Of Empires, 180s, And The Communion Of The Saints

A friend and I were talking recently about a mutual friend, who had been a pastor and a strong advocate for the Reformation doctrines of sola scriptura (according to Scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), and sola fide (through faith alone). Suddenly, however,  this fellow did, as people say, a “180,” i.e., his theology seemed to change 180 degrees. Where before he was advocating the Reformation theology now, (this was decades ago), he began advocating the doctrine of salvation whereby we are “in by [baptismal] grace,” and “stay in by cooperation [works] with grace.” There were other dramatic changes. They seemed to come out of the blue and were hard to understand theologically. Why would someone trade in the glorious, liberating doctrine of salvation by the favor of God, merited for the elect by Christ alone, received through faith alone  for a doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace? After all, the Reformers rejected that very doctrine as a the Galatian error of salvation through works and a contradiction of Paul’s teaching in Romans 11:6—”But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” The Reformers recovered the clear biblical teaching that grace is God’s favor, his approval and free acceptance, of his people for Christ’s sake alone. Grace is not a medicinal divine or quasi-divine substance with which we are infused. They recovered Paul’s and Augustine’s doctrine that, in the fall, we are by nature utterly corrupt and unable to save ourselves (Rom 1–3; 4:17; Eph 2:1–10). With Augustine, they not only rejected sheer Pelagianism (the denial that we all fell with Adam) but semi-Pelagianism, i.e., the doctrine that though we fell in Adam we are not so sinful that we cannot “do our part” and cooperate with grace sufficiently unto justification and final salvation.

With Augustine, they realized that any such doctrine put us sinners back under the law and that, as sinners, we are never going to be able to cooperate sufficiently with the law unto salvation. In other words, they realized that the semi-Pelagian doctrine leaves us in our sins and trespasses. It corrupts the gospel  “since we have been justified by faith” (Rom 5:1) and “we have now been justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9) and “[t]here is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1), that Christ “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5), and that we are justified “by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16).

Why would someone make such a dramatic and apparently sudden change? I suppose that we will never really know. Only God knows the secrets of the human heart (Ps 44:21). Over time, however, some patterns have emerged as I have observed similar cases. When people do things that just do not make sense the answer is usually money, sex, or power. All things considered, of the three, the third explanation seemed most likely. I had a seminary professor who used to warn us all about the danger of empire building. He was exactly right. As I sat in his office, he would recount stories of this fellow and that who had trampled on old friends as they sought to build a (religious) empire (his word) of some sort. He noted how pastors do it. He warned about the problems inherent to the church growth movement, which was in full swing, and the Reformed celebrity culture before it really existed.

Perhaps, however, power is not a complete explanation. We may add nuance to the answer when we consider the human need for acceptance and community. When cases like this occur it is often because people find acceptance in a new group, to a degree they had not yet found. I think this also helps to explain why apparently confessionally committed Protestants become Romanists or Eastern Orthodox. Doubtless there are cases where the doctrinal conversion is genuine. I am considering here those cases where the doctrinal explanation does not add up. I recall a long conversation with one well-educated convert to Eastern Orthodoxy whose intellectual justifications were incoherent. Another convert essentially dismissed the book of Romans as a “western” book. Such rationalizations leave one searching for another explanation. When evangelical and Reformed pastors convert to Rome they are given a platform from which to speak and write. They are accepted and welcomed to “Rome, Sweet Home.” In such cases, actual history, biblical exegesis, and Christian theology matter less than relationships and a sense of community. What drives them is what the Renaissance humanists called a “sodality” (Latin sodalitas, friendship, companionship, brotherhood). Behind the desire for a new sodality probably lies a sense of betrayal and broken relationships.

What should we conclude? People do theological and ecclesiastical “180s” for a variety of reasons. They may become genuinely dissatisfied with the confessional Reformed explanation of Scripture but, in my experience, there are often other factors, influence and relationships chief among them. Because they are often commuter churches, Reformed congregations face a significant hurdle here. Confessionalist churches tend to focus on theology and piety but they need also to focus on creating a strong sense of community as part of the practice of the faith.

Empire building is a part of the answer. Do you desire to be recognized, to be famous, to be perceived as influential? There is a little empire builder in all of us to which we need to die. The human heart is “deceitful above all and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). Are you hurt and and considering leaving your Reformed congregation? The Reformed confession (theology, piety, and practice) is wonderful but its confessors, teachers, and practitioners are all sinners. They hurt people. They lie and betray. Indeed, in his mysterious grace and providence, Christ calls into his church none but the deeply corrupt, who need to be gradually sanctified in this life and glorified in the next. Perhaps you have been hurt by a Reformed communion? If so, be honest about why you are are thinking of leaving the Reformed confession. I guarantee that you will find the same sins and hurt in Rome and Constantinople as you did in Geneva.

To those of us who minister in Reformed communions, we must remember that Christians are not mere repositories of doctrine attached to bodies. Those to whom we minister are body and soul. They need the communio sanctorum (communion of the saints). If we cannot or will not cultivate that communion, that sodality, people will look for it elsewhere and they will figure out how to justify it after the fact.

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  1. Excellent article and analysis of some human motives. Before revealing his road into Rome, one recent convert went around boasting cheekily, “I’m a troublemaker.” He took great pride declaring himself “Totally Reformed (TR);” a musical prodigy; in stirring up drama; questioning doctrine; and getting attention for himself. Even though he claimed he didn’t agree with Rome on doctrine, he used their appreciation of his singing and playing instruments (human need for acceptance and community) and the beauty of the music of Rome (experience) to win his heart to Rome. After that, even though he was warmly embraced by his own Reformed church, he actively rejected their love and readily embraced the Roman version of history as the excuse to switch and doctrine was of last importance.

    So as you highlighted, the desire for power, fame, human recognition, influence seemed to play a major role. Additionally, emotional experience seemed much more important than doctrine. A false history seemed to be only the excuse allowing him to discard the doctrine.

    • We may be sure that there are people who find their way into reformed congregations and communions who are coming not because of our confession (theology, piety, and practice) but because they were hurt in their broad Evangelical congregation or they are fundamentalist congregation.

      We should seek to receive these wounded sheep graciously and nurture them in the love of God with the hope that they will see the beauty of the faith as we confess it.

  2. Thanks for this article! This expresses a lot I can resonate with, and is no doubt profitable for all of us to reflect on. Thanks again, Dr Clark!

  3. Well said. In recognizing the power of relationship pastors may find another warning. Pastors must beware of encouraging individuals to follow them due to friendship instead of following based on truth proclaimed and modeled.

  4. This is probably the best Heidelblog post I have ever read. Thank you.

    Empire building and relationships: These 2 lay me low, for I see my proclivity to compromise as a result of both.

    I needed this post.

  5. I suppose the saying is “what brings them in, keeps them in,” (at the risk of sounding simplistic).

  6. Good post, Dr Clark.

    I think sometimes folk think something is missing from Reformed piety, too. Usually that means that they don’t really understand Reformed piety.

    • Good observation. When I think back to my time in seminary, I realized that while the Reformers addressed worship and piety as an important and essential matter, there was very little said in my classes about it. This is another reason I have appreciated Recovering the Reformed Confession.

  7. We are new creatures, but the ‘Old man’ isn’t dead yet. The fear of the lord is so necessary today, because of its great absence. ‘Perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ or, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’. ‘The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, And delivers them.’

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