In the course of catching up with goings on in the evangelical world, there was a striking confluence of news stories about men who are no longer pastors, if they ever were. As we scan and digest these stories we should draw the correct conclusion.
The Radical Influence
In most of these cases, at least, the problem existed because the congregations in which these “pastors” worked (or, in some cases fleeced) were not actually churches at all. One way, a very important way, to forestall wolves and false shepherds from entering the flock in the first place is to make sure that we are in churches. This is a perennial struggle. In the 1561 Belgic Confession, the Reformed churches acknowledged, “all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of ‘the church.'” Nothing has changed. Indeed, the problem has only become worse. In the Modern period under the influence of radical individualism, Pietism, revivalism, fundamentalism, and liberalism, the frequency of sects has exploded. Remember, contrary to the claims of the papal apologists, the Reformed churches were not sectarian. They adhered to the holy catholic faith. They argued that Rome had become sectarian by condemning the gospel of free salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. Today there is an ostensibly, self-proclaimed, “Apostolic” church on every corner with its pulpit filled by an earnest if unqualified fellow or, worse, a huckster.
So it was in the sixteenth century, during the early decades of the Reformation. The Anabaptist radicals unleashed a seeming flood of illiterate, self-ordained, apocalyptic, Pentecostal misfits wandering through the woods announcing the end of the world and the coming (earthly) millennial kingdom. Some of them took over cities (e.g., Münster c. 1535–36) and some of them (e.g., Thomas Müntzer) led armies of thousands of peasants as part of a violent social uprising, the very thought of which warms the cockles of every Marxist heart.
This is what it means to try to be Reformed in “Sister’s America” as I wrote in 2010. Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, the sometime itinerant evangelist and founder of the Angeles Temple (in LA), is much more indicative of the nature of evangelical American Christianity than is the staid Ulsterman John Thomson, about whom Tricia Howerzyl has been writing in this space.
If the three marks of the church given in Belgic Confession art. 29 are correct, most American evangelical Christians have never darkened the door of an actual church as defined by the Reformed churches.
Shepherds Fleecing The Flock
So, it should not surprise us that they have no idea of what a pastor is or that they tend to be attracted to personalities rather than to Reformed theology, piety, and practice. What matters in a rightly-ordered Reformed church is not who the minister is but what the church confesses. Minister come and go. The Word of God is forever. In most evangelical churches, however, the Word of God and the confession of the church are certainly not central. Some entertaining personality is central.
To wit: Ted Haggard is being accused once again of being a sexual abuser. Why did anyone call him to another congregation after the first episode? Because American evangelicals love personalities more than principles. J. D. Hall has been removed from ministry for being impenitent about his sin. This raises the question: was he ever actually a pastor? Was he ever in a church (as defined by the Belgic)? I am not asking whether he was in a congregation of like-minded folk. I am asking whether that congregation ever had the marks of the church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline? Was that congregation ordered around the Word of God as confessed by the church or around a colorful personality?
The successor to Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church is being accused of abuse even though he has been cleared of the same by an “independent investigation.” Perhaps there is nothing to the allegations since, after all, anyone can allege anything these days. Disgruntled congregants and ex-congregants establish anonymous websites and lob allegations from the safety of their unaccountable living room. Nevertheless, we should ask the question: was Rick Warren ever really a pastor of a church? Perhaps the gentle reader is thinking, “Wait a minute. Saddleback is one of the largest and most important churches in America.” It is a large organization. It is an important organization. It is an influential organization, but the question stands: is it a church? Does it have the three marks of the church? There are many large, influential, powerful organizations with charismatic leaders that are not churches.
Some of leaders of ostensibly Christian organizations are literally mobbed up, i.e., connected to the Mafia. Rex Humbard was in debt to the mob. So was the televangelist Robert Tilton. So, apparently, was former carpet-cleaner turned preacher, Barry Minkow.
The Way Out Of Münster
In a church, an actual church with pastors who have been tested by ecclesiastical bodies with genuine authority, who have been properly educated in the theology, piety, and practice of the Christian church, who have been called both externally (by the church) and internally (by the Holy Spirit), where there is an objective confession of faith, where the marks are present, none of these fellows could have become pastors. In a real church, Mark Driscoll could not have become a pastor. James MacDonald could not have become a pastor.
It is true that in real churches bad men sometimes become pastors, but most of the time they face discipline and are removed from ministry. Where there is no accountability, where the marks are not present (e.g., the use of church discipline) there are no institutional safeguards to protect the church and the sheep.
Christ established the institutional, visible church. Within it one finds three sorts of people. The elect, some of whom have come to faith already and the rest who have yet to come to faith, and the reprobate; the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24–30). This side of heaven, the church will always be mixed. We live in the semi-eschatological time, not the eschatological time. Heaven has not come down to earth and it shall not until Christ returns. Until then we must muddle through but we need not do so outside of Christ’s true, visible church, i.e., those congregations where the gospel is purely preached, the sacraments are purely administered, and discipline is being used. Those congregations, however—where the minister is permitted to abuse the flock, where he is beyond accountability, or where the sacraments are abused, or where the gospel is corrupted—there is no church.
Christian, your loyalty must be to Christ, his gospel, and his church and not to a personality. It is the American evangelical devotion to personalities that fuels the abuses chronicled above. No medieval pope was ever as revered as some evangelical personalities are today. No pope was ever as infallible as some evangelical personalities are alleged to be today.
The sickness in the evangelical church culture that I am describing is less a sickness among the leaders than it is among the people. Just as we get the secular, civil government we deserve, so evangelicals get the congregations they expect and demand. Evangelical ministry is a marketplace and preachers are responding to marketplace demand.
The way out of Münster, out of the cult of personality, out of the evangelical marketplace, is to transfer allegiance from evangelical personalities to the person of the evangel, to Jesus and to the church he established.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91.
- Warning Sings About the The State Evangelical Pop Culture: The Visible, Institutional Church Matters
- Why The Mission Needs The Marks
- James MacDonald Is Not A Pastor
- He Is Not A Pastor Any More
- The Guy On Your Screen Is Not Your Pastor
- The Church Has A Twofold Mission And Three Marks And Ending Payday Lenders Is None Of Them
- Trueman: Do We Need Another Mark Of The True Church?
- What Is a True Church?
- Christianity Today Is Not A Ministry
- Ministry Is Not Business
- Straight Out Of Münster
- Angela Moved From Münster To Geneva