The Reformed Alternative
During my time in college I was actively involved in the campus Christian fellowship. It was student-run and had no formal statement of faith, though it was somewhere between evangelical and mildly-charismatic in its theological inclinations, as was reflected in the organization’s choice of speakers and worship music.
This organization was a spiritual and social lifesaver to me during my college journey, as it helped to provide me with on-campus spiritual fellowship and a circle of like-minded close friends. In fact, it was through involvement with this organization that I met the woman who would one day become my wife.
I mention my college Christian fellowship because I later learned after graduation, to my shock and dismay, that two of the active members of this evangelical campus organization whom I had known ended up making a journey into the communion of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Later on, after seminary, I learned of three other acquaintances I knew in seminary who had also journeyed into the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Not only is this trend of evangelicals leaving evangelicalism for more “high church” alternatives peculiar to those within my own broader circle of acquaintances. It appears to be a growing trend within American Christianity in general. Numerous former evangelicals have made a journey into more “high church” expressions of Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism (for example, Elizabeth Elliot’s brother Thomas Howard, Scott Hahn, Gerry Matatics, Tim Staples, etc.), Eastern Orthodoxy (Peter Gilquist and some of his fellow former Campus Crusaders; Franky Shaeffer, son of the famous Francis Shaeffer), and Anglicanism (Robert Webber, Rachel Held Evans). Books such as Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn, Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard, Becoming Orthodox by Peter Gilquist, and Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert Webber provide accounts of such journeys out of evangelicalism into other expressions of Christianity.
As a confessionally Reformed Presbyterian, this trend raises two questions in my mind which I’d like to consider in the remainder of this article: (1) What is motivating so many evangelicals to leave evangelicalism for high church expressions of the faith? And, (2) Why don’t more evangelicals who are growing discontent with generic evangelicalism consider Reformation alternatives to generic evangelicalism, such as confessional Lutheran churches or confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches?
Regarding the first question, while there are a diversity of reasons why these former evangelicals have left the evangelical fold for the alternatives they have chosen, if you peruse their literature some common themes emerge. For example, in the literature some of the major complaints against evangelicalism by these former evangelicals seem to include such things as:
*The general theological shallowness of contemporary evangelicalism.
*The superficiality, sentimentality and triteness of much of contemporary evangelical worship, and the lack of any connection of that worship to the liturgy and worship of the historic Christian Church.
*A lack of any sense of historical rootedness within the mainstream of historic Christianity.
*A lack of a sense of transcendance, mystery, awe and reverence within generic evangelicalism.
*The hyper-individualism and low view of the organized church within evangelicalism.
*The lack of any sense of the corporate, connectional, communal nature of the church as the Body of Christ and “communion of saints”.
*Artistic, aesthetic shallowness and tackiness; etc.
I have to admit that these types of complaints resonate with me at a very personal level. While some of these criticisms may involve over-generalizations and be a bit unfair, in my own experience of generic evangelicalism I have found such criticisms to be pretty accurate. However, one of the things that I find disappointing and sad about these former evangelicals is that, while they raise many valid criticisms of certain expressions of evangelicalism, few of them seem to have given any serious consideration to the biblically-grounded, historically-rooted, liturgically-rich, evangelically-sound churches which grew out of the Protestant Reformation, such as the confessional Lutheran or confessional Reformed & Presbyterian churches.
When you think about it, the magisterial Protestant Reformers (such as Martin Luther and John Calvin) not only made their case for the reformation of the church by appealing to Scripture as the only infallible rule for the church and the final norm of faith. They also quoted often from the church fathers, and they believed that the teachings of many of the church fathers supported the Reformation cause. They did not seek to create a brand new church, nor did they seek to abandon every element of the church’s historic worship practice. Instead, they sought to reform the church according to the Word of God and return the worship and practice of the church to the biblical simplicity of the ancient church. We Orthodox Presbyterians believe Calvin rightly went further than Luther in reforming the worship practice of the church, for Luther wanted to retain as much of Catholic worship as possible without compromising the gospel itself (which is why Lutheran services look very “Catholic” to evangelicals); whereas Calvin wanted to retain only those elements of worship which could be proven from the Word of God (in line with the scriptural “regulative principle of worship” associated with his teaching on worship).
The point here is that the theology, piety and practice of the confessional Reformation churches offer everything these former evangelicals thought was lacking in the generic evangelicalism which they left: theological depth; reverent, historically-rooted worship; a high view of the visible church; a sense of corporate connectedness; etc.
More important still, unlike the “high church” alternatives chosen by these former evangelicals, confessional Reformation churches are truly “evangelical” (in the original sense of that term) in that they proclaim the undiluted, undistorted “evangel” (= gospel/good news) of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone! (The “Sola Fide” of the Reformation.)
Why, then, don’t more evangelicals who are growing discontent with generic evangelicalism consider Reformation alternatives to generic evangelicalism, such as confessional Lutheran churches or confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches?
There are perhaps many reasons for this. But I would suggest to the reader that one of the major reasons why confessional Reformation churches do so poorly in attracting discontented evangelicals is because of our adherence to a theology of the cross, whereas both generic evangelicalism and its Romanist competition is saturated with a theology of glory. (This is not an excuse for our failure to reach discontented evangelicals, but simply an observation as to one of the reasons why we find it difficult to do so.)
What this basically means is that confessional Reformation churches don’t tend to toot their own horns. We recognize the biblical truths of God’s upside-down kingdom: the truth that the omnipotent God chose to save a world of sinners through the weakness and suffering of a crucified Savior; the truth that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the truth that God’s power is made manifest in our weakness; and the truth that God’s wisdom is manifested in the foolishness of the preaching of Christ crucified.
Whereas much of evangelicalism today is obsessed with the big (big personalities, big buildings, big budgets), the exciting (“the next great move of God!”), and the hip (the cool praise band and “laid back” worship), confessional Reformation churches devote themselves to those ordinary means of grace by which God has gathered and sustained His church for 2,000 years: namely, the simple preaching of the biblical gospel and the faithful administration of the sacraments.
And whereas “high church” traditions like Roman Catholicism offer their own version of “bigness” and outward glory through their massive wealth and cultural influence, ornately-decorated cathedrals, liturgical vestments and ceremonial pageantry (again, all reflecting their adherence to a theology of glory), the confessional Reformation churches today often involve small, struggling congregations gathering in rented facilities around the simple ministry of word and sacrament and offering biblically simple, reverent, unadorned worship to God out of gratitude for His amazing gift of salvation in Christ.
If you are an evangelical Christian who is growing discontented with the shortcomings of evangelicalism, let me plead with you: Please consider the Reformed alternative!
Before you swim the Tiber over to Rome (Roman Catholicism), or head over to Constantinople (Eastern Orthodoxy), please pause to consider that the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches offer the theological depth, historical rootedness, liturgical richness and sense of community that you long for. Check out our historic confessions of faith and catechisms (for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger & Shorter Catechisms, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort). Read up on Reformed and Presbyterian church history. And, most important, visit our worship services with an open mind & heart. At first much in our Reformed faith, practice and worship may seem foreign and strange to you, especially if you are coming from a contemporary evangelical church. But hang in there, learn with us, journey with us, worship and fellowship with us, and I believe you may well find (as many of us who have made this journey into the Reformed Faith have) that you have finally “come home.”
Of course, our evangelical brethren certainly outdo us in their slick advertising, big personalities and celebrities, big buildings and big budgets. And our Roman Catholic friends certainly outdo us in organizational bigness, architectural majesty and ceremonial pageantry. But, by the sovereign grace of God, we believe you will find the deepest needs of your soul met in the undiluted biblical gospel which is proclaimed, confessed and celebrated in the historic confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
Come and consider the Reformed alternative!
For those new to the Reformed and Presbyterian Faith:
Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims by Daniel R. Hyde (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing; copyright 2010 by Daniel R. Hyde). Available for free on our church literature table!
Presbytopia: What it means to be Presbyterian by Ken Golden (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, IV20 1TW, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., copyright 2016 Ken Golden). Available for free on our church literature table!
On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories by Sean Michael Lucas (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, copyright 2006 by Sean Michael Lucas)
Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by D.G. Hart and John Muether (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education and the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; Copyright 1995). Available for free on our church literature table!
For those interested in delving deeper:
Recovering The Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, copyright 2008 by R. Scott Clark)