If You Don’t Want to be An Evangelical, Become a Protestant

If You Don’t Want to be An Evangelical, Become a Protestant November 8, 2019

I am not sure if any form of Protestantism will satisfy #Exvangelicals, aside from mainline (read modernist) Protestantism. But a recent post about the German Reformed Church’s nineteenth-century is a good reminder that modern Protestantism bears little resemblance to original Protestantism.

Back in the day, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Protestants were the main options for being Christian outside fellowship with the Bishop of Rome. Anabaptists did appeal to some, but their pacifism and rejection of the Christian magistrate meant that being an Anabaptist often included being an outlaw with serious risks to your life. It was hard to find anywhere in Europe where someone could practice Christianity outside an ecclesiastical establishment. That is why when Quakers started a colony in North America called Pennsylvania, lots of German-speaking Anabaptists took off for farmland between the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Rivers.

What defined non-Anabaptist Protestants was a churchly form of Christianity. These were communions that had creeds and catechisms that spelled out correct beliefs and provided benchmarks for who could be ordained. They also had church polities that regulated both clergy and laity. They also had liturgical forms that prescribed the right ways to worship. Of course, differences separated Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Protestants, and even within those communions variations were real. But for these Protestants belonging to the church mattered and what the institutional church provided for spiritual growth was a proper diet.

The difference from evangelicalism, as Thomas Kidd’s recent book makes clear, is that born-again Protestantism stresses (duh) the conversion experience as the most reliable guide to spiritual authenticity. That form of piety creates Protestant entrepreneurs who go anywhere — especially to parachurch organizations — for spiritual nurture. Evangelicalism in turn creates all sorts of “ministries,” from Christian aerobics to televangelists, that make the institutional church a bit player in a Christian’s walk.

Here is one way of describing it:

Instead of asking whether Presbyterians are evangelical, the better question to ask may be “are evangelicals Presbyterian?” At least this way of inquiring into the relationship between evangelicalism and Presbyterianism would not assume that evangelicalism is the norm for evaluating all forms of Protestantism, as if it is the purest or most biblical expression of Christianity. It might be obvious that certain Presbyterians are evangelical. But no one would expect evangelicals to be Presbyterian, for instance, to believe in limited atonement, baptize babies, or memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. However it had happened, the common expectation in Presbyterian circles was for the heirs of John Knox and John Calvin to adopt the ways of evangelicalism so that Presbyterians would be indistinguishable from the likes of Billy Graham, Charles Colson or James Dobson. But ironically, Presbyterians would never think of expecting evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today or Promise Keepers to advocate Presbyterian beliefs and practices. This situation not only seemed unfair — sort of like expecting immigrants to the United States to give up their culture for the English language, fast food, and popular sovereignty — but, I argued, it was odd for Presbyterians, proud of their theological heritage, to settle for non-Presbyterians dictating what was most important about the Christian religion.

To understand the relationship between the Christian faith and its practices the question, “are evangelicals Presbyterian?”, yields more insight than the query, “are Presbyterians evangelical?” Other questions would work just as well, for instance, “are evangelicals Lutheran?” or “are evangelicals Episcopalian?” And the reason is that evangelicalism presumes a simple set of theological boundaries, mostly preserving the deity and supernatural redemptive work of Christ in history and the human soul, coupled with a set of religious practices that are virtually independent of the church as a worshiping communion. To spot an evangelical one only need look for someone who carries a Bible (often in some sort of canvas or vinyl cover), leaves tracts, wears some expression of devotion such as a WWJD bracelet or t-shirt, witnesses to neighbors and strangers, refrains from cursing, and avoids such delights as tobacco and alcohol (though this is changing). In contrast, Presbyterians (along with other churchly forms of Protestants) possesses a lengthy creedal statement of Christianity, and this understanding of the faith is nurtured through a distinctive form of public worship, relies upon the ministry of clergy who preach and administer the sacraments, reinforced s through a system of church government, and expects Presbyterian families to engage in family worship and catechesis that buttress the ministry of the church. To be sure, this contrast may border on caricature. But it does point out the problems of asking whether Presbyterians are evangelical. If asking Presbyterians to be evangelical commits Presbyterian adherents to religious practices at odds with or different from the Reformed faith’s churchly piety, then being an evangelical may actually be a curse rather than a blessing. The reason is that Presbyterians intent on being evangelical may end up abandoning the very practices that have been crucial not simply to marking Reformed Christians but also that embody the convictions of Reformed theology.

Of course, devout Presbyterians who delight in thinking of themselves as evangelical have generally not thought through the relationship between theology and practice. All they usually mean by being evangelical is something as valuable as taking Christian commitment and the Bible seriously. The habit of asking Presbyterians to be evangelical is not designed to ignore such matters as Sabbath observance, public worship, or memorization of the catechism. And yet, the evangelical stress on conversion and believing in the Bible has obscured the range of practices that various Christian communions not only believe the Bible to require but also that fortify believers in their pilgrimage. It would be wrong to say that evangelicalism emphasizes faith while other forms of Protestantism stress practice, since evangelicalism has its own distinctive set of practices that flow quite naturally from its conversionist understanding of the Christianity. But it would not be unfair to say that the contrast between evangelicalism and, in this case, Presbyterianism is one between practices geared toward the freedom and creativity of the laity to express their devotion as they see fit and practices oriented toward the corporate church through its ministry of word, sacrament and discipline. Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition, 242-43)

If evangelicalism is in crisis mode, there’s help. Protestant churches are still out there carrying on the work of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century church reforms.


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