What Do I Mean By Evangelical
Evangelical is a tricky word. It is used in a host of different settings, each meaning something either slightly or substantially different. In an academic context, it usually means Protestants who emphasize the Bible as the highest authority, the necessity of evangelization and the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s work on the cross. To confuse matters more, in an Anglican context, “evangelical” is specifically used to mean those who emphasize the Reformed side of the Anglican identity of “Catholic and Reformed.” Lastly, in a sociological context, it is usually used as shorthand for conservative Protestants who are predominantly white. By these definitions, I am an evangelical.
However, in practice when we talk of evangelicals, as distinctive from other Christians, we usually are referring to a few criteria:
- Low church in theology and practice. While this term, like evangelical, will take on different emphases in different contexts, for my purposes here I mean Christians who believe that the Christian Church is not primarily institutional and worship is primarily non-liturgical. These Christians usually do not think there is any one prescribed form of church government and usually, their churches are highly autonomous from each other.
- Memorialist communion: Communion is usually very rare in church and is not seen as anything else beyond symbolic.
- Credobaptism: Baptism, like communion, is nothing more than a symbolic, albeit commanded, act as a public confession of faith. Like communion, it is limited to professing adults and does not confer any special grace.
Looking over these criteria, evangelical can also be considered functionally synonymous with “non-denominational.” Most American evangelicals (by this definition) are the theological descendants of the English Baptist movement of the late 1600s, though most evangelicals are now free will or Arminian in their theology.
Though I was baptized as an infant in the Episcopal Church and attended Roman Catholic grade school, the definition above was the theological environment I grew up in until late college. I attended Ventura Missionary Church and went to college group at a Calvary Chapel church, both of which are thoroughly evangelical. However, as I drifted in, then out of, New Calvinism, then attended a Lutheran university I no longer really could affirm any of the above. Eventually, after some prayer, I started attending Anglican services and was confirmed a few years ago, in the Anglican Church in North America.
Before I continue I want to say that I owe a good deal to the evangelical churches I grew up in. I saw Christ crucified preached, believers baptized and the poor taken care of. I was mentored by people who, to this day, I owe a serious spiritual debt. Christ is clearly in those evangelical churches and I do not wish to imply otherwise. However since in a few theological conversations online and in person, these disagreements keep cropping up, I figure I would write this to explain myself and to organize my thoughts.
Ultimately, I am no longer be an evangelical, by the above definition, because I believe that the Church is an institution, Tradition matters and the New Testament Church was both liturgical and sacramental in nature.
The Church Is an Institution: Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus
“Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Ephesians 4:3-5
“No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church, one can have everything except salvation. [O]ne can sing alleluia, one can answer amen… but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church.” – St. Augustine, Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesia plebem, 418 AD.
“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. For outside of the Christian church, there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.” – Martin Luther, Sermon for Early Christmas Service, 1521 AD.
“[B]eyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for.” – John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541 AD.
I wanted to cite these quotations, ranging from the New Testament, the early saints, the medieval Catholic Church to the Reformation to show the continuity in Christian thinking on the Church. Sometimes it can be tempting to ask, “Why does any of this matter? Why can’t we just evangelize?”
The problem is that this reductionist view of Christianity is entirely novel, largely invented in modern times. It reduces Christianity down to the bare possible minimum one has to do to avoid hell and little else. Thus any discussion of how salvation works, how should worship be organized, how should the Church be governed, the sacraments or really anything beyond getting as many people to recite the Sinner’s Prayer is cast aside as unimportant.
Historically this wasn’t the case. What is the Church, how should the Church be governed, what are the sacraments and how do they work were considered of supreme importance. Why? Because the Church is not simply a loose movement of individuals but an institution. Furthermore, it is not our institution but God’s. The first reason I am no longer an evangelical is I realized that Christ did not found a spiritual movement but an Institution. There are a few reasons for this.
1. The Church is a Covenant Community.
The Church in the New Testament is listed as follow up to the Mosaic covenant between God and His people. Earlier God had instituted a covenant between the people of Israel and Himself and thus set up a covenant community. The nation of Israel had offices, rites, and was a visible institution. In Romans, St. Paul describes how the Church is now God’s covenant community. While it is up for debate how these two covenant communities relate to each other, but Scripture doesn’t relate how one institution was abolished and replaced with a mass of individuals.
2. Scripture Calls the Church an Institution
The word church in the New Testament (ἐκκλησία) comes from the Athenian term for the political assembly. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word ἐκκλησία is used to describe the assemblies of the nation of Israel. The Scripture institutes rites (ex. baptism in Matthew 3:13-17, communion in Luke 22:19) and offices of authority (ex. the apostles in Matthew 10:1, episkopos/overseers/bishops in 2 Timothy, presbyters/priests/elders* in Acts 14:23, deacons in Acts 6).
What the Church is and how it ought to function isn’t simply superfluous but critical. We are ultimately discussing a community instituted by God and of which God is the head.
And He [God the Father] put all things in subjection under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him as Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22.)
“Therefore, brothers, hold fast to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter.” Second Thessalonians 2:15
“Therefore, let us forsake the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, and let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.” — St. Polycarp Letter to the Philippians 7, 110 AD.
“It is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony of the entire holy Christian Church as held from the beginning for now over fifteen hundred years in all the world.” — Martin Luther, 1520 AD
The second major reason I could not really remain an evangelical is there tends to be an allergy against anything resembling Church tradition, probably because there isn’t a whole lot in Church history that resembles modern evangelicalism, something I’ll dive into later in this essay.
The main reason though tends to be a fear that valuing Church tradition would under the Protestant doctrine that Scripture alone is infallible. However, Keith Mathison explains how this does not mean Scripture is the only authority but rather the only infallible authority. My belief is relatively simple. When Scripture is silent or difficult to interpret (i.e how should the Church be governed, what do the sacraments do, should we baptize infants?), we ask ourselves if there is a consistent and early consensus in Church tradition? Where there is, we should defer to it for two reasons.
1. They were in the best place to interpret Scripture.
This is fairly simple. If a document was written in a particular time, language and cultural context, those that were in that time, language and cultural context are probably best equipped to interpret those texts. I find it inherently difficult to believe that those who received the Scriptures somehow misinterpreted it and then magically we moderns discovered the truth 1,500 years later. If the Scriptures really are that opaque, how can we trust our own interpretation?
2. If we can’t trust the early Church then we probably can’t trust the gospels.
Christianity is (somewhat) unique in that it claims to be objective historical fact. If the claims of the Gospels simply didn’t occur, then the claims of Christianity are false. A common skeptic talking point is that the belief Jesus’ miracles, divinity, and resurrection were legendary additions to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. However, the common response is that the earliest copies of the gospels date from the second and third centuries and this is historically too soon for legendary details to corrupt the historical record.
However, if we conclude that the early Christians corrupted Christianity with paganism or Greek philosophy, then it becomes more difficult to believe that the early Church preserved the gospels and the canon.
Ironically to categorically reject Church tradition is to undermine Scripture itself.
The Early-New Testament Church Was Liturgical
“First, it [liturgy] keeps me in touch with ‘sound doctrine.’ Left to oneself, one could easily slide away from ‘the faith once given’ into a phantom called ‘my religion.’ They [the liturgies] provide an element of the ceremonial. On your view, that is just what we don’t want. On mine, it is part of what we want. I see what you mean…I fully agree that the relationship between God and a man is more private and intimate than any possible relation between two fellow creatures. Yes, but at the same time there is, in another way, a greater distance between the participants. We are approaching the Unimaginably and Insupportably Other. We ought to be simultaneously aware of closest proximity and infinite distance. You make things far too snug and confiding. [The closeness between us and God] needs to be supplemented by ‘I fell at His feet as one dead.’”– C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer
While my other objections to modern evangelicalism are mainly doctrinal, this was one of personal preference. Ultimately every church has a liturgy, whether they like to admit it or not. I have not attended or visited an evangelical church that did not follow this basic liturgy; two worship songs, prayer/announcements, sermon, prayer and more worship.
However sometimes objections like “It stifles the Spirit” or “It’s not Biblical” can be heard. In reality, structured worship is both Scriptural and traditional. In fact, Justin Taylor over at The Gospel Coalition, explains how the liturgy since the 2nd century has been largely unchanged for nearly 2,000 years. If you want to see what an early Christian service looked like, go find a traditional Catholic, Orthodox or confessional Protestant service.
The Early-New Testament Church Was Sacramental
This is the part of my spiritual development that made me realize I couldn’t remain an evangelical. I could have retained an interest in Church history and enjoyed the occasional liturgy and stayed. However, the sacraments made me realize that the modern evangelical church is desperately missing something. Baptism is reduced to nothing more than a public profession, a functional Facebook status update and communion is a ritual left to maybe four times a year.
The more I re-read the Scriptures, in particular in the light of the early Church, the more I realized that meaning of these sacraments is deeper and more important than we give them credit for. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and confessional Protestants disagree on exactly how these sacraments operate, but they agree on three basics.
1. Christ is present in communion.
The synoptic Gospels all have similar communion narratives. Mark’s is the simplest.
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
While many argue that this is simply symbolism, Tim Staples notes that when Jesus called Himself a vine or a door, no one said: “Well how could he be a plant?” They did, however, object when He called Himself bread in John 6, which strongly implies that Jesus words were seen as more than simple symbolism.
The real proof is in St. Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
If communion is just symbolic and nothing more, then why would eating and drinking unworthily bring judgment? Why would it specifically be an act of profaning the body and blood of Christ?
Again this could be symbolic but the weight of the words seems to be against it. This is where Church tradition could help. Even the staunchest memorialist would have to admit that there’s nothing in the Bible that says it must be symbolism.
On this, there is a clear and early consensus. I could quote Church Father after Church Father but this is already getting too long. This quote from J.N.D. Kelly, a Protestant scholar of the Early Church works well:
Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood. (Early Christian Doctrines, 440).
This doesn’t require a belief in transubstantiation (as an Anglican, here is a good resource on the Anglican doctrine of communion), but it seems clear to me that the sacrament is more than simply a memorial. Rather than defensively reject this, we should rejoice. To meet with the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ every Sunday is, metaphysically speaking, truly amazing.
2. Baptism is more than a profession.
Like communion, most Christians, though they disagree on the specifics, do historically agree that baptism is not merely a symbol of faith. The Anglican 39 Articles of Religion put it best.
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
This isn’t just the traditional view (the notion that baptism has no effect is something that was invented in the 1600s and to this day is not the predominant view among Christians, which should give us pause), but the Biblical view.
“Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ After this [conversation] Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized” (John 3:5, 22).
It is telling that virtually every time baptism is mentioned in the New Testament it is linked to the remission of sins (ex. Acts 2:38-39, Acts 19:1-3, Acts 22:16, Rom. 6:3-4, 6, 1 Cor. 12:13, Col. 2:11-13). Again, while this could be not as explicit as we like it, we can look to a clear consensus of the early Church on this subject. The Epistle of Barnabas, written 100 years after Christ’s resurrection, puts it best:
“This means that we go down into the water full of sins and foulness, and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus and in the Spirit.”
Theology can often seem like mundane debates that are inconsequential, but this is something that is of absolute importance as it speaks to how we should evangelize. How many times do we conduct altar calls but do not follow up to baptize? If we take Scripture and the early Church witness to it seriously, we have been neglecting the immense grace that can come with the sacraments.
3. Baptism is for infants.
My thoughts on infant baptism mirror my thoughts above. I think there is a strong Scriptural argument but can admit that there is some ambiguity. So I rely on early Church consensus to guide me in how I interpret Scripture. There are three reasons I think infant baptism should be practiced.
A) Household baptisms
Several times in the New Testament, the apostles are baptizing households. This happens in Acts 16:15, Acts 16:30–34, 1st Corinthians 1:16. The casual nature with which St. Paul mentions baptizing households strongly implies this was a common practice. The Greek word for “household” was οἶκος, which is used to include everyone in the family including infants (for instance in the Septuagint, Moses is mentioned as living in his father’s οἶκος when he was a few months old). It could be that none of these households included children but that seems unlikely given the large family size in the ancient Near East. Lastly the fact that Acts 2 says that this is “for you and your children” seems to end speculation on whether or not baptism was for the whole household, infants included.
B) Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant.
Paul explicitly links baptism with the old Jewish requirement of circumcision in Colossians 2. As one was the sign of the Old Covenant, so the other is the sign of the New Covenant. Similarly, it would follow that as one was for the children of believers, so would the other. Reformed theologian R. Scott Clark puts it best:
The point not to be missed is that, in Paul’s mind, baptism and circumcision are both signs and seals of Christ’s baptism/circumcision on the cross for us. By faith, we are united to Christ’s circumcision and by union with Christ we become participants in his circumcision/baptism. Because circumcision pointed forward to Christ’s death and baptism looks back to Christ’s death, they are closely linked in Paul’s mind and almost interchangeable. Paul’s point here is to teach us about our union with Christ, but along the way we see how he thinks about baptism and circumcision and his thinking should inform ours.
One of the reasons that Paul so strongly opposed the imposition of circumcision upon Christians by the Judaizers is that, by faith, we have already been circumcised in Christ, of which baptism is the sign and seal.
C) Early Church practice.
While one could interpret all these verses as simply hyperbolic symbolism, the easiest way to settle the debate is to see if there is a clear and consistent practice among the earliest Christians. Along with archaeological evidence of baptized children being buried in the 100s AD, the earliest Church Fathers are also fairly clear on the doctrine of infant baptism and who they received it from. From Hippolytus:
“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215]).
The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).
And lastly from Augustine:
“What the universal Church holds, not as instituted [invented] by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:24:31 [A.D. 400]).
While there were some notable exceptions, the consensus remains extremely clear: the blessing of baptism was for infants as well as adults. It seems extremely unlikely that the earliest Christians would have simply misunderstood the New Testament, despite being much closer to the Apostles in time, culture and language, only for the truth to be found by a small group nearly 1,500 years later.
Conclusion: The Need for Reform
All of this is not to say I am not grateful for my time in evangelicalism, that there isn’t Truth there or that Christ isn’t there. However, it is to say that evangelicalism unwittingly impoverishes itself by abstaining from the tradition, practices, and doctrines of the rest of the Church, both then and now. There is a huge deposit of spiritual wealth to be found in Church tradition, reverential liturgy and the sacraments. Furthermore, if the Church is not ours, then how to “do church” can’t be a matter of preference but a matter of obedience. I think ultimately that a fear of “being Catholic” holds us back, even though what I outlined is common to nearly all Christians be they Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Reformed.
Embracing Tradition and the sacraments won’t “stifle the Spirit” but will enrich our worship instead.
For various & sundry related to the topic;
- Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries by Joachim Jeremias
- The Evangelical Doctrine of Baptism by John Stott (Stott is using “evangelical” in an Anglican sense)
- Baptismal Theology Within Reformed Evangelicalism
- Is Infant Baptism Biblical?
- Early Christian Doctrine by J.N.D. Kelly
- The Christian Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan
- A Contemporary Defense of Reformed Infant Baptism
- Eastern Orthodox Doctrine of Infant Baptism
- High Church Revival in the Church of England by Jeremy Morris
- Anglican Eucharistic Theology
- Methodist Doctrine by Ted A. Campbell
- The Essential Catholic Catechism by Alan Shreck
- The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Kallistos Ware
- The Anglican Way by Fr. Thomas McKenzie
- The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom by Alexander Shmemann
- The Reformation: A History by Diarmuid MacCulloch
- The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison
- Meeting Christ in the Sacraments by Colman E. O’Neill
- The Spirit of the Liturgy by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
- Bible and the Liturgy by Fr. Jean Danielou
- John Calvin & Roman Catholicism by Randall C. Zachman
- The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman
- Worship in the Early Church by Ralph P. Martin
- Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis
- The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix
*Terms like bishop and priest can be really controversial for some Protestants but in reality, they are just very old English words for terms found in Scripture. “Bishop” is simply the English form of an old Germanic word translating epískopos or overseer. Similarly, “priest” is just the newest form of the Old English word preost which was a translation of the Greek word presbyteros or elder.