The 252nd Way that Evangelicalism Is Not Like Historic Protestantism

The 252nd Way that Evangelicalism Is Not Like Historic Protestantism April 16, 2018

Evangelicals have no way of excluding others who self-apply the label born-again. Historic Protestants actually believe that church discipline is a mark of the church. According to the Belgic Confession (1561):

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks:

The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. (Article 29)

I know. That sounds easy and it’s a lot harder in practice since its the sort of logic behind requiring seminary training, apprenticeships, licensure exams, and ordination exams. It’s also the reason why at least in Presbyterian and Reformed circles church officers engage in monthly, quarterly (at the local level beyond the congregation), and the annual national meeting. All of these venues provide mechanisms to ensure quality in the ministry of pastors, elders, missionaries, and denominational agencies.

No one said the Reformation would be easy.

But as the evangelical leaders who are gathering soon at Wheaton are discovering, controlling brand identity is really hard when the borders of your (not a church) movement are so fluid:

The diverse group, which includes nationally known pastors such as Tim Keller and A.R. Bernard, is expected to include leaders of major ministries, denominations, colleges and seminaries. The gathering will take place at Wheaton College, an evangelical college outside of Chicago, according to organizer Doug Birdsall, honorary chair of Lausanne, an international movement of evangelicals.

The gathering, which has been in the works for several months and was discussed at evangelist Billy Graham’s funeral last month, will take place before the expected meeting of a separate group of evangelicals who advise, defend and praise Trump. Those leaders, which include members of Trump’s informal advisory council, are considering convening at Trump International Hotel in Washington in June.

The purpose of the Wheaton meeting is to try to shift the conversation back to core questions of the faith, and Trump as an individual will not be the focus of discussion, . . . While the organizers said they are not trying to build a new coalition or launch a counter political agenda, the gathering shows how many key leaders of major institutions are wringing their hands over the state of evangelicalism.

“When you Google evangelicals, you get Trump,” Birdsall said. “When people say what does it mean to be an evangelical, people don’t say evangelism or the gospel. There’s a grotesque caricature of what it means to be an evangelical.”

Funny, when you do a search at Google News for Lutheran you see stories about Russian Lutherans helping people with disabilities. Or when you search for news stories about my own communion, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, you see stories (and more) about the weekly columns by a local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor. At the same time, if you are Lutheran or Presbyterian you don’t have the visibility that evangelicals do.

Which reminds me of the Gypsy curse: “may you get what you want” (the H.L. Mencken version is “may you get what you want good and hard”).

Evangelicalism in its most recent version, started after World War II as a way to build a brand different either from the mainline and fundamentalism. Its leaders like Billy Graham were not interested in making membership hard. The bigger the better even if it meant the thinner the wider. That became a marvelous strategy for doing business and politics. Evangelical editors, publishers, and direct mail proprietors could boast of big numbers. That’s why Newsweek magazine called 1976 not The Year of the Lutheran or The Year of the Orthodox Presbyterian, but The Year of the Evangelical.

So evangelicals need to understand that as long as they lack credentials for meaningful belonging, they are going to be like Sideshow Bob, repeatedly stepping on the rakes that comes with populist movements, even ones that claim to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

As Sarah Pulliam Baileyput it: “As evangelicalism has grown without any formal hierarchy, it has formed tribes often driven by celebrity pastors, authors and artists.”

And now the solution is to hold an intimate gathering celebrity pastors. That’ll work.


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