The Use and Abuse of Church History

Church history is descriptive,  not prescriptive.

One of the main points of fissure between sacramental or hierarchical church traditions and those that are less so is the place of church history. Should history—tradition—play a definitive role in shaping the faith and practice for believers today? Or, should Scripture have the decisive function in our faith? If we decide that tradition and history must be set alongside Scripture as an equal authority, we are faced with the dilemma that history is not uniform, nor tidy. In the hierarchical traditions, history is sometimes treated as a kind of stare decisis, such as one finds in courts of law. What precedent do we find in prior decision, previous case law? Indeed, canon law is exactly this.

But history is the development of the church, how it grew and changed over centuries. It does not represent an authoritative body of decisions that should bind believers in our current age. That position belongs only to Holy Scripture. To be sure, history has great value, and should be studied, but there is a vast difference in observation and stipulation. Church historian Brian Tierney points out some of the difficulties in looking to the past as an authoritative guide. He considers the example of papal infallibility.

“Real issues of ecclesiastical power are involved. If popes have always been infallible in any meaningful sense of the word – if their official pronouncements as heads of the church on matters of faith and morals have always been unerring and so irreformable – then all kinds of dubious consequences ensue. Most obviously, twentieth century popes would be bound by a whole array of past papal decrees reflecting the responses of the Roman church to the religious and moral problems of former ages. As Acton put it, ‘The responsibility for the acts of the buried and repented past would come back at once and for ever.’ To defend religious liberty would be ‘insane’ and to persecute heretics commendable. Judicial torture would be licit and taking of interest on loans a mortal sin. The pope would rule by divine right ‘not only the universal church but the whole world.’ Unbaptized babies would be punished in Hell for all eternity. Maybe the sun would still be going round the earth.”[1]

What Tierney points out is that history is descriptive, but not prescriptive. It tells us what happened, but not what should happen. Tierney’s examples show the error of elevating tradition above or to a position of equal authority with Scripture.  Holy Scripture alone provides this rule, this canon. At once I hear the objection of “but whose interpretation?” Indeed, hermeneutics is not an easy task, but one can at least begin by acknowledging what is admissible evidence. We can look at how past ages interpreted God’s Word, while at the same time acknowledging that no interpreter can claim to be an infallible guide. Indeed, those who claim to listen to the magisterium for authoritative interpretation have made this decision as individuals.

Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers will sometimes chide evangelicals on this point of “individual interpretation” but it is not a strong argument. Recent polling of Catholics shows a large number dismiss what the hierarchy of bishops says on many points, and are making their own decisions. As Thomas Bergler observes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[2]

On the Orthodox side, the plea has been more to the “unanimous consent of the Fathers.” But as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, that consensus is less than unanimous, and subject to revision.

Such an exhortation as “let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers” seemed to assume, by its use of “confession” in the singular and of “fathers” in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic. When an orthodox church father such as Gregory of Nyssa appeared to be in agreement with a heretic such as Origen on the eventual salvation of all men, it was necessary to explain away this agreement. When it appeared that there was a contradiction between two passages in Gregory of Nazianzus, closer study would show “their true harmony.”[3]

Arriving at the true meaning of Scripture can be a challenge, but no one can hand this responsibility off to another. Indeed, read, study, consult as many sources as you can, but remember that the decision cannot be outsourced. And while history informs us as to how others thought, it must not be elevated to the same level of authority as Scripture itself.  The Protestant Reformers had regard for prior interpreters of Scripture. Luther accepted the first 4 ecumenical counsels, and but not subsequent ones. Calvin found value in the counsels, but would not assign them equal authority to Scripture. In the Orthodox tradition, they accept 7 ecumenical counsels as authoritative, and Rome has north of 20 at this point they put in this category. The question is thus not line-drawing, everyone does so. Rather, it is where the lines are drawn. It is often at the distance of several centuries that we see the value (or error) of conclusions from prior ages, but only by comparing these decisions with Scripture. G.L. Prestige aptly summarizes what has happened when history or tradition is given the same authority as Scripture.

“The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[4]

Those who appeal to tradition consider the verdict to have equal (or often greater) authority than the evidence, and this is a fatal flaw. God has caused us to be born again by his Word. (1 Peter 1:23) Can this same Word not sustain us, teach us, and guide us? Can we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us, as Jesus himself promised? Recognizing Scripture as uniquely authoritative within the Church does not necessarily make for an easier path of discipleship, but it does make for a clearer and more faithful one.


[1] Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1972), p. 2.

[2] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenalization of American Christianity, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[4] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics, (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.

You Don’t Need Office to Minister to the Body

Our view of ministry in the local church has been influenced by a lot of things. Scripture is among these, but the corporate world is often too influential. Listening to the “organizational effectiveness” mandarins makes one think that we need to place a premium on leadership. We should develop leaders, mentor them, give them opportunities to succeed and advance. But that mindset can be at odds with what we find in the New Testament. There, the emphasis is quite often on followership rather than leadership. It is on serving, rather than leading, it is on abasing oneself rather than seeking opportunities. The corporate model can make one think that the thing that matters is being in leadership—being a pastor or an elder. But an attitude that restricts ministry in the local church to those who hold official office, those who are designated as pastors or elders, is a skewed view of both the body of Christ, and ministry.
In contrast, Paul describes what this should look like in Ephesians 4:15-16:

“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

There are at least two notable things here. First, it is the headship of Christ that Paul identifies as the center, the goal. It is into him we grow, and indeed the whole body grows. I recall that shortly before I came to understand the gospel clearly, when I was still a cultural Christian, someone asked me what I was looking for in a church. I said something about good preaching and good music, and I will never forget his reply because it seemed so utterly obvious once I heard it. “How about Christ-centered?” We must hold fast to him who is our head. We must remember that we are the body of Christ, but a body most certainly has a head. Some traditions have inverted this order, and it looks very much like the body telling the head what to do.

Second, the plural nature of ministry is clear. It is the whole body, every joint, and each part working together that leads to the body building itself up in love. It is, in a sense, reflexive. The body, in reliance on the head, building itself up in love. Even though the church has as its foundation the apostles and prophets, the building up of the body is not restricted to only those formally recognized as pastors or elders.

The goal of edification, of “upbuilding” in the body of Christ, is to reach “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Children are a singular blessing, but we expect that they will grow up, that they will not stay children forever. That would be tragic. Maturity in the Christian life means growth, understanding, wisdom, and it is not limited to a handful of people. In the first half of this verse Paul has given us an idea of the scope he has in mind. “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” It is not that some, a few, the “clergy” attain to unity of the faith, and to know the Son of God, but all.

The New Testament sets forth qualifications for office such that not everyone in the local church is able to be a pastor or an elder. Not all can meet these qualifications. The contention around this usually appears as “Can women be pastors or elders?” But I suggest it is a limited view of ministry in the local church that is sometimes behind this. To suggest that unless women can be pastors or elders, they are barred from effective ministry, is to misunderstand ministry. In other words, if we insist that all aspects of ministry, all offices in the local church, are open to everyone, is it a de facto admission that we believe the ones who really matter are those who hold these offices? Do we unintentionally demote the rest of the body to a lower status, to a place of lesser importance? There are in fact many men who do not meet the qualifications for office in the local church, and indeed the vast majority of men will never stand in a pulpit to preach. Do we tell these men that they can never really have a role in building up the body because of this? Both women and men can and should have their part in building up the body. Men and women who hold no office can edify, encourage, model Christ and be servants to the local church in many ways. Don’t think that your ministry will only be effective if you’re “official.” The New Testament says otherwise.

Protestants, It’s OK to say Jesus called Peter “this rock.”

From the biblical record one can see that Peter was an impulsive man. He said things at the wrong time (“Lord, it is good for us to be here, let us build three booths.”)  He did what he shouldn’t do (cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant.) And of course, he denied the Lord Jesus in the hours after his betrayal. None of this surprised the Lord. For all this, Peter was also the one who spoke the clear confession of who Jesus really was: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16) What follows that has been a point of contention between Roman Catholicism and the rest of Christianity.

Jesus answered thus: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19)

I want to suggest that Protestant explanation of this need not go where it sometimes has in order to counter Roman Catholic claims. Many have said that it is Peter’s confession—the truth he spoke about Jesus—that is the thing Jesus would build his church upon, but not Peter himself. Roman Catholics see it as Jesus talking to Peter about himself, calling Peter the rock. From this comes the establishment of the papacy, the founding of the “Petrine office” and the beginning of the hierarchy.

It is neither of these, that is, in the way it’s usually understood. On the Protestant side, discomfort with Roman Catholic claims, and a desire to steer clear of any hint that Peter possesses anything like papal authority, have driven the exegesis of this, more than the text itself. We are uneasy with the thought that Jesus may have been speaking of Peter himself when he answers with “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” One can see that Jesus does indeed speak of Peter in this, without going on to the entailments that Rome has attached to it. Peter was a leader of the Twelve, despite his foibles. And indeed, after the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter shows boldness and power that indicate the fulfillment of what Jesus spoke to him.

But none of this means that Peter occupies an office that was monarchical and foreign to the New Testament, as the papacy has come to be. He held no office in the Jerusalem church, as is evident from the Jerusalem council where James is clearly a leader. And although it is post-Pentecost and the Spirit had been given, Paul still finds occasion to rebuke Peter for his error in walking not according to the truth of the gospel. Indeed, in describing the situation, Paul wrote that “from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.” (Gal. 2:6) Paul views Peter not as his superior, not as a possessor of an office, but one whom Paul had to rebuke and correct in this instance.

Moreover, Jesus words elsewhere to the Twelve show that the idea of one man holding a chair above the others is antithetical to the church Jesus would build. “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.” (Matt 23:8-10.) When Peter and Andrew’s mother asks of Jesus an exalted position for her sons, Jesus replies that “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:25-26) Peter’s own letters eschew any thought that he occupied a position above any of the Twelve. He refers to himself as a fellow elder. (1 Pet. 5:1).

All of this evidence leads to a conclusion that Jesus’ words to Peter go beyond a view that sees him only commenting on the confession of Peter as the rock on which the church is built. It is instead a proclamation of the church built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Peter being the chief representative of the apostles. It is upon the Twelve that the church is built, Peter’s subsequent history demonstrating that he doesn’t have a preeminent office that gives him authority over his fellow apostles, to command them. It is a particular exegetical fallacy that supports the inverse. D. A. Carson points this out in quoting Cardinal Avery Dulles’s defense of the Papacy.

According to the New Testament, Peter has his lapses, both before and after Easter, but Catholic apologists defend the doctrinal infallibility of Peter in the post-Easter situation, and consequently that of the pope in whom the ‘Petrine Office’ is perpetuated.” The appeal is to “Catholic apologists” and implicitly to Roman Catholic traditional interpretations: those not convinced by the status of these authority figures and traditions will not be helped much by Avery Dulles’s argument.[1] It is an a priori assumption that these Catholic apologists have an authority, but as Carson points out, it’s a circular argument to cite only those from the camp.

But let me assume for a moment that Jesus’ words to Peter did intend to invest him with unique authority among the Twelve. That is, that he was indeed the head of the Church. Even if this were so, it does not include the transfer for this authority to an endless stream of successors, each with this same authority. In other words, the idea of apostolic succession is not found in Matthew at all.  As Hans von Campenhausen has noted, “The rank and authority of the apostolate are restricted to the first ‘apostolic’ generation, and can neither be continued nor renewed once this time has come to an end.”[2] It is, as Paul says in Ephesians 4, a foundational office, not to be repeated or transferred.

Protestants don’t need to deny Peter’s position as a leader of the Twelve in order to see that Jesus’ affirmation of his confession is in no sense an establishment of the papacy. Let us be faithful to the text—all of it, not just what is recorded in Matthew 16—and we will see that the scriptural evidence argues for something other than what Rome has claimed, but indeed something more than what Protestants have often said.

[1] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1996), 123.

[2] Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1969), p. 23.

Ecclesiology and the Start-Up Culture

Christian growth cannot be commoditized to scale up.


The doctrine of the church—ecclesiology—has been among the most malleable and flexible for believers today. How a church is organized, what it’s polity may be, many Christians see as of secondary importance. Instead, expediency is what is more important. Is what we’re doing working? And the measure of what works often mirrors the culture of business start-ups. Although this isn’t new, we’re seeing the full flowering (and decay) of the mindset. Going back to Willow Creek and the massive growth they experienced, growing a church is very much akin to growing a brand, to penetrating a market with a product. Indeed, it’s well documented that in the early days of Willow Creek, they did market research to find out what people didn’t like about the previous church “products.” And the vision for the product is cast by a leader who is charismatic and inspiring. If you think of Apple or Amazon, these companies grew largely because of the innovative leaders who founded them. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos had a drive and a vision that captured people and made them want to follow and get on board. It worked spectacularly.

Willow Creek had Bill Hybels and Harvest Bible Chapel had James MacDonald. These were the CEO equivalents to Jobs and Bezos. They had the vision, and they had the power. But by tying the success of the venture so firmly to themselves, they entered into unbiblical territory. The New Testament is clear that oversight of a local church belongs to a plurality of elders. It is a shared burden of leadership that must go beyond an on-paper org chart to being shared in fact and in practice. These churches had elder boards and an ostensible plurality, but it was clear that the senior pastor was “more equal” than the others. To have a genuine plurality, the full-time pastors must have the same authority as any other elder. Investing one man with more authority than others is to set up a situation that will produce grief and pain—as both Willow Creek and Harvest (and, one might add, Mars Hill Seattle) show.

It is also to establish what the New Testament does not. Rather than viewing church polity as a choice among several models that “work” why don’t local churches treat the doctrine of ecclesiology as they do things like soteriology: as a non-negotiable? The sole epistle where Paul addresses local church leaders is Philippians, and he begins that letter by saying “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” It is the whole congregation he first addresses, and then the leaders, but note it is plural, the overseers (elders) and deacons. There is no senior elder, teaching elder, or any such thing; plurality and equality. The other place Paul addresses local church leaders is on the beach at Ephesus. “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” Acts 20:17. Here, too, there is no hierarchy or pecking order. Paul goes on to admonish and warn them. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-29. Paul counts on the fact that even among the elders themselves, there will arise men who would draw away the disciples!

The heart is deceitfully wicked, as Jeremiah reminds us, and as Lord Acton also reminds us, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether one thinks pastors should rise above this is beside the point. Look at the evidence. The New Testament model of a plural oversight is the means of protection against this happening.

Christians have been seduced by the idea that growth is always good. If we’re gaining market share, then what we’re doing is working. This is folly. The growth of Christians in their faith cannot be commoditized. Indeed, if we go in this direction, the results are apparent. Conformity to Christ, a deeper understanding of God’s purposes and person; these things can’t be measured by a pie chart. It requires an investment that is slow and steady, faithful shepherding of the congregation. Smaller churches where the elders know the sheep, are involved in their lives, provides both safety and conforms to the New Testament model. What works to build a corporation is fundamentally different than what works to build the body of Christ. The goals are different, the motivation is different, and since we do not answer to shareholders but to the Lord of glory, we need to rethink assumptions that have prevailed in Evangelicalism. We have (justly) pointed out the flaws in churches that have a strict hierarchy, bishops over bishops, but evangelical churches have erected their own model of church polity that is itself flawed.
The New Testament has the answer to “how should the church be organized and governed?” That doesn’t mean it’s easy or perhaps “expedient” but it is what God has delivered to us.

Your View of Baptism is Your View of the Church

If you want to risk coming to theological fisticuffs with other believers, one way is through a discussion about the meaning of baptism, what it is, what it accomplishes (or does not). Anyone who has read the literature on this knows that there are vociferous arguments on the topic. I have a position on the ordinance of baptism and what I think Scripture teaches about it, but my intent is not to expound that here. Rather, I want to suggest that one’s view of baptism is in fact linked to one’s view of the church. In other words, one’s view of baptism is a proxy for ecclesiology. If you tell me what you believe about baptism, I can tell you what you believe about the church.
The two positions are paedobaptism (baptism of infants) and credobaptism (baptism of believers only.) A third variation, which I won’t deal with directly here, exists wherein baptizing an infant is seen as putting them into Christ, as granting them new life.

The church as a covenant community

Baptism as a proxy for ecclesiology means that if I view the church as a covenant community made up of both the saved and the unsaved, then baptizing someone who is not able to personally express faith is not a barrier. It does not represent conversion or new life in Christ, but membership in the covenant community. This view draws a direct line between the rite of circumcision and baptism. God commanded Abraham to circumcise the male infants in his household. Personal faith was not a requirement, it was simply not part of the covenant stipulations. The paedobaptist argument is that in the New Testament, this does not change. There is no announcement that things are different. Jews, who were the first Christians, would have been confused that with the coming of Christ their children are now excluded from the covenant. The rite itself has changed, but not the candidates, they argue. The children of believers are candidates, as they believe Acts 2:38 states:
“For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Baptism is the initiatory rite into the new covenant, in the same way that circumcision was into the Abrahamic covenant, but just as faith was not required then, so neither is it now. The hope is that in the future, these children will grow to become not only covenant members, but covenant confessors. If they don’t, they would be covenant breakers.

For credobaptists, the belief that the church is composed only of those who are born-again informs who the candidates for baptism are. Those who express personal faith are alone those who should be baptized. They point to the New Testament record that where we see baptism, it is only for those who confess faith in Jesus. Where the New Testament speaks of households (the Philippian Jailor, Lydia) there is no mention of children. The assumption that children were present is an inference, but one from silence. Credobaptists make the claim that the New Covenant community is not a mixed multitude comprised of both the saved and the unsaved, it is the collection of those who are redeemed—and only these. They believe that there is no difference between the New Covenant community and the church. They are one and the same. They view the paedobaptists claim that unsaved infants are part of the covenant community as a creation of two groups where the New Testament only knows one.
This is not to say that mere professors, the unsaved, do not enter into the “church,” that is, the church as an outward expression of the inward reality. The difference is that unbelievers are not knowingly admitted. Since faith is the only thing that truly brings one into the church, if one who has made a false profession is baptized, they are simply a wet unbeliever, but they are not part of the church.

The nature of the covenant

While both paedobaptists and credobaptists affirm the New Covenant is in effect, their beliefs about the nature of that covenant emerge in baptism. Is the New Covenant an extension of a single covenant of grace, administered differently than in prior ages, but essentially one with it? Or, is it a covenant that is different in the sense of who its participants are, the entrance requirements, and thus its initiatory rite? To put it another way, the Abrahamic Covenant was a first-birth covenant, requiring only a birth as the precursor to circumcision. Generation after generation could be in the covenant even without personal faith, as long as they were circumcised. When paedobaptists affirm the continuity between the covenant with Abraham, they are affirming this aspect of it, that they believe unbelievers can in some way be covenant participants. Credobaptists believe the New Covenant is a second-birth covenant. Those in it are only in it because of their new birth, their faith in Christ. Because of this, only those who have expressed faith should be baptized. It is an initiatory rite only in the sense of announcing what has taken place, that is, that through faith someone has become a member of the body of Christ. It is an area of agreement between the paedo and credo views that both concur that only those who have been born again are in fact Christians. That may seem like a tautology, but credos argue that paedos have invented a third category in the New Covenant; in the covenant, but not a Christian.

Does our view on baptism matter?

Despite sharp disagreement over this issue, Paedobaptists and credobaptists value one another as members of the body, and have great fellowship with one another, because they recognize a common life in Christ. That is good and right.
But I want to echo what Stephen Wellum said several years ago. Baptism is not an unimportant matter in the church. “To get baptism wrong is not a benign issue. It not only misconstrues our Lord’s command and instruction to the church, it also leads to a misunderstanding of elements of the gospel, particularly to the beneficiaries of the new covenant and the nature of the church.”
We are accustomed to categorizing theological issues as essential or non-essentials. Where do we place baptism? I suggest it doesn’t fit neatly into either one of these. It is too important to place in the non-essential category, but it’s not something most would say they must break fellowship over. It inhabits a third category, somewhere in the middle. It is vital and significant; what we say about baptism does not stand alone. We are also saying what we believe about the church, the New Covenant, and all the entailments that belong to these. If there is one thing believers should do it is to study all the rationale behind the question, the Scriptural texts and the implications of them.

The Great Tradition and Interpretive Diversity

Among the many fault lines within evangelicalism is the question of certainty. In David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral,” Biblicism is a shorthand for the Scriptures as the final authority. But it’s too facile to point to a passage of Scripture and say “There, you see?” When two equally sincere and honest believers have a disagreement about what those Scriptures mean, then the problem just moves elsewhere.

In a prior post, I discussed the rule of faith, which for some is a key to solving this problem. (It isn’t.) Here, I want to discuss a wider body of tradition, which, some look to as the way to understand the Scriptures rightly. Would adhering to the “Great Tradition” provide the interpretive guidance Christian’s seek?

In the last several decades, a group of theologians and historians who identify as evangelicals have urged a more intentional engagement with history and the patristic heritage. D. H. Williams has written of his dismay over evangelicals’ disregard and, in some cases disdain, for history, and how God has led the church. For Williams and others such as Thomas Oden, the solution is for evangelicals to recover the “Great Tradition,” which they believe will provide the guidance that evangelicalism has cast off in reaction against the hierarchical church: “It is time for evangelicals to reach back and affirm a truly ‘catholic’ Tradition by returning to the ancient sources, to correct the former correction.”[1]

The former correction was, of course, the Reformation, and in Williams’ estimation, evangelicalism has gone too far in its disregard for history and tradition. Williams likewise highlights many of the problems others too have noted. I, too, share those concerns. Much of contemporary evangelicalism is theologically muddled and cares little for doctrine. “Theology is disappearing in the churches because the drive for truth, and the significance of ideas, has been replaced by an emphasis on technique.”[2] Later, he laments the sectarianism he finds to be a persistent problem within evangelicalism. “Evangelicals and Free Church believers need to hear again the great Protestant historian Philip Schaff, who warned us 150 years ago of the ‘poisonous plant of sectarianism which has grown so ponderously upon the ground of Protestantism.’”[3] But Williams’ theories as to the causes of this doctrinal dereliction rest on assumptions that are incorrect. The first is that the divisions and sects of evangelicalism have arisen due to a lack of regard for tradition. For this to be valid, one would expect to see unanimity and cohesion within the Great Tradition’s adherents, but this is not the case.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found that 22.5% said that a person could be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4] Similarly, a survey of US Catholics a few years later by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University asked them about all aspects of their faith.[5] About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.

If any institution can claim long tradition, it is the Roman Catholic Church, yet though they may be part of the Great Tradition, it isn’t effective in holding Catholics to aspects of teaching that, at least according to church leaders, are very important to the faith. Whatever one may say about the Eucharist, the resurrection of Jesus is certainly part of the Great Tradition, and can scarcely be more important to Christianity.

Thomas Bergler’s research in The Juvenilization of American Christianity covers many denominations, but with regard to the Roman Catholic Church, he summarizes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[6]

All of this demonstrates that in those churches and traditions where the Great Tradition prevails, it has done little to produce a cohesive faith or to stave off theological free agency. Reciting the creed every week doesn’t keep believers from going their own way, and it doesn’t help answer the question of “what does this passage of Scripture mean?” Depending on where the parameters of the Great Tradition are, it may also contain elements that are themselves riddled with uncertainty. (Teachings about Mary, the implicit authority of the church, to name a couple of examples.)  The Great Tradition represents an elevation of the doctrine of ecclesiology above all others, even soteriology. It’s important to remember that the church is not the conduit of salvation, but the result of it. The church upholds the truth, it doesn’t originate it. The Great Tradition has too often gotten this backwards.

If those who take their place as part of the Great Tradition themselves manifest division and diversity of views, then the explanation that evangelical schism is due to a lack of regard for tradition is a non sequitur. Asked differently, would a return to tradition, as Williams suggests, provide a solution to the theological variety that he identifies within evangelicalism? Will this both heal the sectarian breaches and provide the theological cohesion that he claims is now lacking? Again, the fact that those who are close adherents to tradition have these same issues argues against this providing unity or theological integrity. The hard work of interacting directly with Scripture (utilizing the resources of historical research, to be sure) is still the best way forward.


[1] D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 15.

[2] Williams, p. 24.

[3] Williams, p. 202.

[4] Gallup Poll of Catholics,

[5] Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics,

[6] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

Is Your Church Fun?

A mailer arrived at our house the other day asking this question in so many words: “What if church was fun and relevant?” As I looked more closely at the material and went to the website of this new church, what struck me was the completely different view of the church and its purpose. At the outset let me say that I don’t doubt the sincere desire of the folks behind this effort to reach the lost. Nor do I disagree that for many centuries, the purpose of the church has been misunderstood in different ways. Sacramentalism, which makes a market out of grace, is itself a skewed view of the body of Christ.
The material that arrived also makes the statement that “At X church we believe in having a good time.” The website didn’t elaborate all that much on this. No doctrinal statement, or any explanation of what the leadership believes about Jesus, the Bible, salvation. These are important things, and they are relevant. Indeed, it’s a false conclusion to say that if we aren’t appealing to what unbelievers feel is relevant to them, or what they perceive their needs to be, we aren’t serving them well. Few unbelievers have any sense of what is truly relevant, and this is why they need to be instructed from the Scriptures. What is transitory and belongs to our life on earth is not what is eternally relevant. What is transcendent and belongs to God is.
At this point you may think this is an ecclesiastical “You kids get off my lawn!” screed, but I ask you to think about how the New Testament presents the church and its purposes. Among them are:
  • “Declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
  • Attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
  • “Grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
These are Christ-centered things, with a two-fold purpose of glorifying him, and edifying us. Fun isn’t high on that list. Now, if we expand that slightly to say that it is enjoyable to gather with other Christians and hear the faithful preaching of God’s word, I agree, this is very enjoyable. But here, too, new believers don’t know this is what they need, they have to be taught it.
Growing in the knowledge of salvation and of the Lord Jesus Christ brings joy and enjoyment. Fun, as most folks describe it, doesn’t rise to this at all. Many, many people have left the Catholic Church and joined evangelical congregations, precisely because they didn’t find the church relevant. But the message most relevant to everyone is the gospel of grace, new life in Christ, and growth into his likeness. My concern is that if evangelicals market our congregations as fun, people can see through this, recognize it as a trivializing of Christianity, and move on. Evangelicalism is facing many challenges at present. Attacks from without are only part of this. Internal, self-imposed injuries are avoidable. Prioritizing fun and relevance, if it comes at the expense of the foundational gospel truths, is a meager substitute for Christian maturity.

Nominal Christianity and the Reformation Legacy

Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place.

On this 500th Reformation Day, and leading up to it, there has been a plethora of commentary on the divisions that remain in the Church
. These have typically focused on the Rome-Protestant divide, but there is another divide, just as tragic, perhaps even more so. That is those churches and believers who trace their heritage to the Reformation, but who have abandoned that lineage of truth.
They have not done so because they want to pursue greater unity with Rome, but rather because they have diluted the truth of Scripture.
This includes various mainline denominations who have steadily moved away from doctrinal imperatives. Attractional Christianity is not what I have in mind here, but nominalism. There are churches that maintain a veneer of truth, but whose raison d’etre represents social action, or relational support. The gospel absolutely impacts our relationships, and it calls us to action, but if we have redefined it to be primarily about the horizontal relationships rather than the vertical, we have left apostolic ground.
The gospel impacts our relationships with people because it redefines our relationship with God. No longer at enmity with him, we are at peace with him when we are in Christ. Without that peace, we are still under his wrath. But peace with God requires the sacrifice of Christ and the blood he shed that purchased our salvation. Without the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, his divinity, his death, and resurrection, we have nothing. We are of all men most pitiable. And the pity is, that many nominal Christians have either forgotten or have never known that a gospel without these truths is no gospel at all. The Reformation heritage is that these are vital truths.
One of the more common convictions to be jettisoned in nominalism is that our sin separates us from God. By emphasizing that we need to love and accept ourselves as God has created us, we dismiss his assessment that although we are created in his image, we are separated from him by our sin. Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place. that our sin has separated us from a holy God. He does not wink at sin nor write it off. He has paid for our sin in the death of His Son, and when we acknowledge this, and that my sin put Jesus on the cross, we uphold the gospel. The sacrifice of Christ and sin go together. If sin is not odious, an offense to God’s holiness, but instead just something of a human limitation, we dismiss the necessity of the cross.
There are many more areas where the mainline denominations have departed from biblical foundations, but sin is a big one.
These groups haven’t abandoned the Reformation heritage for a stricter authority, or a church hierarchy. They haven’t rallied around a magisterium, but they have just as surely left biblical authority behind. We should pray for their restoration (or in many cases, conversion) as much as we pray for the healing of other breaches.

Bible Answer Man: Wrong Number

The recent conversion of Hank Hanegraaf to Orthodoxy has caused a stir in evangelical circles, but only because of Hanegraaf’s prior ministry. As the so-called “Bible Answer Man” one would think he of all people would base his views and teaching on the Scriptures. Perhaps not. The reasons for such conversions still fall into the same sort of categories that Scot McKnight wrote about in From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic.  The fact that it’s Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism in Hanegraaf’s case doesn’t really affect these reasons. In almost all such cases, there is always an insistence that “nothing has changed” in core beliefs. And indeed Hanegraaf made this statement. But clearly, something has changed, because he wasn’t content to stay where he was, but rather take the step of joining the Orthodox Church. Hanegraaf’s comments indicate he felt there was a lack of experience in his faith that left him wanting more. He pitches it as an embrace of life rather than merely truth. He doesn’t claim that joining the church is his conversion to Christ, (nor do I doubt he is a true believer), but if you have Jesus, he is the way the truth and the life, and therefore, you have all you need already.

It’s good to remember a few things with such cases, things that always seem to be factors. These are the common motivations behind conversion to sacramental traditions.

A desire to connect with the historical roots of Christianity. That’s a worthy and good desire, but it can’t be found in Orthodoxy. When we look at the Orthodox Church, we don’t find the church of the apostles but the church of late antiquity. The structure of a hierarchical church, with priests, bishops over priests, and archbishops and metropolitans mirrors the Roman empire, but it isn’t found in the pages of the New Testament. Nor do we find the doctrine of the apostles in the Orthodox church. Veneration of Mary, and icons are clearly extrabiblical traditions that find no place in biblical Christianity. The point was humorously made by the Babylon Bee, noting that Hanegraaf would be rebranding himself as the “Apostolic Tradition Man.” And this is where Hanegraaf and all who make such a move aren’t always forthright in their statements. They may believe they lose nothing, but only gain in such a migration, but they can’t maintain the position of Sola Scriptura and remain in their new home. Believers should most certainly connect with history, but the New Testament writings are the historical documents that comprise Christian authority, not the writings of late antiquity. If you base your faith upon the Scriptures alone, you are certainly connected with history – and with the living word of God.

A move away from the Scriptures as supreme authority. Hanegraaf would no doubt vociferously disagree with that. On his radio show, he quoted the well-known aphorism; “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity.” But, significantly, he didn’t cite any Scripture as to why he made this move. Within Orthodoxy, there is a reliance on tradition, the consensus of the Fathers, as an equal authority alongside Scripture. But as Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out,

“Such an exhortation as ‘let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers’ seemed to assume, by its use of ‘confession’ in the singular and of ‘fathers’ in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic.”[1]

It’s fine to speak of fathers in the plural, but we also have to speak of “confessions” in the plural too, because the fathers don’t always agree. Tradition, in other words, is shifting sand, unreliable as a basis for truth. It’s impossible to hold to both Scripture as supreme authority and tradition as supreme authority. That remains a fundamental difference between the Orthodox view of authority and the evangelical view. The seven ecumenical councils are canonical for the Orthodox. But the councils aren’t Scripture, and as G.L. Prestige wrote, “The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[2] In the Orthodox view, the conclusions are moved into the evidence column.

Elevating Experience over Scripture. It’s exceedingly common to find people expressing dissatisfaction with evangelical worship. And indeed, much of it is vapid. But the appeal of Orthodoxy is sensual, i.e., involving the senses. Smells and bells as it’s been called. At the heart of this type of thinking is the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Or, as the church prays, the church believes. Attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, the formulation states that how the Church worships governs what the Church teaches. In other words, liturgy is the wellspring of doctrine. But that is to invert things. Our experience of worship can never inform our doctrine. Rather, our doctrine dictates how we worship. If our feelings, our experience prescribe what our beliefs are, we open ourselves to all manner of falsehood.

Many people look to Hanegraaf for answers, and therefore he has a huge responsibility. It was interesting that in the days following his announcement, a caller asked if he could explain the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Hanegraaf gave a few examples of the magisterium vs. the oral and written deposit of truth (evangelicals reject any oral tradition as equal to the Bible), but at the end of his answer, he oddly backpedalled somewhat from his ability to speak on such things. “I don’t consider myself an expert, I’ve only been studying this for two or three years… so having only spent a mere two and half or three years on this subject I am not the expert. There are people that are far more adept at talking about these things than I am. But I am learning and at some point the treasure chest will be part of my heart and soul, and I’ll be able to communicate with a whole lot more instruction.” That’s an odd stance for the Answer Man.

Christians should not look to their fellow believer’s experience as any kind of rule or guide for what we believe. Scripture must test all things. Even how previous generations interpreted Scripture is not an authority. I can learn from them, to be sure. But quite often I learn they were wrong. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ve been reminded of that anew. This, apparently, is something the Bible Answer Man has forgotten.

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[2] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.

When Reform Brings Schism

 Hus at the Council of ConstanceIn this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it’s important to revisit certain truths, not only doctrinal, but historical as well. I’ve written previously about the idea of the Reformation being over. That is, in the view of some, the level of agreement between former ecclesiastical foes is now so small that we can put the Reformation behind us and join together. That is a non-starter, in my view, not because I have anything against unity, but because there is still a chasm between the fundamental definition of salvation between Protestants and others. Salvation is doubtless the most important difference,  but there are also other important doctrines such as the definition of the Church, the person and work of Christ, where there remain wide divergences between evangelicals and sacramental traditions.
But there is the historical as well. One sometimes hears that prior to the Reformation, though there were certainly problems in the Church, there wasn’t the kind of division that the Reformation brought. But that is not historically accurate. Long before the Reformation there were deep divisions in the Church, or perhaps it’s better to say, Churches.

   A major fissure was caused by the “filioque” clause. If you’re not familiar with this issue, it came about due to the addition of a clause to the Nicene creed, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the the father and the son (filioque). The decision to add that to the creed, (putatively at the Council of Toledo in 589) was made without consultation with other bishops, specifically those of the East. The Eastern churches greeted this as a heresy and a doctrinal innovation that could not stand. The issue festered for centuries, amid (truly!) Byzantine politics, with bishops and patriarchs trading anathemas back and forth. The added clause was formally accepted by Rome in 1014. Forty years later in 1054, the “Great Schism” officially came about. This pre-Reformation separation of East and West continues to the current day.

   A couple of hundred years after that, the Western Church (aka Roman Catholic) had its own schism. This was due to nothing doctrinal, but all political. There came a time when there were three simultaneous popes. If the Church sets up a system where one man sits atop the org chart, then having three CEOs makes it difficult to know who’s in charge. That schism was officially ended at the Council of Constance in 1414-1418. But, notably, one of the decrees the Council published was this: “All persons of whatever rank or dignity, even a Pope, are bound to obey it in matters relating to faith and the end of the schism and the general reformation of the Church of God in head and members.” In other words, the Council issued a papal takedown, and demanded that pontiffs obey conciliar decrees as the highest law of the Church. The schism was formally healed, (and future popes more or less ignored the outcome) but the ideas of conciliarism never really went away. This, too, had nothing to do with the Reformation. One need only look to very recent history to see that all is not well in the Roman Catholic Church. There is consternation among many about the current pope and where he may be taking the Church.

   These examples from history represent the fact that the roots of division may not be doctrinal at all, and are quite often political. Both underlying causes can (and have) resulted in division. In a sense, the Reformation can be seen as just one more example of the Church dividing itself, but with important differences. The doctrinal matters surrounding the Reformation put divisions based on political differences into their proper perspective. They were most often the result of pride and selfish ambition. The Reformers held the gospel itself in highest esteem, and that is why they spoke out as they did. What the previous divisions had in common was that they assumed that the highest authority was the Church itself. As some have said, they operated on the principle of sola ecclesia. The Reformation of course came about due to different principles; that the Church was subject to Scripture. The Word of God is over the people of God. This was needed reform in a Church that had lost its way. When a division such as the Reformation became inevitably necessary, we should remember that there are some things worth fighting for. Paul makes it fairly clear at the start of the Galatian epistle that the integrity of the gospel message is one of those things.

The next time someone shakes their head in dismay over the divisions the Reformation caused, remember too that it represents a great recovery of truth, and that legacy is still one worth standing up for.