In Praise of Evangelical Ecclesiology
May 21, 2015
The discussion elicited by the Pew study continues unabated. I offered one response, “What Baptists do right,” which is not at all contingent on the Pew study. It is what I have thought since college, basically with no substantial variation since then.
A couple days ago, Leah Libresco wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight: “Evangelical Protestants Are The Biggest Winners When People Change Faiths,” based upon some code that she wrote for processing the data. Leah Libresco is perhaps known to some of you as an atheist-to-Catholic convert blogger at Patheos. Her article is very interesting and worth reading, looking at the data for both religious transfers and the demographics of child-rearing. As Mary Eberstadt has argued, the decline of the family is a reliable indicator of a soon decline in religion.
Rod Dreher follows-up with his own reflections and questions: “The Evangelical Advantage.”
Ecclesiology in Evangelical Perspective
I would like to offer a further response, as indicated by the title of this blog post. Evangelical ecclesiology? Is there such a thing? That is in fact the central question for an edited volume by John Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Baker Academic, 2003). As my faithful readers know, I have recently been looking hard at weaknesses in Protestant theology, especially ecclesiology. This is also nothing new, as I’ve been doing this off-and-on for several years now. But I am, hopefully, also capable of recognizing and commending the strengths of Protestantism and evangelicalism in particular. I am, after all, an evangelical.
The volume from Stackhouse has a variety of opinions, of mixed quality. Among those that I enjoyed the most is the chapter from Paul F. M. Zahl. For those of you who are evangelical Anglicans, Zahl needs no introduction. He has been a tireless defender of basic orthodoxy and evangelical clarity within The Episcopal Church for decades, though with few tangible results, as he would be the first to admit. His chapter is entitled, “Low-Church and Proud.” Oh yes, you know it’s gonna be good! Zahl begins:
As an evangelical and Protestant Episcopalian, I wonder about the attraction that high-church ecclesiologies have for many of my evangelical sisters and brothers on the free church side. [p. 213]
In fact, Zahl finds it “disturbing” when he witnesses evangelicals “fall for” the aesthetics and hierarchy of high-church bodies. “It seems like a reaction to something that was missing or kinked in childhood, a compensation to make up for an earlier loss.” And he continues, “I am just a little too skeptical of forms and (endlessly revised) prayer books and bishops and words such as unity and semper.” It is “form without substance, Schein without Sein” (ibid.).
Most intriguingly — for an Anglican no less! — Zahl even poses a contrast, an either/or, between Protestant and Catholic. He questions why his evangelical friends who are “compulsively attracted” to high-church form do not go all the way. “Pull a Cardinal Newman. Be consistent”:
For myself, both a systematic theologian by training and an Episcopal cathedral dean by day, I cannot be both. I cannot be Protestant and Catholic. I cannot be evangelical and ecclesiologically “high.” A house divided cannot stand. It has to fall. It always does. [p. 214]
He’s not holding back. You can tell that this is the voice of someone frustrated, with wisdom to share from battles hard fought. Agree or disagree, I like that. He commends Roger Olson’s essay in the same volume, where Olson subordinates ecclesiology to the gospel as a personally directed message of forgiveness and “new being in Christ.” As Zahl comments, “No one hears collectively. It just doesn’t happen. As a parish minister for thirty years, I have never met a person who actually hears collectively.” Naturally, in their “growing integration” of heart, mind, and will, Christians will “often come to appreciate social and political notes in the sound.” Rightly so. “But,” he continues, “given the pain and losses and crimes of the heart, people hear the Word as a word to them individually” (ibid.).
Evangelical Protestants should be proud of their low ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology is important, yes, It is certainly interesting. But it is not saving. If you think ecclesiology is saving, then become a Roman Catholic” (p. 215). This low ecclesiology is “consistent Protestantism,” quoting Olson. By contrast, now turning to the mainline, Zahl sees The Episcopal Church (and, I would add, most of mainline Protestantism) as trying to construct a “liberal catholicism” that “rarely satisfies, because it is a construct for people to have their cake and eat it too. Liberal views of authority and Scripture and cultural rapprochement do not finally cohere with a historic, catholic view of the church. …Bible-anchored evangelicals are bound to be disappointed. I can almost guarantee that” (p. 216).
Evangelicals Understand Community
Lastly, it is important to notice the comments to Rod Dreher’s post, “The Evangelical Advantage.” The comments are very mixed, as you would expect, but I was struck at the number of people who mentioned the friendliness of evangelicals — welcoming and inviting, literally. Evangelicals love to invite: neighbors to church, visitors to lunch, sinners to repentance. It’s what we do. Moreover, we actually foster community in our midst. I have been to a lot of Catholic masses, at several different parishes. It is striking that I have never been invited to lunch or to join a Bible study or to even come back! What planet are Catholics living on? Seriously, this is not hard stuff.
In closing, I will quote Dreher:
In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it.
If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
Evangelicals are routinely the butt of jokes, no less from other Christians. It is refreshing to see otherwise.