Why 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.
I 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.