The new confessional Protestants

June 11, 2013

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[Note: “Confessional” means “adhering to a confession of faith.” For the purposes of this post, these confessions are those of the Reformation period.]

As I have discussed (here and here), my church is in the process of dismissal from the mothership, PCUSA. The last decisive step for our congregation was the church-wide vote, which we conducted two Sundays ago. The vote was overwhelming – 95% in favor of dismissal. There will be no property issues, thank the Lord; but more importantly, the church is unified and excited about the future.

I have been closely following the exodus of evangelicals from the mainline for the past decade. I thought it might be helpful to introduce the new movements (denominations) that have arisen. First, I would like to list the primary characteristics that mark this brand of evangelicalism, with which I identify:

  • Catholic. We are rooted in the ancient catholic faith. We confess the creeds, and we happily call our Roman Catholic and Orthodox neighbors fellow Christians in the church universal. This does not minimize the importance with which we uphold the Reformation solae, but it does distinguish ourselves from other evangelicals who are either anti-creedal or suspicious about whether, say, Roman Catholics can be labeled, “Christian.” A good illustration can be found among many PCA pastors who require Catholics to be rebaptized!
  • Protestant. We are confessional Protestants, upholding the importance and continuing vitality of the Reformation confessions and catechisms. This does not mean that every dot and tittle is equally binding, much less that they substitute for Scripture, or that we can neglect our responsibility to re-articulate the confessions anew to each generation. In discernment with Scripture — the norma normans (norming norm) – each ordaining body determines the fidelity by which the candidate for ministry is equipped in his or her knowledge of Christ and his lordship over every area of our lives. In this regard, I appreciate the wisdom of ECO in developing a clear delineation of what precisely are the essentials of Reformed theology.
  • Evangelical. The central features of what it means to be an evangelical are included under the “catholic” and “Protestant” headings. Yet, as the term has acquired new significations, especially following the Awakenings of the 18th century, we also identify with this particular manifestation of Protestantism. As such, “evangelical” signifies a focus on piety and personal conversion, but (at its best) does not neglect its confessional moorings, which would include a confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture. Naturally, there are vast swaths of evangelicalism which are “unhinged,” to say the least, and rather foreign to the riches of Protestant orthodoxy.

Sound good? Well, let me introduce you to some Protestant options near you!

North American Lutheran Church. The NALC broke from the mainline Lutheran body (ELCA) in 2010. In just over two years, the NALC has acquired nearly 350 congregations. Not just a regional movement, they have churches spread throughout the country. By contrast to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), the NALC is more “moderate” in its evangelicalism. For example, the LCMS debates evolution (against), whereas the NALC would consider this as largely a non-issue.

Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. The LCMC (oh, you gotta love all these acronyms!) originates from 2001, thus predating the NALC. It has a little over 800 congregations, almost entirely from the mainline ELCA. Like the NALC, they are “moderate” evangelicals. As far as I know, the only real difference between the NALC and the LCMC is the latter’s more congregationalist (free church) approach to polity. Hopefully there will be a merger at some point in the near future.

Anglican Church in North America. One of the most encouraging movements has been the unification of disparate Anglicans under the ACNA, organized in 2009. Most of the churches are disaffected former members of The Episcopal Church — notoriously nasty on property issues, by the way — but several churches derive from “continuing Anglican” movements of past decades. The total membership is over 1,000 congregations (including about 200 “ministry partners”).

Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The EPC predates ECO (below), splitting from the PCUSA in 1981. They predicted the current mess in the PCUSA, so they have the honor of saying, “Told you so!” They are moderate evangelical in comparison to the PCA or OPC — most obviously in their support for women’s ordination (as ruling elders, not typically as teaching elders). The greater affirmation of women’s ministry in ECO is one of the — relatively minor — differences between the EPC and ECO. I suspect a merger in the future.

ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. This is the newest secession movement from the PCUSA. Founded last year, they already have 54 90+ member churches, which is expected to double in the next year or so. As I have indicated here, these have included some significant departures, in terms of membership tally. Yes, numbers matter, which the PCUSA is now painfully admitting. In terms of polity, ECO is intentionally fostering a more “free church” mentality, hopefully increasing the awareness among members that we are all called to be evangelists.

Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. Okay, I am out of my element here — since Congregational churches are very scarce in Dixie. The CCCC (or “4 C’s”) broke from the soon-to-be United Church of Christ over concerns about liberalism. This was in 1948! Their concerns were vindicated, as the UCC is easily the most liberal of the mainline denominations — way ahead of the game on gay marriage. The CCCC has 275 churches, including the historic Park Street Church in Boston.

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Final thoughts

Catholicity is high on my priorities. By contrast to the mainline (assuming that it continues the course it has chosen for itself), the above denominations are significantly closer in affinity to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions, not to mention Protestant and evangelical communions of the global South. In their eager accommodation to late-modern, Western cultural values, the mainline churches continue to isolate themselves from the church catholic.

Also, as I have been noting, these are not fundamentalist churches. Instead, they represent a balanced and responsible form of evangelical Protestantism, which the church in America sorely needs.

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7 Responses to “The new confessional Protestants”

  1. Matt Frost said

    Or, “How to Keep Your Denominational Identity and Still Oppose Homosexuality Today by Joining a Splinter Group.” These are certainly not the only options for catholic, protestant, evangelical ecclesiology, nor does that seem to be their reason for existence in any case. If you want to claim those “marks,” I suggest you do so while acknowledging that these churches don’t own them in any way, and that you own up to the polemics behind the claims being made to “gnesio” confessionalism in each case, as attempts to deny those marks to the parent church bodies.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, this is about defining our terms and identity marks — all divisions in church history involve such disputes. My primary intent was not definition by way of negation but a positive affirmation of our identity. I am happy to say, there is massive overlap between the mainline and these splinter groups — especially on these marks. So, my concerns are more nuanced than a simple denial that, for example, the PCUSA is catholic or Protestant. Rather, the concern is that the unhealthy trends threaten the extent to which the PCUSA is catholic and Protestant, most obviously in terms of the apostolic authority of Scripture.

      And, have I not been completely straightforward in what my “polemics” are? I’ve addressed sexual morality on multiple occasions on this blog. But I don’t feel the need to address it at every turn. For these “splinter groups,” the gay marriage issue did not appear from an otherwise healthy theological milieu within our denominations. Indeed, the theological and exegetical trends are easy to identify (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology, and apocalyptic exegesis have been targets on this blog).

      There is also the abiding issue of how (liberal) historical criticism functions in theology and church discipline — we are all familiar with the laughing dismissals of “first century misogynist Paul.” When, in response, I appeal to Paul’s apostolic authority, I get blank stares.

  2. Joel said

    The American Anglican churches also include a small number of newer churches. My church (AMiA rather than ACNA, but there’s no real doctrinal difference) is about fifteen years old. We actually started out as Vineyard (this is before I was attending), and the leaders eventually decided it would be best for the church to join something more historically grounded instead.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I know AMiA was once a part of ACNA, at least as a ministry partner. Do you know why they disaffiliated?

      That’s encouraging to see a Vineyard church seek a heritage with more doctrinal and historical depth. Of course, there are a lot of solid Vineyard churches who remain Vineyard, and we could do well to learn from them.

      • Joel said

        I don’t really understand all the details, but it’s basically a combination of personal conflicts, administrative things, and differences in mission statements. It probably shouldn’t have happened.

      • Kevin Davis said

        That sounds about right — I have an Anglican friend in seminary who explained it to me…and I got completely lost! We can be hopeful that there will be greater mergers in the future (as with, I suspect, the NALC and LCMC on the Lutheran side and the EPC and ECO on the Presbyterian side). We happen to be in a time of great turmoil, suspicion, and anxiety in our denominations — the battle marks of decades-long struggles in the mainline. I’m not suggesting a perfect picture of sunshine and roses, but these minor differences will seem even more insignificant in the coming years, as our culture becomes both more ignorant and more hostile to our faith.

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