lutheranism for the reformed side has not been difficult at all, in fact it’s been wonderfully liberating. Books like Recovering the RC have been a great benefit.

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