In Praise of Evangelical Ecclesiology

Evangelical Ecclesiology

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.



  1. I enjoyed this post. I’d like to look at that ecclesiology book, especially the Zahl piece. I’ve read several of his books and there is some great stuff in them. His is a distinctive, often refreshing, voice in TEC today. With all the buzz about Rachel Held Evans’ book, I think it’s salutary to remember one can still be Episcopalian and evangelical as well.

    • Thanks, Scott. I wonder, however, how long Zahl would validate the compatibility of Episcopal (in its mainline form of TEC) and evangelical.

      • My wife and I belong to TEC, though we spend far more time among Lutherans than Episcopalians, because my wife is a church musician serving in a Lutheran parish. I’ve become completely disillusioned with TEC, and my wife feels pretty much the same as I do. There are a couple of issues that keep us officially in TEC, and we both agree that until we both are ready to leave, we’ll both “stay”.

        But increasingly I’ve become “low church” in my understanding of things, and increasingly, due to the influence of this blog, I’ve become Barthian as well. Perhaps that’s presumptive on my part, since I’ve actually read little of Barth, not owning or being able to afford purchasing his Church Dogmatics. But what I have read of him crackles with the energy of freedom, evangelical freedom.

        God as Barth understands him is free, and he breathes the Spirit of freedom. No form or ritual can contain or confine him. If he is present in the Roman Catholic Mass, he is no less present in the Salvation Army worship service down the street, wherever two or three are gathered together in his name. By him, this whole world is made communion for those who trust in Jesus Christ, for those who his Spirit has filled; by him, this whole world is becomes filled with his presence.

      • But what I have read of him crackles with the energy of freedom, evangelical freedom.

        Great way to put it! I recommend getting Michael Allen’s introduction and reader of Barth’s CD — the selections are very well-chosen, with helpful and competent introductions by Allen. Or jump into the whole thing: CBD has the entire CD in hardback for $119 right now:

        CBD fluctuates the price: often $129 or $149, but sometimes as low as $99.

  2. When it comes to the world of Seinfeld (which is most 20th century east-coast white Americans), Zahl is the prophet par excellence. I’m surprised he wrote an article on ecclesiology, considering I’ve only heard him talk of it as adiaphora (like many a middling Anglican). The man is gold!

    I think what the Scripture provides (which evangelicals and catholics miss) is both a high sacramentality and a low (I prefer to call communal) ecclesiology. In otherwords, God ordains Forms that are blessed in value and power, but they are incredibly simple. There’s nothing sexy in prayer, bread, wine, and chatting about life (Acts 2).

    As Leithart put it when talking about Puritans, the fact that simple means, without ornamentation, are blessed is another reminder of the goodness of creation. Matter is not worthless flux awaiting a divine transfiguration through clerical rite. The Speech-Act of repeating Jesus’ words is enough to mark the token meal of the Lord’s Supper as being fed on the life and promise of God (His Body and Blood).

    I wonder if what’s really the temptation is a certain kind of sorcery. As Charles Taylor marks on the Reformation, Europe went from believe in the “white magic” of the Church to a complete disenchantment (or that all “magic” is bad”. Yet he makes it out that removing the Church from the magic business begins the downward spiral (which for him is not necessarily bad) to disenchanting the world.

    For me, I need the bread and wine to commune with my Lord, and feed my soul on His Body and Blood. The Sacrament is my nourishment to traverse a world filled with angels and demons. I don’t need to believe in white magic to be protected by the darkness of this world. God promises to be my shield.

    In fact, many believe in the wizardry of tech to merely warp the world to our desires. Instead, we have a faithful God who gives us means to approach Him, based in His Promise and Covenant. It’s not magic that drives out the demons, it’s prayer and fasting.

    I’m aware I’m a strange bird.

    2 cents per usual,

    • Yeah, prayer and fasting is not nearly as sexy as eliciting the services of a kickass Jesuit. Most of us would prefer the latter to fight our demons — anything but fasting!

      I just happen to be reading Philip Jenkins about the global South spread of charismatic congregations, mostly independent and indigenous to impoverished communities. He doesn’t discuss their view of the sacraments, but they have a lively sense of spiritual warfare — too lively for most Westerners. And this extends in fact to much of the older established churches (e.g., the thriving El Shaddai charismatic Catholics in the Philippines). I have three Presbyterian friends from Africa, now living here, and they are not much different in this regard. They are all “low church” and very far from having a desacralized, disenchanted, secular view of reality. They are also unanimous in the importance of fasting, and they are baffled by its neglect in the West among Christians.

    • Cal and Kevin, I am trying to discern the meaning that you associate with ‘low church.’ Were I to adopt Cal’s equivalent of ‘communal,’ then I would be finding African-American parishes with smells, bells, chant, hot gospel hymns, and everyone taking part to be ‘low church.’ And is it ‘low church’ to exorcise demons as many communities in Philip Jenkins’s book do?
      I am open to persuasion, of course, but this morning the most straightforward view of all this seems to be–

      (a) ‘Low church’ is, not a theological or phenomenological category, but a racial or ethnic one that bundles together the popular practices of C18-20 Protestants of British descent, especially in America where the Scottish ‘holy fair’ became the ‘revival.’ One can place theological interpretations on particular stylistic quirks and practices, but insofar as such theology is scriptural, it can be (and, down the centuries and around the world, has been) lived out in very different bundles. People who say that they are ‘low church’ are normally saying nothing more or less than that they are following the tradition of their ancestors. Much of which is excellent.

      (b) In C18 Anglicanism, ‘high church’ referred to the theological position of those whose Reformed theology and aristocratic connections made them “high and dry”– resistant to the emotional appeals of emergent populist evangelicalism. But today it is the somewhat xenophobic term that folk from a ‘taste culture’ that is ‘low church’ use for any broadly-received practices that are not those of their ancestors. For example, traditions of chant that began evolving in biblical times and have never ceased in most of Christendom are nevertheless ‘high church’ to the ‘low church’ because British settlers a few centuries ago preferred metrical singing to chant and hymns to psalms. Incense was used in scriptural worship, but to low church women wearing perfume to church, it is nevertheless ‘high church.’ Again, people who avoid even scriptural ‘high church’ practice are expressing solidarity with their ancestors, and distance from those with different ancestors, especially Roman Catholics.

      (c) Today, both plainsong and shape note singing have a favorable presence in popular culture. It seems that ‘low church’ and ‘high church’ have become social categories for folklorists, anthropologists, etc. Even in that usage, the Philip Jenkins book (and your insightful comments) shows why other phenomenological language is more helpful for missional ecclesiologists.

      (d) If what we really want to contrast are ‘clerical’ and ‘laical’ practices, we can use words like ‘clerical’ and ‘laical.’

      (e) The Harper & Metzger pairing of ‘strong church’ and ‘weak church’ groups practices with respect to theology believed today rather than with respect to ethnicity, but for just that reason, it cuts across categories of ‘high church’ and ‘low church.’

      (f) If we fully recognized the equality of the Holy Spirit in the economic Trinity, and the rule of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ, it might be harder to defend ornery individualism (but see Vladimir Lossky or Rowan Williams on the individuation of the human hypostasis), but it would surely be much easier to integrate magisterial and charismatic images of the Church that have been pitted against each other in the West for many centuries.

      (g) Were we to take that pneumatological step, then we would be finally building on the evangelical heritage an ecclesiology worthy of praise.

      • I’m not sure I’m fitting in your categorizations, but that’s why I hate using ‘low Church’ as a descriptive. If I was doing it by Anglo or ethnic categories, I admit I would only be a sophisticated racist.

        I’m asking: are the forms of the New Testament sufficient? Do we need more than the gathering of the brethren around prayer, fellowship, the sacrament, and opening the Scripture? What else do we need?

        That’s why Anglicanism is interesting to me. Low-Anglicans still have a strong form of liturgy, but not given to vestments, smells, bells, and a strong clerical presence. And so-called ‘low churches’ can actually be very ‘high’. Hence Milton’s quip that ‘Presbyterian is Priest writ large’. So for me, what I name as High Church is one that has dabbled in judaizing or paganizing the Church. So maybe ‘High’ Church is too benign and confusing.

        I call it communal because there is no ‘laity’, but I do believe in eldership and leadership in a Church. But ordained leader does not signal an ontological shift in a person. It’s why I couldn’t go to Rome or Constantinople (officially, even though I know parishes exist that are, in reality, communal).

        I guess it’s less ‘low’ vs. ‘high’, instead of ‘communal’ vs. ‘clerical’. I’m not anti-liturgy, anti-creativity, anti-leadership. But how do we do that without creating a class. Paul was an apostle, John was an elder, Stephen was a deacon. But they were not what we imagine when we say the term (whether we’re Roman Catholic or Baptist).

        More thoughts to come.


  3. Great polemical comments, Cal, on “magic” and “ornamentation” in High Church ecclesiology.

    Last century (!) I once wrote a paper for a (BEM) “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” Working Group here in Wales on a Reformed understanding of ministry, which included a critique of the Catholic understanding of priesthood* — ordo, character indelebilis, (sacramental) potestas, and all the rest of it. Ultimately I referred to the Catholic obsession with “mystique”. I now wish I had used your word “sexy”!

    *Interestingly — and importantly — the English word “priest” derives not from sacerdos but from presbyter.

  4. Kevin, the timing of these remarks couldn’t be more perfect. As an evangelical who routinely anymore struggles with how to resource our heritage I too regularly feel embarrassment over low church praxis and envy higher forms. Zahl was a helpful reminder that the gospel and its benefits aren’t intrinsically tied to a particular ecclesiastical delivery system and, to borrow from Cal’s comment, is anchored in the faithful enactment of certain Scriptural speech-acts and that evangelical identity isn’t such a shameful thing after all. Praise God for this comfortable word you shared!

  5. “Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained; and whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven. And be thou a faithful dispenser of the holy word and sacraments. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

    — The Ordinal, The Book of Common Prayer, 1662.

  6. It is common among so-called “post-evangelicals” to claim that the gospel is not primarily directed at individuals, but at the community, and that evangelicalism falsely overemphasizes the personal nature of faith and the importance of personal decision. I’ve come to the place where I couldn’t disagree with this more. The gospel calls individuals into repentance and conversion, and the community is made up of those individuals who have repented and believed. This is perhaps one of the reasons why evangelical/Pentecostal form of Christianity are the ones prevailing and thriving in Two Thirds World setting, among the poor and marginalized: it emphasizes the value of the most ordinary believer in God’s kingdom, where priests are made by the Spirit of God, and all are priests. To borrow and adapt an idea from John Dominic Crossan in a way that I’m sure he would not appreciate, in evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity at its best, there is no need for a class of people who stand between God and the rest of his people as brokers of the Kingdom.

  7. “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.”


    “…given the pain and losses and crimes of the heart, people hear the Word as a word to them individually.”

    And Amen!

  8. Maybe the weakness of Protestant ecclesiology is salutary in some way that we cannot discern, and is God’s will for us; perhaps this is weakness and foolishness to the world, but strength and wisdom to God.

    • among the poor and marginalized: it emphasizes the value of the most ordinary believer in God’s kingdom, where priests are made by the Spirit of God, and all are priests.

      Yes, that’s exactly right. Philip Jenkins (a widely-acknowledged leading expert on global Christianity) does not put it precisely in those words, but he basically says the same thing in his book, The Next Christendom. And only in those places where the Catholic Church has responded with the same insights and methods as the evangelicals/charismatics has it been successful at preventing a large exodus. Jenkins compares Chile (and Brazil), where the RCC blissfully ignored the evangelicals and doubled down, in contrast to the Philippines, where there has been a successful movement of charismatic Catholics. As a result, the Philippines has seen only a relatively small decline in Catholic adherents, unlike its fellow Spanish Catholic countries in Latin America. The Catholics in the Philippines are also far more observant and engaged in their Catholic faith, much like in Africa (as is true for African Protestants).

      Maybe the weakness of Protestant ecclesiology is salutary in some way that we cannot discern, and is God’s will for us; perhaps this is weakness and foolishness to the world, but strength and wisdom to God.

      Yes, well stated. Over time, I can see Rome becoming more and more evangelical, and maybe evangelicals recognizing Rome’s strengths more and more.

  9. It’s infuriating that the word evangelical is hijacked, all too often, for political reasons. Cut baggage, cut the hostile narcissistic subcultural crap attached to it. I like Stackhouse. Here’s hoping that this is more than just a false dawn in an attempt to win back the term.

  10. “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.).”

    But none of this is ecclesiology.

    The Anglican evangelicals I know discuss ecclesiology. They do this, not because they are “‘falling’ for aesthetics and hierarchy,” but because as bishops or senior clergy they are responsible for real world initiatives with an ecclesiological dimension and human consequences– re-evangelization amid dying sister parishes (or whole denominations), ‘fresh expressions’ of the local church for millennials, motivating Christians in North America and Europe to care about brothers and sisters being driven from the Middle East, missional collaboration with other denominations,* distinguishing a missional church from a Christian NGO, pondering the relationship of a national church to a secular society or a Communist state, interceding with international organizations, facilitating theological dialogue in forums open to those in developing nations, guiding the North-South rebalancing of the global communions, etc. Anglican evangelicals– at least the ones I know– believe, not so much in bishops, as in a life of the Body of Christ in the dioceses, provinces, and communions that bishops serve.

    The main difficulty with ‘weak church’** ecclesiology is its myopia. Because it assumes no serious responsibility for anything but congregations, it sees ‘ecclesiology’ ex hypothesi only in the fluff of ritual and rank. Decisions about the life and suffering of the Body in the wider world are externalized to parachurch groups that disavow hard ecclesiological thought, because they have disavowed ecclesiality itself. By these twin evasions, the weak churches accept little responsibility beyond their green lawns, daring little and accomplishing less. However nothing in evangelicalism itself inhibits evangelicals from adopting a more responsible ‘strong church’ ecclesiology. We are all unprofitable servants, of course, but most evangelicals would not shirk their work, if only they could see it.


    * Anglicans and Roman Catholics can collaborate in an initiative against global human trafficking is possible because both communions are as global as the sin. They are global because neither sets limits on the organic growth of the Body of Christ.

    ** I take ‘weak church’ and ‘strong church’ from Harper & Metzger, 2009, Exploring Ecclesiology: An evangelical and ecumenical introduction.

    • This is certainly an aspect I appreciate about the Anglican Communion (especially the Evangelical wing, which is mostly African anymore).

      But the question is what kind of catholicity? What bind the Church together? When we see the “bishops” assemble for Jerusalem (in Acts), there was no denominational machinery in place. We have to ask whether our catholicity is rooted in the Holy Spirit, or forms we’ve innovated (even if we innovated them along time ago).

      This isn’t to condemn anyone, not even Rome. But it’s the pervading question of unity and authority and where its roots are. I like what you say about the evangelical Anglicans concerned not so much with bishops, but with the faithful maintenance of the Body of Christ worldwide.

      In theory, it’s for this reason why I appreciate Rome & Canterbury. There’s a broad latitutde in being one Body (and not being hyper-sectarian as others). But then a question is: What is the Unity based in?

      Anglicanism has bad beginnings, and I think this is a root of a lot of the confusion. The Tudors do not define Canterbury, but they’ve left a serious stain. Where does the Anglican body find unity, except in a vague past of England? The Common Book of Prayers? The liturgy is a vast of “low” and “high”. The 39 Articles? Too Reformed for the Roman and Arminian minded.

      I’m not a confessionalist, but where is the root of the catholic vision? The TEC is an abomination, and many a African or Sydney Anglican wouldn’t have a place there. I guess that’s why ACNA etc. , but that doesn’t reveal catholic vision.

      Unity never should come at the expense of the truth, and I appreciate a plurality of choir like voices (per Kevin’s comment in another thread).

      I’d appreciate more of your thoughts Bowman.


      • Cal, my reply to your superb comment above may obliquely answer your questions down here. A few bridging comments that you’ll know how to apply.

        The idea that the Anglican via media runs between Rome and Geneva is a C19 misappropriation, harmful mainly in that it threatens to reduce evangelical Anglicanism to the peculiar English reception of Calvinism. That reduction is what TEC liberals of the past fought so hard to marginalize, with what results we know. The classical Anglican theological identity mediated between Luther and Calvin on the basis of Scripture and the fathers. There has never been a problem with comprehending both the Lutheran ontology of the Word (eg ministry, power of the keys, gospel sacraments) and the Calvinist aspiration to open a more horizontal ecclesial and civic space (eg selective appropriation of Zwingli, a lay role in governance). As evangelicals assume more influence in England and in the Communion, that center seems to be holding.

        After Barth, rooting all this in a continuing appropriation of eg SS Irenaeus and Athanasius, no longer seems so odd to other Protestants or so still-born to Catholics and the Orthodox. The contemporary Anglican Communion is multipolar– Canterbury presides, but Nairobi, Cape Town, Sydney, and Melbourne have robust voices–having given more power to its global south than any other church, including Rome. That Benedict asked both Rowan Williams and Tom Wright to give ‘interventions’ on scripture to the Roman synod of bishops reflects the truth that Jaroslav Pelikan recognized: we face our problems together.

        But Anglicans– like all Protestants, indeed all Christians– do have a serious synod problem. Grand assemblies that model Geneva’s laical dimension of church order on the British Parliament are failing in every tradition. Rome is experimenting with synods, but may be meeting some similar challenges. Much of TEC is quite solid– according to my friends in the ACNA, no less– but General Convention has become something that has no counterpart in the rest of the Communion. Conversely, because the ten American provinces lack the clear regional identities of Canterbury and York, the GC bulks too large in the scheme of things. Most of this malaise reflects a C18 American constitution, rather than global Anglican practice, but there is still an ecclesiological task for Anglicans, as for everyone else in the West and the East, to reconceive the representation of laicity within a global church order in our time.

    • By and large, Zahl’s piece is a polemic, in the best sense of that word. It’s a very short chapter, because it is included in the “responses” section of the book — where church leaders were asked to write responses to the prior essays. Olson’s piece resonated with Zahl, so he went with it, using it as a catalyst to express his frustrations with the mainline in general and TEC in particular.

      All that is to say, yes, he is not doing much by way of formal ecclesiology, except some valuable points on the gospel’s address to the individual. Your points about “weak church” limitations — myopia, etc. — are worth pondering. Some of your examples leave me questioning: e.g., the C of E negotiating the place of a national church in a secular society? It seems like that debate is over. There is no place for said church in said society, and they’re just slowly slacking off the last vestiges of the past. If it weren’t for Canterbury’s sense of responsibility to the rest of the Communion, the C of E would be where the C of S is now (especially with the recent vote), which is only about two or three years behind the PCUSA and TEC.

      In response to your other question above, about defining “low” and “high”: I really do not see how it can be simply attributed to ethnic/racial distinctions. Like most people, I use “high church” to indicate Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, many Lutherans, and many Anglicans. I use “low church” to indicate Baptist, Ev. Free, Holiness, Pentecostal, many Reformed, and nondenominational. The “in-between” are the Methodists and the Presbyterians, depending on the denomination and congregation (e.g., the PCA is decidedly more low church than the PCUSA). And, yes, some Anglican or Lutheran churches are barely distinguishable from the average nondenom evangelical church in town, while other Anglican and Lutheran churches are barely distinguishable from the mass at the Catholic cathedral in town.

      “Low” or “High” is a complex of polity, sacramental views, homiletics, aesthetics, spiritual practices, all of which makes a simple definition impossible. But, we can think of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as the highest of the high, and gauge everybody else accordingly on a sliding scale toward “low.” Thus, the independent, congregationalist traditions (“free church” and Baptist and the later Holiness/charismatic movement) are at the sharpest contrast to Rome.

      It’s not hard to complicate this with a hundred historical variations, but we invent and use terms like “low church” and “high church” in order to get some measure of control over such a complex scenario, especially as we find ourselves in as 21st century Christians with a bewildering array of churches. Likewise, it is routine for people to say that “evangelical” is a useless term, because it is so hard to define and easily challenged — and, yet, we still use it, because we have not been able to find a more useful alternative designation or taxonomy. And, likewise, “evangelical” has a different set of connotations in the 20th/21st century than it did in the 18/19th and than it did in the 16/17th, where it was synonymous with Protestant and a favored self-designation by Lutherans.

      • Merry Pentecost, Kevin!

        Paul Zahl needs no defense from me. But he hangs with the jonahs of our communion, and I with the jeremiahs. When hearing about wars and rumors of wars in Anglicanism, it is wise to keep that distinction in view.

        With respect to gospel-communication to individuals, he seems to have been more right in what he affirmed than in what he denied. This is not unusual in very personal writing.

        The Harper & Metzger 2009 distinction between visions of the Church as ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ is more valuable than my examples. Most importantly, it can be profitably related to contemporary readings of scripture that stress union with Christ, the new creation, etc. As the years pass, evangelicals who like ‘low’ style will take stock of what Christians in their societies need and adapt that style to a ‘strong’ vision of church.

        The ecclesiology of Michael Bird’s recent Evangelical Theology (2014) is a sensitive and sophisticated step in that direction. Having travelled through Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican configurations of Reformed evangelicalism, Bird works with, rather than against, the ethos that Cal rightly describes as “communal.”

        “…pondering the relationship of a national church to a secular society or a Communist state…”

        “The C of E negotiating the place of a national church in a secular society?”

        ‘National church’ is the set of which ‘state church’ is a subset. In that connection, I was thinking mainly of China, not England. The Church of England is a state church that is more influential among the upper and upper-middle classes than among the middle and lower classes. If it chooses to disestablish, it will remain a national church.

        “If it weren’t for Canterbury’s sense of responsibility to the rest of the Communion, the C of E would be where the C of S is now (especially with the recent vote), which is only about two or three years behind the PCUSA and TEC.”

        That Topic is a funhouse mirror; one cannot see churches clearly in it. If I were to try, I would look– first at the breadth and depth of scriptural teaching on virtue and vice with respect to the orders of creation; second at the pastoral application of this teaching to the sexuality and life cycle of the 94%; and third at the derived pattern of community and care for all unmarried persons– never married, separated, widowed, etc. If all three of these were clear in principle and sound on the ground, then a church’s working practice on the 6% could turn out to be indicative of something important to know. But if not all of the three are clear and sound, then the church is floating in entropy no matter what it says about the 6%. What matters is what churches actually do in their pastoral context, not what deracinated synods say to everybody and nobody, and what churches do cannot be discovered in any other way than by inspection, even ethnographic investigation. There are people devoting careers to doing this sort of thing, and even they do not quite have the hang of it yet. Hence my concern that many of us know more about the churches we discuss than is actually true.

        The etymological origins of ‘low’ and ‘high’ are clear, and we seem to agree on what those who use them think that they are saying when they do. But when we look at the whole phenomenological field, I think we see that this usage is as reductive to an ethnocenter and its hazy ‘other’ as the contemporary Orthodox pairing of ‘patristic’ (eg Orthodox) and ‘Latin’ (eg Quaker, Roman Catholic, Hutterite) to which Cal sometimes objects, or the Amish Mennonite pairing of ‘Deutsch’ for themselves and ‘English’ for any visitor (say, an Argentine Catholic). Each ethnocenter is something real that can be exhaustively described, historically chronicled, and usefully named; each ‘other’ is meaninglessly diverse* and misleadingly oppositional.**

        ” ‘Low’ or ‘High’ is a complex of polity, sacramental views, homiletics, aesthetics, spiritual practices, all of which makes a simple definition impossible.”

        Or algebraic, which is, in a way, my point. Plotting all churches in the n-space of orthogonal scales would yield a small, compact cloud for ‘low’ and a large, diffuse cloud for ‘high.’ Which is simply the graphic representation of the fact that the ‘low’ churches are all historically related, while the ‘high’ churches are nearly everything else. The same thing would happen if you plotted the genetic traits of members of a family against the same traits of all their neighbors. So what besides shared descent from British dissenters does ‘low’ add to ‘polity,’ ‘sacramental views,’ ‘homiletics,’ etc? Conversely, dumping ‘high’ enables all sorts of fruitful, unexpected comparisons along each scale.** In their light, our reflection on evangelical ecclesiology can become more instructive.


        * For example, saying that Rome and Constantinople are both ‘high,’ flattens differences in, say, sacramental theology that are greater than the low/high distinction itself.

        ** For example, the anti-hierarchical ethos of Holiness congregationalism also flourishes in Eastern monasticism.

      • Bowman, I’m right about at the point that we ought to toss the low/high distinction, and for outsiders qualify new terms in relation to/or analogous of the prior. You’ve convinced me that we ought to drop those terms completely.

        I mean look at me. I would be content if a community met at a park or in a barn. But heaven forbid we treat the bread as anything other than the Body of the Lord or the wine as anything but the Blood. In such, the Spirit breaks in and carries us to partake of the Life (here I’m with Calvin, but his pneumatilogical focus actually makes the sacrament more potent and consistent unlike Lutheranism or Rome with their poor pneumatology).

        I’d sing Christ Tomlin, acapella, gospel choir, chanting or hymns as long as we sing as a body. I’d want to hear the word preached, whether it was a mere (though authoritative) reading of something and a discussion, or a homily.

        Low or High have no place. Instead, it’s about communal. And both “high” and “low” churches fail this reality. Why? Because it’s about the people, it’s about actual prayer for actual people. The problem isn’t prescribed prayers or extemporaneous ones. It’s about if you know the people or not. Sadly, the deepest wound in Christian communities is that there is hardly any community.

        I used to be at a Southern Baptist (though eventually I stopped being a baptist) cogregation. I was ok there for awhile. But I developed stomach problems due to stress. Strangely enough, I could only enjoy meals when I was buzzed (which reduced stress) or when I had good company. Having gone to lunch with some folks, I realized that we had glorified ‘how’s the weather’ talk! I was appalled.

        I take the description in Acts 2 (which lists prayer, the word, the sacrament (‘breaking bread’), and fellowship) as proscriptive. If there’s no genuine fellowship, which means you actually are friends, then the Church becomes hollowed out. It becomes club-like, a mystery-religion, or an advocacy society. I found that all my friends were outside of my congregation (and I’m talking real friends, not people I know nothing about).

        That’s my real beef. In the context of ordained leadership, can a people form around the Messiah and actually be friends? That’s the only way real accountability takes place. It’s the only way real ethical standards are able to be enforced. It’s the only way we can understand the Scripture in an age where we are alienated, isolated, and alone.

        Denominationally, I see mass failure, because such a litmus test is seen as purely subjective or irrelevant. But that’s why I’m apart of a Presbyterian community (PCA no less!). Yes, I need a solid gospel and a sacramentality. But more importantly, it’s because we’re actually a community. I wouldn’t go looking for another PCA if I left, but I would hunt out a place where the Church was truly present. Again, around Christ and the mission He has set before us, but no less because we are joined together, deeply and truly.

        Stepping off my soap box,

      • Thank you, Cal, for comments that carry us forward toward the consciously evangelical ecclesiology that I think Kevin’s post advocates. Leaving behind the reductive rivalry of ‘high’ verticality v ‘low’ horizontality, you’ve characterized evangelical communities positively as fostering wariness of principalities and powers, participation in the Body, and interpersonal recognition in Christ. In the last of these, I think you came close to what Paul Zahl was trying to say: the self is not fully addressed with a gospel word until it is first recogized in Christ, both as the one condemned to die, and as the one raised from the dead.

        What should we add to your list? A certain Wesleyan ideal for extemporaneous prayer and preaching? A congregational witness that the Spirit’s rule shapes the local church from the inside out? An openness to itinerant ministry?

        And how should the loci behind these characteristics be manifest on wider scales, even the global one? Is it possible that, without denying a primary responsibility for the patches of earth on which we find ourselves (eg dioceses, presbyteries, etc), evangelical ecclesiology might posit affinity groups of congregations etc that cut across the territorial hierarchies (eg the Apostolic ? Do evangelicals have a way of discerning the validity of those who would bring them ministries from afar? Most simply, what should global evangelicals make of the Apostolic Canons?

        Again, my thanks to Kevin, for his resourcefulness and sense of topicality, and to you Cal for sharing your experience of church with such generosity.

      • Thanks, Bowman, for this thoughtful response. That’s helpful to know your distinction between national and state churches. Glad to see your commendation of Bird’s ST. I’ve been wondering if it is worth reading. I like what I’ve read from his blog and his consistent unpretentiousness!

        Your threefold pastoral diagnosis of the 94/6% is very wise, and I will remember it in the future. Do you think that Rome has a better, let’s say, “track record” in this regard? What I mean is that Rome diagnosed and opposed the redefinition of marriage, family, sexuality, and gender — decades ago, in what conservative Catholic intellectuals have called “prophetic” utterances from Paul VI and JP2 (which, by the way, are identical to many of Francis’ pronouncements). Of course, there is the yawning gap between the Vatican and the average Catholic, especially in the global North. And, the sex abuse scandal has completely depleted any moral authority that the Catholic bishops may have once possessed, especially in countries like Ireland.

        So what besides shared descent from British dissenters does ‘low’ add to ‘polity,’ ‘sacramental views,’ ‘homiletics,’ etc?

        But I would include the continental dissenters as “low”: the Anabaptist-Mennonite-Amish groupings and the later Pietists (in varying degrees) and the later 19th century free churches, like those from Sweden and Norway that formed the Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). Ethnographically, of course, these have heavily derived from the disenfranchised or perhaps the merchant class, namely anyone with an interest in opposing the elites at the time. So, yes, I am willing to concede that it is an ethnographic phenomenon. I just do not want to minimize the theological basis, as found in the theologians and apologists for their respective positions — like when B. B. Warfield compares the “sacerdotal” system of Rome, where “sacerdotal” summarizes everything that is wrong with Rome, with the noble, God-honoring “covenantal” system of the Reformed. Or when the independent Baptist says “no creed but the Bible” (a nonsensical credal statement, of course!) as a way to distinguish themselves from Rome and the magisterial Protestants. As such, we are dealing with churches who are defining themselves in ways that the “low” versus “high” paradigm is trying to categorize.

        Also, the low/high categories are a means to facilitate a meaningful conversation. I have a lot of theology discussions with friends from church, who are not trained in theology or church history. They are far from being able to follow the discussion in this thread. But when I can offer a simple characterization of low and high churches, it allows them to make some sense of the differences. Beyond that point, I can tell them about Eastern monastics or any of the hundred other variations that upset the categories.

      • Kevin, I’m like those church friends you mention with whom you have conversations using the high church./low church distinction: untrained in theology and church history, I can not follow much of the discussion on this thread. Distinguishing low and high church in conversation may not provide a true north and south, but it gives me a rough idea of what direction we’re talking in.

      • it gives me a rough idea of what direction we’re talking in.

        Yes, Robert, exactly. I could have also mentioned, as another example, the adult Sunday school class at Westminster. I taught a 12-week course on church history. It was rather easy-going for the first few weeks, covering the early and medieval period. But when I got to the Reformation and thereafter, I had to introduce “high” and “low” ecclesiologies. They found it helpful and stimulating, according to the feedback I received.

      • Thanks Kevin for kind words.

        Bird’s ST is teacherly– firmly oriented to “gospel people” who like covered dish suppers and admire church plants; not ashamed to be a textbook (there are sidebars and jokes); nudges its intended readers to see the Holy Spirit at work in scripture and the sacraments; treats eschatology in an evangelical way; exegetically interesting in places, etc. Not a system to read for new constructive theology, but helpful in imagining what a C21 Reformed theology for beginners might look like. I gave it a strong review.

        “Rome… prophetic utterances… yawning gap…” Rome stuck to a procreative center for sexuality when others moved on to more problematic approaches– good– but Rome also trivialized it into a rule about birth control– bad. We all need a ‘now and not yet’ moral theology of the seasons of life. I find myself rethinking the procreative center in conversation with Paul’s Judaism.

        Anabaptists, my other people. Aniconic, like the low, but also Johnannine ecclesial realists, utterly unlike the low. Few who are really drawn to Hodge’s covenant/sacerdotal construct seem to have the stomach for the Anabaptist ethos– participationist soteriology, disvalue of individualism, moderate collectivism, congregational systems of discipline, and withdrawal from the ‘world’ of civil society. Fairly or not, Anabaptists protest that they are aniconic for the sake of clarity that the Church is those who in fact stand with Christ against the world, while the merely low are aniconic to remove the Church as an obstacle to standing with the world in unrepentant, individualistic pride.

        “…minimize… Hodge… Baptists…” I did not follow your point there.

      • Few who are really drawn to Hodge’s covenant/sacerdotal construct seem to have the stomach for the Anabaptist ethos– participationist soteriology, disvalue of individualism, moderate collectivism, congregational systems of discipline, and withdrawal from the ‘world’ of civil society.

        No, definitely not. But with “the times a changin,” I am interested to see whether we will see a shift among evangelicals to these distinctives of the Anabaptist ethos, or at least a newfound openness. Two nights ago, I had a nice, long smoke (pipe tobacco) with my best friend from high school and college. He’s a committed life-long PCA guy, firmly rooted in Old Princeton. He is also the smartest guy I know, outside of the academy. Ten years ago, when we were undergraduates, he was a fairly typical “religious right” cultural enthusiast. But now, he expresses how drastically his commitments to “American Christendom” have changed, not as far as Hauerwas would like but severely chastened nonetheless. Obviously, this has much to do with the cultural changes over this time span, as he admits, but that is what it will take for most Christians to rethink their theology.

      • “…untrained in theology and church history, I can not follow much of the discussion on this thread.”

        Sorry, Robert. Kevin’s OP was rich enough to support more than one conversation. A different thread cataloging the virtues of churchmanship self-described as low and relating them to the Pew findings would have been just as worthwhile as this one. It would also have been open to broader participation. None of us would have been sad to see it.

        But Cal and I seem to have read the OP’s evaluative thoughts as an invitation to discuss churchmanship, not as we see it on the ground, but as we ought best to understand it. Such critical ecclesiology is not better than descriptive ecclesiology; it just comes to mind when your investment in the topic is solving problems in a future-oriented way.

        Some of my own comments make most sense against the background of history that is unfamiliar and potentially provocative to most evangelicals. These comments are, in their way, directed to the evangelical future. Although history never exactly repeats itself, we often first understand a present situation by analogy with pasts that we see more clearly than either the present or the future. There is a robust case that our present situation as evangelicals in America is more analogous to the unfamiliar C8 Iconoclasm in the East than to the familiar C16 Reformation in the West. Insofar as that is true, some new categories are needed, and discussion of their suitability cannot be very concrete. Eventually, everything will be clear on the ground itself.

      • Bowman, I love listening to you guys talk even when I don’t know what you’re saying. Lol!

  11. At St Vladimir’s, Alexander Schmemann used to tell his students a story about being seated at the World Council of Churches as an Orthodox delegate.

    “We’ve reserved a seat for you here, alongside the delegates for the Church of Sweden and the Church of England, which, as you may know, have preserved the apostolic succession down to the present day as the Orthodox have. In fact…” his unctuous host prattled on. Unwilling to be coopted into a Protestant feud about polity, Schmemann was displeased.

    “I’m going to sit over there by the Quakers, who have preserved the belief that the Holy Spirit rules the Church in the whole community as the Orthodox have.”

      • Robert, I’ve interpreted the story to mean that Schmemann chose the Quakers because they were altogether non-clerical, the better to reject Western clericalism. Some say that the WCC had no Pentecostal participants when this happened. But they are all clergy…

    • Ha, that’s a great anecdote. Of course, the Orthodox have a hard time admitting that the West, whether Roman or Protestant, can do anything right — so why not side with the most dissenting of all the dissenters.

  12. “But when I got to the Reformation and thereafter, I had to introduce ‘high’ and ‘low’ ecclesiologies.”

    Yes. That’s history.

    “We are dealing with churches who are defining themselves in ways that the ‘low’ versus ‘high’ paradigm is trying to categorize.”

    And yes. That’s what they claim about themselves.

    An aniconic, oppositional sensibility disrupted northwest Europe, and a new, differently iconic sensibility from the southwest was the response. Historically, knowing that story partially explains why even small Southern towns have different kinds of Protestant churches, and why none of them is in communion with the Catholic church down the street. And inquiring minds want to know about that. But then, the old Moravian church in town remembers those who died in the Battle of White Mountain for communion in both kinds, and the newer Orthodox church is crammed full of icons reflecting a C8 moment in which iconodule insurgents overcame an aniconic elite, minutes before the rise of Islam. Inquiring minds deserve to know that too.

    Even ecclesiologically, it is important to explore the relation between (an)iconicism and whatever oppositional movements pop up. Battles about deep things nearly always involve representation on some level, and some claims are more true than others. But the Body of Christ is many other things besides an oppositional movement, and strategies we now judge to have been well-adapted to messes in the C8 and the C16 do other things in other settings.

    • Inquiring minds deserve to know that too.

      True, and they can discover more as they pursue more. I have nothing against your myriad of historical examples and obvious extensive knowledge thereof. But, I would lose my class if I did not do my best to give them as many helpful categories to make distinctions that are easily accessible and memorable.

      • So long as our classes are not maladaptively concluding that history is a movie of the C16 that repeats itself over and over again, and that their lives as Christians are mainly about finding ways not to be under the thumb of the pope’s indulgence-peddlers, it is hard to see the harm in explaining the origins of churches they see on the street, including their own. But insofar as genealogy becomes monument, history becomes identity. We all face the task in all of our classes of explaining origins with the critical distance that enables and does not foreclose their discernment of wise and faithful futures. In class settings, I rely less on history than on scripture to foster that needed critical distance.

    • “…while the merely low are aniconic to remove the Church as an obstacle to standing with the world in unrepentant, individualistic pride.”

      Haha, this is very astute. It would certainly explain the phenomenon of Jerry Falwell in a very succinct way!

      In a grand scale, not the mere historical, the question is not whether to be an iconodule or an iconoclast, but what are ‘real’ icons?

      I remember when I use to look at the iconoclasts of the 8th century as defenders of the faith. Then I read the history, and realized they were nothing of the sort. It was Leo’s attempt to make the Emperor the true icon, and destroy all saints (most notably Mary, the theotokos) who would provide different poles of principled resistance. This was the doom of the Issaurians.

      In truth, we all have icons we love and icons we destroy, the question is which?

      This is where my sympathies lay with the West who took ‘art’ as aniconic and, perhaps, adiaphora. My reasoning is that Scripture never commits to us the work of constructing media to convey the grace of God, to do so is to deny the sufficiency of the sacraments (materialized promises) and the sufficiency of Scripture.

      I can appreciate chastened art (depictions using the imagery that the Bible gives us), but never to the level of icon. But I digress.

      Let me tell you a story:

      The Paulicians were an Armenian group deemed heretical from Byzantium. As custom in those days to sloppily lump people into pre-established categories (perhaps this is our milieu as well), the Paulicians were deemed Arians.

      This belief was so prevalent that a key document (the Key of Truth) was translated to insert ‘created’ into many places. My main concern is that as I read this work, for a Byzantine history class no less, it became clear that they were not anti-Nicaeans. A lot of their rage was directed against the cult of the saints. They were heavy with the Humanity of Jesus and His mediatorial role as High Priest.

      Maybe they weren’t Arians, maybe they were resisting the creation of other media to God. Maybe Jesus has been drained of His Humanity in the praise of His divinity. The fact that He had become, functionally, unapproachable is symptomatic of this(as much as I love the Pantocrator, I believe this is representative of the disease). The Paulicians were iconoclasts, only to uplift the true Icon Jesus Christ, as the medium to God’s Ear.

      So again, what is our authority? I lean towards biblicism and so to the above questions about determining the authorities cut across the globe, and their credentials. Does not the Apostles give us proscriptives?

      Are we not to judge Fellowship by the bodies the Apostles gathered (i.e. the Acts 2 drum i keep banging)?

      Are we not to assess ecclesial office by the creteria Paul offers to Timothy over bishops/elders (or perhaps these are two categories, I’m not sure), deacons, and deaconesses?

      We ought to judge Icons by what the Scripture gives us. If the King wanted us to paint media, or create shrines for the martyrs, there would’ve been plenty of room for the Apostles to address such. Perhaps all invented means are attempts to find surety.

      And as a quick last aside, there are differences between early ‘bishops’ like Polycarp and the metropolitan bishoprics of the 5th century. There are differences between honoring the martyrs and imbuing them with the power to mediate prayers. How prone is man to make his own way, building upon benign practices! How quick are we to question the sure promises of God and repeat the Snake: “Did God really say…?”


      • “I remember when I used to look at the iconoclasts of the 8th century as defenders of the faith. Then I read the history, and realized they were nothing of the sort. It was Leo’s attempt to make the Emperor the true icon, and destroy all saints (most notably Mary, the theotokos) who would provide different poles of principled resistance. This was the doom of the Isaurians.”

        Acceptance of the icons of holy (wo)men cherished by their disciples was recognition of a mode of authority from God that is different in principle from, and beyond the control of, either emperor or patriarch. Although the gradual concentration of certain powers in the patriarch of Constantinople was in some ways the prototype for the papacy in Rome, the ‘triumph of orthodoxy’ over the iconoclasts in Byzantium set the East on a path away from the West’s centralized and juridical understanding of church authority. Quasi-parliamentary synods counting votes on reports are not as spirited as the complex interplay of hierarchs, monastics, and the laity. In some ways, evangelicalism is an attempt to open here with the language of writings inspired by God the space that the iconodules opened there with images of persons granted exceptional holiness by God.

      • That’s a wonderful addition. I can really appreciate that Spirited “messiness” where there is no mere hierarchy or clericalism in the sort Rome has.

        Alastair Roberts, over at conversational blog on gender (‘pass the salt shaker’), made a point between priestly and prophetic ministrations. The Former represent established authority, and the Latter come to reinvigorate the Former. He would point to Methodism (before it became its own denomination) as a Prophet movement to reform the increasingly wooden and arcane CoE.

        But this should probably deserve its very own thread!


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