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New Horizons

Evangelicals, Confessional Presbyterians, and the Church

D. G. Hart

Chances are that most Orthodox Presbyterians think of themselves as evangelical Protestants. For most of the OPC’s history, the larger Protestant world in North America and Europe was divided between liberals, or mainline Protestants, and conservatives, or evangelicals.

That division accounted for the two most important Protestant magazines in the United States. Christian Century was the periodical edited, written, and read by Protestants in the denominations that endorsed or approved doctrinal teachings that had adapted historic Christianity to modern thought. On the other side was Christianity Today, a magazine founded by the likes of Carl Henry and Billy Graham. It spoke for the convictions of Protestants who stressed the need for conversion and the importance of the essential articles of the faith, such as the deity, virgin birth, substitutionary death, and resurrection of Christ. Liberal or conservative, mainline or evangelical—these opposites seemed to make sense of Protestantism in the United States after the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s.

At the same time, older and current generations of Orthodox Presbyterians have experienced a twinge of discomfort with this dichotomy. One reason is that evangelicalism in the United States is responsible for a variety of Christian expressions that conservative Presbyterians hardly find endearing or true. One could, for instance, point to popular ministers like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren as examples of evangelicalism that veer significantly in teaching and worship from Reformed Protestant understandings of Scripture. But even some of the best examples of evangelicalism, such as Billy Graham, have held and taught doctrines of salvation that clearly depart from the truths that Orthodox Presbyterians confess.

For instance, OPC minister Leslie Sloat in 1957 expressed the view of many Orthodox Presbyterians that no matter how many people might come to a saving knowledge of Christ through the crusades of Billy Graham, “the work of the church of Christ goes forward most effectively and most steadily through the unheralded labors of true ministers of the Word as they preach to and teach the members of their local congregations from week to week and year to year.” Not against evangelical enterprises, but against this church, Sloat concluded, “the gates of hell will never prevail” (Presbyterian Guardian, March 15, 1957, p. 41).

What then is the basis for this tension that Reformed Protestants experience with evangelicalism? Why do they consider themselves to be part of a Christian movement that does not embrace the convictions of Reformed theology or the practice of Presbyterian worship? Did evangelicalism go wrong? Or do we need different categories for understanding the relationship between confessional Presbyterianism and contemporary Protestantism?

What Is the Church?

One of the clearest ways to grasp differences between evangelicals and Reformed Protestants is to consider the nature and ministry of the church. Is the visible church necessary to a believer’s walk with the Lord and to Christian witness? Or is the church optional for individual Christians or those engaged in spiritual endeavors?

Our Confession of Faith is remarkably clear about the church’s importance. For instance, our confession teaches that the visible church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (CF, 25.1).

One way of reading that affirmation is to regard the visible church as the primary locus of God’s saving activity in the world, as opposed to religious organizations that do not bear the marks of the church. Our confession goes on to explain why the visible church is so important to God’s plan of salvation: “Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto” (25.3).

In other words, the visible church possesses the ministry of word and sacrament, the means of grace that God uses to save his people. In addition, as he has promised, God has sent his Spirit to bless and make effectual the church’s ministry, as opposed to other organizations that pursue religious endeavors.

As clear as these convictions are in the OPC’s doctrinal standards, Protestants with a high view of the church have had to affirm these teachings in remarkably diverse historical circumstances. For instance, at the time of the Westminster Assembly in 1640s London, the visible church was part of the political order in England and Scotland.

This meant, among other things, that the Westminster divines were the only Christian body recognized by the English Parliament. Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Anabaptists were not free to hold their own assemblies in England, or to have their confessions recognized by the English government. It also meant that English authorities financially supported the pastors who ministered in the Church of England. Pastors were, in effect, civil servants who performed spiritual work for the good of the nation.

This situation also required all residents of England to become members of the Church of England, with penalties and sanctions for those who could not conscientiously commune in that church (such as Jews and Roman Catholics).

When we think of the visible church as an agency of a specific national government, we might compare a high view of the church with the way that Americans generally think of the U.S. military. Just as the Army or Navy is a branch of the federal government, so in England the Church of England was an agency of the nation’s government. In such circumstances, churches without the government’s backing would be the equivalent of a militia group formed by average citizens. Because of the United States’ historic position of church-state differentiation, American Protestants may reject England’s ecclesiastical policy (recognizing only one church as legitimate), but they would have no problem applying that same principle to the military (accepting only the U.S. Armed Services as legitimate).

What Americans recognize about the military, English rulers at the time of the Westminster Assembly understood about the church. In other words, in a state church environment, the visible church owns a monopoly on the religious life of the people. To pursue religious activity outside the established church’s regulated operations would be akin to participating in a paramilitary organization.

But when Presbyterians from Scotland and Ireland migrated to British colonies in North America, the visible church assumed a different character. In colonies such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, where Presbyterians enjoyed the greatest freedoms to form congregations and support ministers, colonial governments gave no preference to any single church or communion. Instead, they granted religious liberty to most colonists.

This situation resulted in a voluntary church, as opposed to an established one. It meant that pastors could not depend on the government for support, but would have to depend on contributions from church members for their livelihood. It also meant that settlers in the American colonies faced no legal requirements for either attending or giving to a church. As such, the Presbyterian churches in North America did not have the civil government behind them to back their decisions, to support their ministers, or to give them legitimacy.

From the perspective of human achievement, the success of a church in this voluntary setting depended on the ability of its minister and the congregation to attract members and financial contributions. To maintain a high view of the church when it is optional requires a different level of commitment than when the visible church is part of the established political order.

But when Presbyterians in the United States continued to affirm what their confession of faith said about the visible church in the nineteenth-century context of the new nation, they encountered yet another set of circumstances. From roughly 1820 to 1840, the United States experienced a wave of revivals led most famously by Charles Grandison Finney. This so-called Second Great Awakening introduced a variety of new measures for converting sinners, such as the use of the altar call at the end of a sermon, in which those under conviction were asked to go come forward to sit on the anxious bench, where they could receive counsel and prayer.

The Awakening also provoked Protestants to form a variety of voluntary associations whose purpose was to promote moral reform and religious instruction—everything from Sunday schools and prison reform to temperance and antislavery societies. In this setting, a commitment to the visible church as affirmed in the Confession of Faith assumed a different character than it had in either seventeenth-century England or eighteenth-century North America. Here in the new nation, Presbyterians were surrounded by parachurch organizations and revivalists, for whom the visible church was not simply optional but even an outmoded form of ministry. If Protestants were going to save sinners, civilize the inhabitants on the frontier, and establish the kingdom of God in the United States, they would need more effective means than the church.

This tension between the church and the parachurch, and between revivals and the ordinary means of grace, was one of the principal causes of the division between Old School and New School Presbyterians. The Old School (represented by the likes of Charles Hodge) defended and maintained the prerogatives of the visible church as the divinely appointed vehicle for the salvation and edification of God’s people. In particular, Old School Presbyterians affirmed Presbyterian church government—rule by elders who oversee the ministry of word (including evangelism, education, and moral improvement) and sacrament—as the biblical method for conducting explicitly Christian enterprises. The New School (represented by Lyman Beecher) viewed the church as one of many options, including parachurch bodies and voluntary associations, for conducting the ministry of God’s word and creating a Christian society.

The patterns established for Protestantism in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century—relative cooperation between churches and parachurch organizations—are the ones in which the OPC has operated since its founding in 1936. Not only is church membership and support voluntary for Americans, but denominations in the U.S. confront a host of religious organizations that perform—and in some ways compete with—many of the activities that the church is called to do, such as preaching, teaching the word, edifying and counseling the faithful, and even gathering for worship. In this setting as well, an average Presbyterian who attends church faithfully on the Lord’s Day, leads family worship during the week, catechizes his children, and carries out his secular responsibilities may not be as visibly devout as a Christian who has a Christian radio bumper sticker on his car, exercises in a Christian aerobics class, participates in a community Bible study, sends money to a radio evangelist, subscribes to an evangelical magazine, and sends his kids to the youth group of the local megachurch.

In the context of parachurch, revival-based evangelicalism, Presbyterian piety appears to make few demands and Presbyterians sometimes look like they are merely going through the motions. A Presbyterian may be a member of the visible church under the oversight of duly appointed elders and participate in the regular means of grace. But how do we know if he is sincere? One way to know, as Protestants in the United States have learned since the revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is if a Presbyterian is engaged during most of his waking hours in spiritual endeavors of some kind.

The Real Conservative Protestants

If a version of Protestantism that stresses conversion along the lines of revivalism and that looks for spiritual activity in parachurch organizations is the standard for conservative Protestantism, where do Orthodox Presbyterians fit in? This is precisely the dilemma that has confronted conservative Presbyterians ever since the 1920s, the time of the so-called modernist-fundamentalist controversy. Because the OPC adheres to its confession’s teaching on the importance of the visible church and the need for the means of grace to sustain a believer in his Christian walk, the denomination’s leaders have often been wary of identifying with evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. In fact, when facing a decision on whether to join the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, the OPC declined.

Some interpreted that as an indication that the OPC was lukewarm—maybe even a little liberal—toward conservative Protestantism. But Orthodox Presbyterian leaders had a standard—Scripture, the confession and catechisms, and the rest of its constitution—that defined conservative Protestantism differently. The OPC looked back, not to the awakenings of Anglo-American church history, but to the origins of Reformed Protestantism in Europe, where pastors and church members understood the importance of belonging to the visible church and sitting under the ministry of the word in preaching, sacraments, and corporate worship. Such an understanding of Protestantism was clearly not liberal, but neither was it evangelical by the norms of a Protestant Christianity that stressed the individual’s experience and involvement in the work of parachurch agencies as signs of genuine faith and devotion.

The tension between evangelical and confessional Protestantism will continue to shape the OPC’s relationship to the broader conservative Protestant world. It has been part of the experience of Presbyterians in North America almost since their arrival in the New World, and for that reason this tension will not go away any time soon. But being aware of it—recognizing the different expectations that come with a Christian devotion that features the regular ministry of word and sacrament in a disciplined church as opposed to one that grants great autonomy to individuals and organizations not overseen by duly appointed church officers—may help Orthodox Presbyterians and other confessional Reformed Protestants find their place within the larger Protestant world.

The author, an OP elder, teaches at Hillsdale College. New Horizons, February 2014.

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