The Reformation in England was a Religious Revolution

Introduction

In a 2009 article published in U.S. Catholic, a magazine printed by a community of Roman Catholic priests called Claretian Missionaries, Bryan Cones wrote, “The major churches of the Reformation… split from Rome in the 16thcentury largely over theological differences… The Church of England, however, at least in the first place, separated from Rome largely because of a dispute regarding the validity of [Henry VIII’s] marriage to Catherine of Aragon.”[1] With this statement, Cones represents a common view among many people today that the Church of England (or Anglicanism[2]) is not quite as fundamentally Protestant as the other ecclesiological traditions that find their origin in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. For example, Candice Gage, writing for The North American Anglican, explained her experience with modern Anglicanism, saying, “For me, the journey into Anglicanism is like a trek backward in Reformation history, taking my own small steps away from… Protestantism.”[3] Gage speaks of the Church of England as though it were neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic and of her experience with Anglicanism as a via media (or middle way) between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.[4]

T. H. L. Parker notes the prominence of the view – that the English Reformation was substantially distinct from the Protestant developments elsewhere in Europe – in the opening pages of his book English Reformers. Parker writes, “[Was] Sir Maurice Powicke right to put it so baldly: ‘The one definite thing which can be said about the Reformation is England is that it was an act of State.’ Or Prof. Owen Chadwick: ‘The English Reformation was emphatically a political revolution.’”[5] Parker argues the negative, that the Reformation in England was affected by much more than the mere wearer of the crown. In fact, he says that the Protestant convictions and practices embraced by the Church of England went farther than at least one queen wished, demonstrating that religious belief among the English clergy and laity was (at least in some instances) more influential than the dictates of the monarch. 

This essay will argue that the Reformation in England was centrally focused on exactly the same fundamental theological and practical conviction as was shared by all the reformers across Europe, that Scripture alone is the word of God. Specifically, we will concentrate on a handful of English reformers and primarily those who lived during the sixteenth century in order to demonstrate that they believed in the supremacy and the necessity of Scripture in the life of the church. Though preaching the Bible was not entirely an invention of the Protestant Reformation, this brief treatise will aim to show that the Reformation in England was fundamentally religious since its emphasis on the authority and the necessity of the Scriptures in the life of the church transcends (both chronologically and philosophically) the political changes.

Describing the scene prior to the Reformation, Scott Manetsch wrote, “it would be inaccurate to conclude that Christian preaching was unknown in Catholic Europe… before the Reformation. In fact, scholars have shown that a virtual homiletic revolution occurred in Western Europe in the thirteenth century…”[6] However, Manetsch added, “for the most part, [sermons were] absent from the day-to-day ministry of the Catholic Parish… As a general rule, preaching on the eve of the Reformation was occasional and performed by mendicants and other specialists – not by parish clergy.”[7] Such was the case just before the Reformation, but by the mid-sixteenth century an English reformer named John Hooper did not hesitate to name “the pure preaching of the gospel” as one of the “two marks” of “the true church.”[8] In other words, preaching – especially that which clearly articulated and explained the gospel of Jesus Christ – had become fundamental, not only as the pastoral responsibility but to the essence of the church itself. 

Indeed, in 1547, when Edward VI became king of England at only nine years of age, reformers like Thomas Cranmer began to implement a Protestant pastoral theology throughout England by publishing a textbook for church liturgy, prayer, and teaching. As one modern historian, Michael Reeves, put it, “for those getting ordained [to the pastoral office], there was a new expectation: now it was clear that becoming a minister [in England] was not about being a priest who offers sacrifices… but primarily about preaching… instead of being invested with priestly clothes, [new ministers] were given a Bible.”[9]

We will aim to show that preaching and teaching the text of the Bible was recovered among the English reformers as the fundamental pastoral responsibility because of their belief that Scripture alone is the word of God.[10] And we will demonstrate that this Protestant conviction and practice was present among the English before and during the Reformation period by highlighting the views and practices of several Englishmen. John Wyclif was an English forerunner of the Reformation, having come and gone during the fourteenth century, but he affirms the same emphasis as later Protestants. Wyclif insisted upon the supreme authority of Scripture as well as the central pastoral duty to preach and teach the Bible. Sixteenth-century English reformers in focus below are William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, John Hooper, John Jewel, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer. 

These men all show a unified vision of pastoral ministry that centers on preaching and teaching the Scriptures as the supreme word of God. Through their writing and by their own examples, these English reformers taught and promoted a pastoral theology that resisted innovation and the outward display of stimulating ceremony. Instead, they aimed to cultivate and to model pastoral faithfulness in the form of reading, explaining, and applying God’s word. In this fundamental conviction and practice, these reformers show us a Reformation in England that is keeping with the broader European Reformation. There certainly were peculiarities in the way the Reformation took shape in England, but all Protestants (whether they be in England or on the continent, ruled by monarch or by emperor) shared a central belief that the Scriptures alone are the word of God.

The English Reformers

John Wyclif (1328-1384)

John Wyclif is often called the Morning Star of the Protestant Reformation because during the fourteenth century he was already promoting and emphasizing the formal dispute which became the beachhead of protest during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. More than four generations before Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg, Wyclif had already made it his mission to lift the Scriptures above all earthly authorities. Luther, in his own lifetime, readily accepted the label “Wycliffite” as a derogatory term for his rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation on the grounds that it was not to be found in the biblical text.[11]

It is inevitable, then, that we should begin our survey of English reformers with a look at Wyclif. Not only was Wyclif the first notable Englishman to argue for the authority of the Scriptures above that of any pope or council, but he was also devoted to making the Scriptures available in the language of the English-speaking world. Furthermore, Wyclif’s supreme value of Scripture directly connects to his Bible-centered view of the pastoral ministry. Unequivocally, Wyclif believed that the most important duty of the pastor was the preaching or teaching of Scripture. He wrote, “Preaching the gospel exceeds Prayer and Administration of the sacraments, to an infinite degree… [and] Spreading the gospel has far wider and more evident benefit; it is thus the most precious activity of the Church.”[12]

Indeed, Wyclif thought that each pastor had two basic responsibilities: first, attending to his own character and, second, attending to the task of teaching or preaching. Wyclif said, “There are two things which pertain to the status of pastor: the holiness of the pastor and the wholesomeness of his teaching.”[13] And this was not an isolated comment from Wyclif. He elaborated, “The first condition of the pastor is to cleanse his own spring, that it may not infect the Word of God.”[14] It was fundamental to the pastor’s role that he prevent hindrance to or distraction from his teaching by aiming for personal holiness. Wyclif went on, “as for the second condition… the pastor has a threefold office: first, to feed his sheep spiritually on the Word of God… second… to purge wisely the sheep of disease, that they may not infect themselves and others as well… [and] third… the pastor [must] defend his sheep from ravening wolves, both sensible and insensible.”[15] For Wyclif, these three tasks were all part of the chief duty of “sewing the Word of God among his sheep.”[16]

As was already noted, Wyclif’s view of the pastoral ministry sprang from his understanding of the authority and power of the Scriptures themselves. What is also noteworthy about Wyclif’s pastoral theology was his emphasis on divine judgment at the last day, when “Christ will require a reckoning from them [i.e., pastors] in the day of judgment, of how they have exercised in this ministry the power which he gave them.”[17] Wyclif reasoned, “Since it is necessary that he[i.e., the pastor] answer for the sheep entrusted to him, it is therefore also necessary that he personally feed them.”[18]And that which the under-shepherd should feed the sheep is the food which the Master prepared for them in the form of His word.

The importance of Wyclif’s views on the Scriptures and of the pastoral duty, as briefly summarized here, cannot be overstated with regard to this essay. While some historians and many popular opinions today assume that the Reformation in England was primarily or even totally a political revolution, the continuity of Wyclif’s doctrine and practice among the Church of England shows that government may have been the mere vehicle for the religiousrevolution that was already in motion. In other words, if Wyclif’s doctrine of the Scriptures and his emphasis on the pastoral responsibility of preaching the Bible are echoed in the writings and practices of English reformers nearly 200 years later, then one can hardly argue that the English Reformation was a trifling consequence of a monarchial tangent. 

William Tyndale (c. 1490-1536)

Like Wyclif, William Tyndale also made it his mission to translate the Scriptures from foreign tongues to that of the common man. Unlike Wyclif, Tyndale worked with the original languages of Greek and Hebrew, rather than the Latin text, to draw out his translation to English. Both of these men highly prized the text of Scripture itself, and they both wanted to make it accessible to as many people as possible. It is not surprising, then, to see the same emphases and themes in Tyndale that we observe in Wyclif.

First, Tyndale believed that the word of God is the “light” and “power” by which God “createth [his elect] and shapeth them after the similitude, likeness, and very fashion of Christ.”[19] For Tyndale, the biblical text is the “sustenance, comfort, and strength to courage them, that they may stand fast, and endure.”[20]  Therefore, wrote Tyndale, “are they faithful servants of Christ, and faithful ministers and dispensers of his doctrine, and true-hearted toward their brethren, which have given themselves up into the hand of God… and have translated the scripture purely and with good conscience.”[21] According to Tyndale, a faithful translation of Scripture is the best service any minister might give for his fellow Christians, because it is through the words of the Bible that Christians are shaped into the image of Christ and preserved along the pilgrim path.

Second, Tyndale believed that Christians would be “taught… all truth” by the “Spirit of Christ” through the ministry of faithful pastors.[22] Indeed, Tyndale wrote in his commentary on the epistle of First John, “we have all one master now in heaven, which only teacheth us with his Spirit.”[23] His point was to say that no “master upon earth” could contradict or overtake the seat of authority, which is God’s alone, in teaching believers.[24] But this did not mean that Tyndale wanted Christians to eschew all preachers or pastors. On the contrary, Tyndale said that it was God alone who “teacheth us with his Spirit, though by the administration and office of a faithful preacher.”[25] Such a preacher would prove himself faithful in pastoral office by “sowing the word” and “committing the growing to God.”[26]

Like Wyclif before him, Tyndale was declared a heretic by both the religious and political authorities of his day. Wyclif was condemned posthumously at the Council of Constance in 1415, and thirteen years later his bones were exhumed and burned. In Tyndale’s case, he suffered a heretic’s death at the hands of an executioner. But, quite notably, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536 by order of Henry VIII for promoting fundamentally Protestant ideas, such as the accessibility of the Scriptures in the common tongue. This was two years after the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Such a historical fact creates a real difficulty for those who argue that the Reformation in England was largely political. It seems that even politically Protestant English monarchs sometimes tried to thwart the religious developments of the Reformation in England. But it was the religious developments, and not the political ones, that marked the Reformation in England as genuinely Protestant.

Because of the political swings in England, however, Protestant reformers could find themselves promoted one day and then executed the next. During Tyndale’s lifetime, some reforms in England were already well underway, and there was a consistent pastoral theology based upon the authority and necessity of the Scriptures expressed by the English Protestants who came after him. Again and again, whether in advance or retreat, English reformers believed and taught that faithful Christian pastors preach and teach the Bible. And this was especially obvious when Protestants were able to implement their pastoral training and programs across England, as we will see exemplified by Hugh Latimer.

Hugh Latimer (1487-1555)

Hugh Latimer was serving as the bishop of Worcester when he was slated to speak to the convocation of English clergy on June 9, 1537, about a year after the martyrdom of William Tyndale. Latimer centered his sermon upon the biblical text of Luke 16:1-2. This itself is evidence of the high value he placed on biblical exposition since he demonstrated the practice of Bible-based preaching which he called those clergy in front of him to perform in their own office. And yet, the substance of Latimer’s sermon that day gives even more evidence of his view of the fundamental responsibility of pastoral preaching and teaching. 

Applying the biblical parable about a dishonest steward, Latimer told the young ministers that they were to work as stewards in Christ’s household. “These words of Christ do pertain unto us,” he said, “and admonish us of our duty.”[27]Such a duty of pastoral ministry, according to Latimer, is to “feed with his [i.e., Christ’s] word and his sacraments… with all diligence… the church [which] is his household.”[28] Then, quoting the Apostle Paul, Latimer said, “Let men esteem us as the ministers of Christ, and dispensers of God’s mysteries.”[29] And faithfulness is that which is “to be looked for in a dispenser,” that “he truly dispense, and lay out the goods of the Lord.”[30] Of course “goods,” in Latimer’s analogy here, is referring to the words or mysteries which God Himself has revealed in the form of the written text of Scripture.

Throughout the short sermon, Latimer repeatedly called the newly minted ministers to faithfulness in making use of the “money” of the Master which has been entrusted to them. The valuable investment in Latimer’s mind is, naturally, the Scriptures themselves. The ministers are not to “come” with “new money,” but they are to “take it ready coined of the good man [i.e., the Master] of the house.”[31] They are not to “despise the money of the Lord” either by “adulterating the word of God” or by “blowing out the dreams of men” in the “stead of God’s word.”[32] In short, faithful pastors invest the Scriptures as the only valid currency of the realm, making good deposits in the citizens of the kingdom.

According to Latimer, the fundamental responsibility for pastors is the faithful preaching and teaching of the Scriptures, because the pastoral office and even the institution of the church itself depends upon faithful stewards dealing rightly with the Master’s resources. Latimer’s perspective here is quite valuable to the present essay, because it not only shows his own pastoral theology but also that which was perpetuated and common among the clergy of all England under the tutelage of reformers like Hugh Latimer. Wyclif and Tyndale may have both been political criminals in England, but their religious convictions, especially those regarding the authority and necessity of Scripture, lived on in the English reformers that succeeded them.

John Hooper (1495-1555)

The “sometime bishop of Gloucester,”[33] John Hooper is credited with writing A Brief and Clear Confession of the Christian Faith.[34] This text presents a thoroughly Protestant view of the church and of the Scriptures. Sharing the same convictions as many others, Hooper names “three principle signs”[35] or “marks by which we may know” that a church is truly Christ’s.[36] These, he said, are “the word, the sacraments, and discipline.”[37] Specifically, Hooper described “the word” as that “which was revealed by the Holy Ghost unto the holy Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles of Jesus Christ; the which word is contained within the canonical books of the Old and New Testament.”[38] Therefore, according to Hooper, the biblical text is fundamental to the existence of a true church. 

In that same confession of faith, Hooper went on to describe the chief authority of the Scriptures in the life of the church. He said, “I believe, that the same word of God is of a far greater authority than the church; the which word only doth sufficiently shew and teach us all those things, that in any wise concern our salvation; both what we ought to do, and what to leave undone.”[39] Clearly, Hooper believed that the Scriptures were both sufficient and supremely authoritative, and he also believed that these are the basis of all teaching for salvation and living. Good or faithful ministers, asserted Hooper, are those men who teach “faithful people” to “govern and order their lives” according to God’s word “without changing any thing thereof, without putting to it, or taking from it.”[40] We may hear echos here of Latimer’s idea of stewardship. Like Latimer, Hooper understood the fundamental pastoral responsibility to be the teaching and preaching of nothing more or less than the canonical books of the Bible. Whatever one might say about the political developments in England, Hooper’s Confession was a summary of thoroughly Protestant doctrine as embraced by the reformers in England. 

Hooper also wrote A Declaracion of Christe and his offyce, published in 1547, in which he articulated the uniqueness of Christ as priest to the universal church. In this book, he not only excludes Rome’s priests from such an office, he also explains that Christ continues to rule and mediate in His churches through the Scriptures. Hooper wrote, “This knowledge of Christ’s supremity and continual presence in the church admitteth no lieutenant nor general vicar. Likewise,” he said, “it admitteth not the decrees and laws of men, brought into the church contrary unto the word and scripture of God, which is only sufficient to teach all verity and truth for the salvation of man…”[41] With such a statement, Hooper not only denied that any priest of Rome may stand in Christ’s place, he also affirmed that faithful ministers must teach nothing other than or contrary to Scripture. 

According to Hooper, “Nothing can be desired necessary for men, but in this law [specifically referring here to the New Testament] it is prescribed. Of what degree, vocation, or calling soever he be, his duty is showed unto him in the scripture.”[42] Furthermore, he wrote, “It is the office of a good man [i.e., faithful pastor] to teach the church… only by the word of Christ… The church must therefore be bound to none other authority than onto the voice of the gospel and unto the ministry thereof…”[43] Thus, the ministry and voice of pastors ought to do nothing but recite and explain the Scriptures. Such an affirmation certainly has political implications, but it is fundamentally religious and definitional of Protestant theology. 

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was a major contributor to the Protestant advancement in England during the sixteenth century. His influence and manifold writings are hard to quantify, and it is beyond the ability of the present author to summarize Cranmer’s complicated leadership among the English reformers. However, his Book of Common Prayer, in its two editions (1549 and 1552), is probably one of the most influential writings of all contemporaneous Protestants in England. Cranmer published this text to create a uniformity of biblical instruction and leadership among all English churches. His goal that was achieved, even if one might dispute just how biblical were all the book’s contents.

In the preface to the 1549 edition, Cranmer wrote of the benefits of the regular and systematic reading of Scripture among the gathered church. He said, “the whole Bible… should be read over once in the yeare, intendyng thereby, that the Cleargie, and specially suche as were Ministers of the congregacion, should… be stirred up to godliness themselfes, and be more able also to exhorte other by wholsome doctrine.”[44] Cranmer also set down the standard that all “curates shal nede none other bookes for their publique service, but this boke,” referring to his prayer book, “and the Bible.”[45]Cranmer’s standard text was designed to ensure that every church would have ministers lead them by reading through the Scriptures and by praying according to biblical doctrines and instructions. 

The preface and explanation of the use of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer is sufficient to demonstrate his view of the importance of Scripture in the life of the church, but it does not necessarily show what Cranmer believed was the fundamental pastoral duty. For that, we may turn to his prayers. For ministers, Cranmer intended the churches to pray “That it maye please [God] to illuminate all Bishops, pastours, and ministers of the churche, with true knowledge and understanding of [God’s] word, and that bothe by theyr preaching and living, they maye set it foorth and shewe it accordyngly.”[46] So too, Cranmer repeatedly placed within his standard text the opportunity for “the minister” to “make” an “exhortacion” or give his “sermon or homely” upon the words” of the Scripture passage read aloud.[47] Often, the written prompt is followed by a sermon or homely manuscript that a minister could read aloud and deliver as his own.

It is true that Cranmer depended upon the authority of political leaders to implement his program and the use of his Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, was himself in an office of great political authority and influence. However, for Cranmer, as with other magisterial reformers, government was the means by which he achieved his end, which was a religious reform and not merely a political one.

Nicholas Ridley (c. 1500-1555)

Nicholas Ridley was the Bishop of London. He, like John Hooper, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer, experienced the advance of Protestantism and then a comprehensive setback under the reign of Mary. A faithful Christian witness during good times and bad, Ridley continued the ministry and teaching he had started, even in the face of fatal hostility. While Mary was the queen of England, she outlawed all Protestant reforms, and Ridley wrote A Pituous Lamentation of the Miserable Estate of the Church in England. Published during better times for Protestants, under the authorization of queen Elizabeth (r. 1558-1603), Ridley’s lament gives us considerable insight into the pastoral theology he held and to his view of the importance of the Scriptures. It also provides an emphatic focus on the religious state of England during a time when the English politics were unstable.

Ridley wrote of blessings of God during previous years when he said, “Of late all that were endued with the light and grace of understanding of God’s holy mysteries, did bless God, which had brought them out of that horrible blindness and ignorance.”[48] “But now, alas!” he said. “England has returned again like a dog to her own vomit and spewing, and is in a worse case than ever she was.”[49] Ridley’s lament and assessment was due to his perceived absence of the faithful preaching of Scripture, not his desire for one government or another. 

Ridley was glad for the previous time when “all ministers that were admitted to the public office and ministry of God’s holy word, in their admission made a solemn profession before the congregation, that they should teach the people nothing… but that which is God’s own holy word.”[50] According to Ridley, the ministers of England were not only fundamentally responsible to preach and teach the Scriptures, they were admitted to the office by swearing to do just that before the congregation they aimed to serve. Furthermore, Ridley exhibits a profoundly Protestant longing for religious practices that center upon Scripture, and his lament is far less about the people or systems of government than it is about the function of the pastoral office within the local church.

In a record of Ridley’s examination before “the Queen’s Commissioners” on September 13, 1555, Ridley disputed with John White, Bishop of Lincoln and representative of “blessed see of Rome” under the authority of queen Mary.[51]After John of Lincoln urged Ridley to return to the church of Rome with apparent sincerity, Ridley responded. He said that the “bishops in the see of Rome” for a “long” time “were great maintainers and setters forth of Christ’s glory” by preaching “the true gospel” and “duly ministering” the sacraments.[52] Indeed, he said that he “cannot nor dare but commend, reverence, and honour the see of Rome, as long as it continued in the promotion and setting forth of God’s glory, and in the due preaching of the gospel, as it did many years after Christ.”[53]

But, said Ridley, the “Romish church” had become a “novelty,” and Ridley preferred “the antiquity of the primitive church,” which continued to be “spread throughout all the world… where Christ’s sacraments are duly ministered [and] his gospel truly preached and followed.”[54] Thus, we observe that even upon the threat of martyrdom, Ridley maintained that the essence of a true church was found in biblical preaching and in the biblical administration of the sacraments, which are both to be administered by faithful pastors. This exchange shows how Ridley understood the ministry of pastors or ministers by contrasting what he perceived to be faithful bishops in earlier centuries with those he perceived to be damnable ones in the present.[55] Faithful bishops or ministers or pastors preach the biblical gospel, according to Ridley, and unfaithful ministers do not.

Ridley was condemned to death under the reign of queen Mary in England because of his unwillingness to embrace the doctrines and practices of the Roman Church. His religious convictions had real political consequences, and the political changes in England that he experienced certainly affected the religious landscape. However, yet again, we may note that Ridley was echoing those notable Protestant convictions that Tyndale had articulated before him. Wyclif too, as a forerunner to the Reformation in England, had emphasized the authority and necessity of the Scriptures. Thus, the political swings seem to be secondary to the religious revolution underway during Ridley’s life.

John Jewel (1522-1571) 

John Jewel was the bishop of Salisbury, and he wrote An Apologie of the church of England (published in 1560 or 1561) to clearly articulate the position of the church of England after an extraordinary swing back-and-forth between Protestantism and Romanism under the rules of competing monarchs. While the political crown may have passed from Edward VI to Jane and then to Mary, the fundamental Protestant convictions of English reformers did not move in the slightest. Jewel argued in his Apologie that only qualified men ought to serve as ministers in the church, “lawfully, duly, and orderly” called by God to be “an interpreter of the Scriptures.”[56] By “lawfully,” Jewel means according to the qualifications set down in the Bible, namely 1 Timothy 3:1-8 and Titus 1:6-9. And the task which these qualified men were to set themselves to doing was that of interpreting or explaining the Scriptures. Like Wyclif, Tyndale, and Latimer before him, Jewel was arguing for a Protestant practice based on religious convictions about the authority and the necessity of God’s word.

Jewel went on to write that ministers have the power “to bind, to loose, to open, [and] to shut” by authorization of the pastoral office, and the doing of all of this is by “preaching of the gospel the merits of Christ.”[57] This is a reference to a common Protestant understanding of the “use of the keys,”[58] by which Jewel understood that ministers “teach” and “publish” the “Gospel.”[59] Jewel said, “seeing then the key, whereby the way and entry to the Kingdom of God is opened unto us, is the word of the Gospel and the expounding of the law and Scriptures, we say plainly, where the same word is not, there is not the key.”[60] Indeed, this, says Jewel, “is but one only power of all ministers.”[61]

Such a view is thoroughly Protestant since the Roman Catholic authority to bind and loose rests in the claim of apostolic authority in the office of the pope. Note also that Jewel’s assertion is that there is a transcendent “Kingdom,” which supersedes that of any earthly one, and that heavenly kingdom is regulated by the Scriptures. Like other reformers who lived in various realms on the European continent, Jewel was not merely interested in a political revolution. He was articulating a religious conviction that focused upon the Scriptures as the word of God, which commanded an authority above any earthly crown.

Conclusion

John Wyclif and the English reformers who followed him all exemplify the Protestant emphasis upon the Scriptures, which most notably manifests itself in the life and function of the local church. Those who lead in the church are ministers or elders or pastors, and their fundamental responsibility, as far as these English reformers were concerned, was to preach and teach the Bible. With unmistakable consistency, all of these men asserted the same essential pastoral duty, based upon the shared conviction that the Scriptures are the word of God and supremely authoritative and necessary in the lives of Christians. In the fourteenth century, John Wyclif had already recovered this focus, and the English reformers who came generations later continued to assert and embody the same. Thus, the Reformation in England was markedly a religious revolution, not merely a political one. 

While politics certainly played a major role in the Protestant Reformation among the English, government was more the apparatus for change and not the substance of it. One may distinguish between those geographical and national occasions through which Protestants worked to affect the religious changes they implemented, but the argument that such distinctions were fundamental or substantial differences seems unfounded. The English Reformation was clearly a transformation of the religious convictions and practices of the people in the English-speaking world. It is precisely this reality that makes it unsurprising that the Reformation in England had a distinct style and political flavor from the Reformation elsewhere in Europe.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cones, Brian. “How Similar Are Catholics and Anglicans?” U.S. Catholic (blog), December 9, 2009.

Cummings, Brian, ed. The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662. Kindle. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

D’aubigne, J. H. Merle. History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Logos Research. Vol. 5. 5 vols. Glasgow: Williams Collins, Publisher & Queen’s Printer London: R. Groombridge & Sons, 1862.

Gage, Candice. “Why Do Anglicans Become Roman Catholic?: A Response by an Evangelical Expat.” The North American Anglican (blog), May 11, 2020.

Hanson, B. L. “Tyndale, William.” In The Essential Lexham Dictionary of Church History, edited by Michael Haykin. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022.

Hooper, John, and Jean Garnier. A Brief and Clear Confession of the Christian Faith, Containing an Hundred Articles, According to the Order of the Apostles’ Creed. Kindle. Miami, FL: Hardpress, 2017.

Latimer, Hugh. Sermons by Hugh Latimer. Edited by George Elwes Corrie. The Parker Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844.

Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought. First Fortress Press Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1981.

Ozment, Steven. The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe. New Edition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020.

Parker, T. H. L., ed. English Reformers. The Library of Christian Classics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Pollard, Albert Frederick. Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation (1489-1556). Logos Research. New York; London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906.

Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010.

Ridley, Nicholas. The Works of Nicholas Ridley, D.D. Edited by Henry Christmas. Logos Research Edition. Cambridge: University Press, 1843.

Russell, William R., and Timothy F. Lull, eds. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. 3rd Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012.

Spinka, Matthew. Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1953.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Turner, M. H. “Why Is Anglicanism a Gateway to Catholicism?” Mere Orthodoxy (blog), April 28, 2020.


Endnotes

[1] Brian Cones, “How Similar Are Catholics and Anglicans?,” U.S. Catholic (blog), December 9, 2009.

[2] The term Anglican Church literally refers to the English Church, but the Anglican Communion is a denomination established in 1867 during the Lambeth Conference. While the Church of England has experienced modern developments, not the least of which is a shift in its common moniker, throughout this paper the terms Anglican Church and Anglicanism will refer synonymously to the Church of England, which was formally established by an Act of Supremacy by Henry VIII in 1534. 

[3] Candice Gage, “Why Do Anglicans Become Roman Catholic?: A Response by an Evangelical Expat,” The North American Anglican(blog), May 11, 2020.

[4] Gage writes imprecisely in her article about what she refers to as “Evangelicalism,” “Protestantism,” “Anglicanism,” and “Roman Catholicism.” She does seem to distinguish between Evangelicalism and Protestantism, but it is not at all clear what specific differences she perceives between them. Most confusingly of all, she says that Anglicanism has in some sense “been welcomed into Roman Catholicism,” and she writes of “‘Protestant’ Anglicans,” as though there is such a thing as Anglicans who are not Protestant. All of her words taken in sum seem to point to the via media perspective.

[5] T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). xvi.

[6] Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 147.

[7] Ibid. 147.

[8] T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). 215.

[9] Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010). 134-135.

[10] It is beyond the scope of this essay to prove that preaching and teaching Scripture was a central or even fundamental pastoral responsibility at an earlier time in Christian history, but it is the present author’s perspective, nonetheless. It may be noted, however, that one can hardly read much of John Calvin or Martin Luther without seeing citations of preaching which centered upon the exposition of Scripture from the likes of John Chrysostom or Irenaeus of Lyons. And the sixteenth-century English reformers certainly understood themselves to have recovered the primitive doctrine and practice of Christianity, as is demonstrated in this essay by a portion of Nicholas Ridley’s exchange with his Roman inquisitor. Therefore, it seems appropriate to use the word “recovered” here.

[11] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. William R. Russell and Timothy F. Lull, 3rd Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012). 206.

[12] Matthew Spinka, Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1953). 49.

[13] Ibid. 32.

[14] Ibid. 48.

[15] Ibid. 48.

[16] Ibid. 48.

[17] Ibid. 60.

[18] Ibid. 56.

[19] T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). 105.

[20] Ibid. 105.

[21] Ibid. 105.

[22] Ibid. 119.

[23] Ibid. 119.

[24] Ibid. 119.

[25] Ibid. 119.

[26] Ibid. 119.

[27] Hugh Latimer, Sermons by Hugh Latimer, ed. George Elwes Corrie, The Parker Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844). 34.

[28] Ibid. 35.

[29] Ibid. 35.

[30] Ibid. 35.

[31] Ibid. 36.

[32] Ibid. 36.

[33] John Hooper and Jean Garnier, A Brief and Clear Confession of the Christian Faith, Containing an Hundred Articles, According to the Order of the Apostles’ Creed, Kindle (Miami, FL: Hardpress, 2017). i.

[34] There is some debate about John Hooper’s original authorship of this confession. It is argued that he merely translated it from Jean Garnier’s French confession. It is not within the scope of this essay to address the matter of genuine authorship. Even if the text is not original with Hooper, it was still published in England at least as early as 1584 by the “Printer to the Queen’s most excellent Majesty” in London. This is the version cited throughout this essay. T. H. L. Parker asserts that Hooper was indeed the author in 1550. At any rate, the text is reflective of the theology held among Protestants in England during the middle and late sixteenth century, including their pastoral theology. T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). 188.

[35] This numeration of three marks or signs of a true church is the same as John Calvin’s view, but both Calvin and Hooper were aligned with other reformers who named only two marks. Those who limited the number to two perceived that the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances necessarily included church discipline; therefore, they did not exclude Hooper’s or Calvin’s third mark, but only counted it under the heading of the second. As a matter of fact, Hooper himself once named only the two marks in at least one of his earlier writings cited in the introduction of this essay.

[36] John Hooper and Jean Garnier, A Brief and Clear Confession of the Christian Faith, Containing an Hundred Articles, According to the Order of the Apostles’ Creed, Kindle (Miami, FL: Hardpress, 2017). 24.

[37] Ibid. 24. 

[38] Ibid. 24-25.

[39] Ibid. 25.

[40] Ibid. 25.

[41] T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). 197.

[42] Ibid. 197.

[43] Ibid. 198.

[44] Brian Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, Kindle (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011). 4.

[45] Ibid. 5.

[46] Ibid. 42.

[47] Ibid. 22, 54, 127, 142, etc.

[48] Nicholas Ridley, The Works of Nicholas Ridley, D.D., ed. Henry Christmas, Logos Research Edition (Cambridge: University Press, 1843). 51.

[49] Ibid. 51.

[50] Ibid. 52.

[51] Ibid. 253-255.

[52] Ibid. 262.

[53] Ibid. 262.

[54] Ibid. 267.

[55] The use of the word “damnable” here is due to Ridley’s frequent ascription of the term “Antichrist” to the bishop of Rome and those priests and bishops who participated in the Roman church of his day. Nicholas Ridley, The Works of Nicholas Ridley, D.D., ed. Henry Christmas, Logos Research Edition (Cambridge: University Press, 1843). 263, 287-289.

[56] T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). 23.

[57] Ibid. 23.

[58] There is no shortage of controversy regarding the correct interpretation of Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-20. Protestants did not agree with the Roman Church of their day, which argued that Peter received “the keys” in some personal sense, wherein those who literally became his successors would continue to bear some special authority or privilege among the people of Christ in the world. Rather, at least some of the reformers (as exemplified in this essay by Jewel) believed that it was the substance of the message Peter believed and the announcement of blessing (i.e., forgiveness of sins), which Peter heard from Christ, that constituted the substance of “the keys.” Therefore, the preaching of the gospel and the dispensation of the sacraments, in their minds, are “the keys.”

[59] T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). 24.

[60] Ibid. 24.

[61] Ibid. 24.

A (Very) Brief Explanation: Why are there Catholics and Protestants?

It may seem a bit arrogant, but I think this might be the shortest summary of the historical development of the Roman Catholic Church and the basic reason why there is such a thing as a Protestant.

My purpose in this explanation is not to throw negative light on anyone who claims to be Catholic or anyone who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Catholics believe the same things, just like not all Baptists believe the same things, and there are many members of churches (of all sorts) who have no idea what their church actually teaches on a given subject. So, I invite further conversation; I do not purposefully condemn any particular reader or someone you might know.

First, it is complicated, but Catholics have no unique claim on history.

Simply put, the Roman Catholic Church as it is today, in its doctrines and in its administration, did not exist until (at the earliest) the year 1215 AD. The Fourth Lateran Council ratified some of the teachings and most of the organizational forms that are distinctive of and essential to Roman Catholicism today.1 But it was not until the Council of Trent, which met sporadically from 1545 to 1563 that the main doctrines which separate Rome from Protestants were clearly articulated and ratified.2 Therefore, regardless of what my Roman Catholic friends might say, the Roman Church is not the oldest and most united church. It has a complicated past, and it has no unique claim on the Apostles or early Christians.

Second, Catholics and Protestants alike see the need for reform in the late Middle Ages.

Before and during the 1500s, there were many Christians within the Roman Church who were calling for reform. At least as early as the 1300s, with John Wycliffe in England in and Jan Hus in Bohemia (as well as many others), good Roman Catholics were writing and preaching and working for reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. By all observers, including Roman Catholics, Western Christianity had become so abusive and scandalous that something had to change.

Many historians look back and see that the leadership of the Roman Church was unwilling to change, so Catholic priests, local friars, and Church theologians started protesting. The quintessential moment which seems to capture the scene in the early 1500s was that evening of October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther (a German monk, Catholic priest, and promising theologian) nailed his invitation to scholarly debate on the castle-church door in Wittenberg. The nailing of the 95 theses was a historic moment, but there were others like it happening all over Europe.

Zwingli, in Zurich, encouraged his congregation to eat meat during a Roman fasting day. English men and women were sharing copies of Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Bible, and they were illegally memorizing passages to recite to one another so that they might all hear the Bible in their own language. Spain and France were killing and exiling those who taught against Rome, and that’s how John Calvin (a Frenchmen) ended up in Geneva, where he wrote the first comprehensive systematic theology textbook for instructing new Christians.

All of this came to a head when Rome called a council to deal once-and-for-all with the reformers. This was the notorious Council of Trent.

Third, Rome formally and officially condemned all Protestants.

It is a historical and present fact that the Roman Catholic Church has formally set itself against Protestants, and it has never pulled back from that clear and official statement. At the Council of Trent, Rome condemned to hell anyone who believes some of the most fundamental doctrines among all Protestants. The canons or decrees of Trent anathematize3 anyone who believes that the Bible is the chief authority over all tradition and papal decrees. They also condemned anyone who believes that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Christ.4

These statements are clear, they are recorded for anyone to see in the records of that council, and they are repeated in the Roman Catholic Catechism that is still used by Rome today.

It seems to me that Protestants and Roman Catholics can indeed be friends today. But it also seems to me that we must all recognize the differences between them are not mere preference nor are they minor. As I said above, though, it is likely that most Roman Catholics do not know the official teaching of Rome, just the same as most people who claim to be Baptist do not know what Baptists have historically taught.

Therefore, rather than using labels and throwing verbal grenades, I think we all might do well to simply have good conversations about the biblical gospel.

Endnotes

1. The Roman Catholic Church today shares many common doctrines with Protestants. These are not the doctrines that make Rome distinct as a Church. As time moved on, Rome increasingly articulated and demanded adherence to doctrines and organizational structures that are clearly absent from Scripture.

2. This article by Joe Carter does a good job of summarizing some of the main points of the Council of Trent as a historical moment that continues to impact Protestants and Roman Catholics today. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-the-council-of-trent/

3. Anathematize is a fancy word that refers to a religious condemnation. The word anathema is a transliteration from the Greek ἀναθεμα. This was the word the Apostle Paul used to condemn any preacher of a false gospel (Galatians 1:8-9), and the word was and is used by the Roman Catholic Church to condemn anyone who opposes or diverts from official church teaching.

4. The key word in these doctrinal phrases is “alone.” Rome did teach and still teaches that faith in Christ is necessary for justification. The disagreement was never about the necessity of faith, but the sufficiency of it. Is a sinner justified before God by simply believing or having faith in the finished work of Christ? Rome says, “No!” Protestants say, “Yes!”

Baptism: True and False, Ordered and Disordered

With various denominations and churches practicing different forms of baptism, how can we express disagreement and charity at the same time? Must we refuse to make any judgments about what is true baptism? Or must we isolate ourselves from anyone who disagrees with us on the subject? For my part, I want to hold my convictions about what I believe the Bible teaches regarding baptism, and I also want to be charitable toward those who disagree. This brief essay is an attempt to do both.

Elements and Forms

It is important that we begin a discussion on the practice of baptism by clarifying those features or elements of baptism that are indispensable and those that are orderly. Indispensable elements are of the nature or central to the biblical meaning of baptism. These are the elements touched and affected by what baptism is. To lose or modify the elements is to lose baptism altogether. The forms of baptism, however, are those features that may more or less closely align with the biblical mandate and method.

To lose or modify a given form may affect the propriety of baptism but does not necessarily nullify the act altogether. For example, one might be truly baptized at a summer youth camp or during a Sunday church gathering, though one of these is inappropriate and disordered, but a baptism observed among a gathering of Mormons or Roman Catholics is not baptism at all.

A true baptism is one that is observed or performed in keeping with the essential nature of its meaning, and any other practice one might call baptism is simply false or pseudo-baptism. True or biblical baptism is the initiatory oath-sign whereby individual believers become partakers in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ, existing Christians affirm new Christians, and Christians initially unite with one another (for a more robust argument and explanation of this definition, see the essay HERE). Our definition of the meaning of baptism, must set our limitations for what we may refer to as baptism. Any baptism that does not include these elements is, by definition, a pseudo-baptism.

Let us briefly specify and consider the explicit and implicit elements contained in our definition of baptism.

First, true baptism is a conscious act on the part of the one being baptized; he or she must believe the gospel and intend to publicly confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Baptism is the public pledge or oath of the one being baptized, committing him or her to believe and obey Christ. Such an oath requires awareness on the part of the part of the one being baptized. Furthermore, the biblical observance of baptism necessarily associates the one being baptized with Jesus Christ, and the consistent biblical command is that those who believe in the person and work of Christ are to profess that belief publicly in baptism. Indeed, the biblical components of conversion cited above – repentance, faith, confession, receiving the Holy Spirit, and baptism – necessitate conscious intent and action by the one being baptized.

Second, true baptism is explicitly connected to the preaching of the gospel, the name of Jesus Christ, and the pronouncement of Christ’s kingdom. That is, baptism must be in the name of Jesus Christ. This is not merely a verbal formula, but a much fuller identification with the God of the Bible and the person through whom God offers salvation to sinners. In Jesus’s commission, He says new believers or disciples are to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”[1] and the Apostle Peter exhorted his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.”[2] But we are not to assume that Peter misunderstood Jesus’s instructions, nor may we impose some wooden linguistic conflict between Peter’s action and Jesus commission. Rather, the two are harmonious; Jesus is the only Savior offered to sinners by the triune God of Scripture. There is no other god than the one who reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit; and there is no other savior than the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

The teaching of Scripture on the whole is that baptism is inextricably connected with believing in the triune God and the gospel of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the specific language spoken during one’s baptism – “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” – is far less important than the message associated with that baptism. If the baptism is explicitly associated with the biblical gospel, of which Jesus Christ is the sum and substance, and the triune God of Scripture, then it may well be a true baptism.

Third, true baptism is observed as a conscious affirmation by at least one existing Christian, uniting the one being baptized with the visible kingdom of Christ. The biblical pattern shows that assemblies of Christians are the normal context for this affirmation, but we will consider this further below. For now, we want to address the regular, but unfounded, assumption that there is no biblical pattern or that the pattern is not clear enough to produce any binding requirements. We might turn to the hub passage for discovering the meaning of baptism (Matthew 28:18-20), and we might argue that Jesus requires at least one existing disciple to affirm any new disciple by baptism. But we may just as easily demonstrate that the earliest disciples understood this requirement and practiced it consistently.

The first recorded New Covenant baptisms happened at the end of Acts 2. Altogether there were about one-hundred and twenty “brothers” or disciples of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem, awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit.[3] Peter acted as the spokesman, and he called all the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost to “repent and be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.”[4] Those who “received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”[5] There is an implicit affirmation of these new converts (in the act of baptizing them) on the part of Peter and the rest of the existing disciples. And while a “church” is not explicitly mentioned there, those believers who were baptized were counted as being “added that day” to the existing community of believers.

In Acts 8 the pattern continues. Philip traveled into Samaria, and he preached the “good news about the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ.”[6] There were some who “paid attention” to Philip’s teaching, and they “believed” Philip’s message, thus, “they were baptized.”[7] In Samaria, Philip is the only existing disciple at first, so he alone is the one who affirmed these new Samarian converts by baptism. It is significant, however, that “when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John.”[8] This appears to reinforce the biblical understanding that Christian affirmation was an essential aspect of baptism, since the Christians in Jerusalem seem to act on their responsibility to investigate and participate in what is going on in Samaria.

Though the transitional period recorded in Acts, embracing the New Covenant while leaving the old behind, provides us with strange occurrences, like the Samaritans’ delay in “receiving the Holy Spirit,” the record nonetheless repeatedly displays the elemental nature of baptism.[9] Consider Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9. Saul, later known as the Apostle Paul, came to believe that Jesus was the Christ, and he was baptized by Ananias as a public affirmation of their mutual “brotherhood” in the covenantal kingdom of Christ.[10] Paul consciously professed faith in Christ, this occurred in the context of his understanding of the biblical gospel, and Ananias affirmed Paul’s profession. Consider Cornelius and his “relatives and close friends” in Acts 10.[11] They believed the message Peter preached, as evidenced by their having “received the Holy Spirit,” and they were “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” on the command of Peter.[12] Cornelius and the rest consciously professed faith in Christ, this occurred in the context of their understanding of the biblical gospel, and Peter (along with the “believers from among the circumcised who had come with” him) affirmed their professions.[13]

As we continue reading through the book of Acts, we discover the same pattern again and again. Lydia and those of her household believed the gospel as Paul preached it, they all consciously professed faith in Christ by baptism, which was affirmed by Paul and his companions.[14] The Philippian jailer and his family heard Paul preach “the word of the Lord,” they “believed in God,” and were “baptized at once” in a conscious profession of their new belief, which was affirmed by Paul and Silas.[15] Crispus and his “entire household,” as well as “many of the Corinthians,” heard Paul preach the gospel and believed it. They were baptized in a public and conscious profession of their faith, and Paul (and probably Silas and Timothy too) affirmed them in baptism.[16]

In summary, true baptism is a conscious and public profession of faith, it is explicitly connected to the preaching of the gospel, and it is observed as a conscious affirmation by at least one existing Christian which displays unity among new believers and old ones within the visible kingdom of Christ. If any one of these elements is absent, then the rite may be religious, and it may even be called baptism, but it is not.

The Mormon ceremony is not baptism since they proclaim a gospel contrary to the biblical one. The Roman Catholic rite is not baptism for the same reason, and also because they remove the necessity of conscious belief. And while Baptists are so very glad for evangelical Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, these paedobaptists are not actually observing baptism when they sprinkle or pour water over the heads of the infant children of believers. Such ones are not able to understand the gospel, nor are they capable of any conscious profession of faith in Christ.

Ordered and Disordered

During the Protestant Reformation, theologians and church leaders hammered out two essential marks of a true church – (1) the right preaching of the gospel and (2) the right administration of the ordinances or sacraments.[17] In the generations that followed, these marks of a true church were clarified and solidified as the starting point for a biblical doctrine of the church.

However, there was also a growing desire among many Protestants to recognize differences of practice within the stream of true churches. For example, Benjamin Keach was a Baptist who argued that the essence of a church is its members, therefore a “church” is “a congregation of godly Christians who, being first baptized upon the profession of faith… do ordinarily meet together in one place for the public service and worship of God, among whom the Word of God and sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s institution.”[18]

So a church could still be a church without pastors or elders, but Keach considered such a church “disorderly” or “not acting according to the rule of the gospel, having something lacking.”[19] Observing this historic language and category distinction, we should note a significant difference between a church that is false and one that is disordered. So too, we must recognize a difference between a baptism that is false (i.e., not baptism at all) and one that is disordered.

In the Bible-belt of the Americanized Christian subculture, it is quite common for individuals and churches to sense a freedom to practice baptism in pragmatic and even expressive ways. It is not unusual to see baptisms during “children’s church” (an age-segregated gathering of children in a separate part of the building from the adults), youth camps (week-long summer activities where teens from multiple churches come together with a strong evangelistic emphasis), and in isolation (a father baptizing a professing child or a pastor baptizing a professing believer apart from any gathering of the church).

There is no question that such baptisms are novel; one can hardly imagine what the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther might say if either of these men were to see a group of children being baptized in a portable swimming pool on a beach-themed stage during children’s church. But, pastorally and ecclesiologically, we must decide not merely whether this baptism is unusual, but whether it is baptism at all. The category distinction between true-and-false and ordered-and-disordered is helpful to us here.

Any baptism that includes the elements of biblical baptism can be considered “true” baptism, though it may be disordered either by circumstance or imagination. However, any baptism that excludes one or more elements of biblical baptism cannot be considered “true” baptism, even if it is performed in a more orderly fashion. Thus, an infant baptism observed with the highest care in a Presbyterian church gathering on a Sunday morning is a false baptism because the one being baptized is not participating as a conscious confessor of Christ. Whatever the intentions, what is experienced here is not baptism.

On the other hand, a young adult may be truly baptized by only one other Christian who has already publicly professed faith in Christ through baptism, even if that young adult is being baptized in a natural pool on the side of a road after having just heard and believed the gospel. In this second case, the person is a conscious believer in Christ and is pursuing baptism as a public profession, and there is also at least one existing Christian present to affirm the new believer’s profession by baptism. This is a disordered baptism, but it is a true one.

This brief essay argues for a perspective and practice of baptism that can equip a local church with the pastoral posture of simultaneous conviction and charity. If baptism means anything, then some of those experiences which are called “baptism” are not actually baptisms. However, an odd or strange or novel baptism may still be true. Each church will have to decide for themselves what they will accept as baptism. May the Lord help us all to be faithful (obey Christ’s commands) and gracious (deal with one another charitably as we aim toward faithfulness).


[1] Matthew 28:19.

[2] Acts 2:38.

[3] Acts 1:12, 15; cf. “they were all together in one place” Acts 2:1.

[4] Acts 2:38.

[5] Acts 2:41.

[6] Acts 8:12.

[7] Acts 8:11-12.

[8] Acts 8:14.

[9] Acts 8:14-17.

[10] Acts 9:1-19.

[11] Acts 10:24,

[12] Acts 10:44-48.

[13] Acts 10:45.

[14] Acts 16:14-15.

[15] Acts 16:30-34.

[16] Acts 18:5-8.

[17] Sometimes one would argue for a third mark, church discipline, but those who maintained the limit of two would usually understand that church discipline was a subcategory of the second mark. If baptism and the Lord’s Supper are being administered aright, then church discipline will surely be a faithful practice as well.

[18] Benjamin Keach, The Glory of a True Church, Kindle (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2018). 1.1.

[19] Keach, 1.3.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Keach, Benjamin. The Glory of a True Church. Kindle. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2018.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

The Meaning and Practice of Baptism

Baptism means this person is now a Christian, these Christians affirm this one, and this Christian is now united with these.

Though baptism is commonly practiced by all Christian churches, the meaning of baptism can differ significantly from one local church to the next. Gregg Allison summarizes the historic Christian conviction when he writes, “Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the ‘visible elements that are sufficient and necessary for the existence of a true church.’”[1] In other words, without baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is no church. These are the twin signs of the New Covenant, which the Lord Jesus Christ instituted, giving them to His disciples. Protestants called the right administration of these two ordinances the second mark of a true church, the first being the right preaching of the gospel.

Among various Protestant traditions, Baptists have historically distinguished themselves by arguing for a distinctive view of baptism, and in this way earned their moniker. Specifically, Baptists have emphasized the necessity of a conscious profession of faith, calling their view believer’s baptism, whereas other Protestants have put more weight on God’s objective covenantal promises.[2] Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, both differing fundamentally from Protestants, emphasize a sacramental and even sacerdotal function of baptism, uniting the one baptized with the universal church.[3]

This essay, following the historic Baptist position, will argue that true or biblical baptism is the initiatory oath-sign whereby individual believers become partakers in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ, existing Christians affirm new Christians, and Christians initially unite with one another. We will explain this thesis by articulating the meaning of baptism. With this as our focus, we will maintain a particular concentration on the biblical institution of the ordinance.

Jesus’s profound words in Matthew 28:18-20 will serve as a centerpiece for our discussion on baptism. In Matthew’s Gospel this passage is the climax of Jesus’s teaching on the church, and baptism is a key feature. Following the thesis of this essay, we will argue in three parts that baptism means (1) this person is now a Christian, (2) these Christians affirmthis one, and (3) this Christian is now united with these. And, finally, we will offer some practical answers to the questions of baptism’s proper subjects and context.

This Person is Now a Christian

The first biblical command to baptize New Covenant believers and the basic substance for any doctrine of Christian baptism is found in Jesus’s Great Commission at the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel. After Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and before He ascended to the seat of highest authority in the cosmos, Jesus commissioned His disciples to be His remaining witnesses on earth. There is much more to learn from Matthew 28:18-20, but this passage must be our starting point for any discussion of baptism, and we must understand the passage itself as well as how it relates to others.

Evangelical paedobaptists and credobaptists both agree with this starting point. Paedobaptists are those who believe Christian baptism is for believers and their children[4] or “converts” and “their families.”[5] Credobaptists are those who believe Christian baptism is only for new disciples or believers who consciously mean to profess their belief in Jesus Christ. Though they disagree about the subjects of baptism, both paedobaptists and credobaptist agree that Jesus’s Great Commission statement is the place to begin a discussion about baptism. John Dagg (a nineteenth-century credobaptist) and John Sartelle (a twentieth-century paedobaptist), like many others from each camp, both begin their arguments on the meaning of baptism with this same passage.[6]

For clarity, Matthew 28:18-20 says,

“Jesus came and said to [His disciples], ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”[7] 

Christians have long understood that this passage forms the mandate and informs the method of Christian activity in the world until Christ returns. In every generation, those who are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ are to give themselves to the task of helping others become and live as Christ’s disciples. Jesus commissioned His people to proliferate, not by the point of the sword or political strategy, but by preaching the gospel and calling sinners to repent (i.e., turn from sin) [8] and believe (i.e., trust in Jesus as Savior and submit to Him as Lord).[9] Those sinners who do repent and believe are to be baptized in the name of the Triune God, brought into fellowship with other believers, and taught to think and act as followers of Christ. This transition, which is the center of our study, from unbeliever to believer or non-Christian to Christian is called conversion.

Robert Stein notes five components of conversion. He writes, “In the experience of becoming a Christian, five integrally related components took place at the same time, usually on the same day: repentance, faith [or belief], confession [or professing belief in Christ], receiving the Holy Spirit, and baptism.”[10] Bobby Jamieson agrees with Stein, but he emphasizes that Baptists view a logical and even a chronological progression, such that one is technically a Christian (i.e., a repenting, believing, and regenerated person) before he or she is biblically baptized.[11] With their Protestant brethren, Baptists believe that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. However, to Stein’s and Jamieson’s point, we must not overstate this theological reality to the detriment of the visible manifestation of conversion, which speaks of more (though not less) than justification. 

Repentance, belief, and regeneration are not visible in themselves, but baptism is.[12] In fact, baptism is thevisible display of conversion. Moreover, Jamieson says, “as a matter of systematic-theological description, it is appropriate to identify regeneration as a discrete moment which should precede baptism… Yet for all these necessary refinements we need to make sure we can still speak like the Bible speaks.”[13] In other words, we must perceive conversion as a unified compilation of specific actions, of which baptism is one. Indeed, baptism is the visible action which announces and even pledges entrance into the benefits and obligations of the New Covenant. In baptism, the one being baptized is pledging himself to Christ and Christ is pledging Himself as well.

This feature of baptism, which centers on the idea that baptism is the New Covenant oath-sign, is significant in Jamison’s book on the subject. His argument is worth citing at some length here. To begin with, he describes the biblical pattern of “ratifying” a covenant through the use of a “symbolic action,” and he also highlights its “constituting” function.[14] In Genesis 15, for example, the animal-cutting ceremony was a symbolic action which ratified God’s covenantal promises to Abraham. Similarly, circumcision was a covenant-ratifying sign of the Abrahamic covenant, and Jamieson argues that it not only signaled God’s pledge but also Abraham’s (and his descendants’) agreement to keep the terms. He calls the symbolic action, which ratifies and constitutes, an “oath-sign,” wherein “the covenant’s sanctions [were] placed… on those thereby consecrated to the Lord.”[15]

But, as Jamieson notes, “this raises the question… is [baptism] an oath?”[16] He answers, yes. And this is where his argument centers on the passage of greatest interest to us. Jamieson says, “to be baptized into the name of the Trine God is to be initiated into covenantal identification with him.”[17] This is is exactly what Matthew 28:19 calls for, and it is in keeping with Dagg’s older language and argument. Dagg writes, “The place which baptism holds in the commission, indicates its use. The apostles were sent to make disciples, and to teach them to observe all the Saviour’s [sic] commands; but an intermediate act is enjoined, [namely] the act of baptizing them.” Therefore, Dagg says, “This ceremony [i.e., baptism] was manifestly designed to be the initiation into the prescribed service; and every disciple… meets this duty at the entrance of his course.”[18] In other words, baptism is the way New Testament believers declare themselves Christian.

The New Testament teaching on this is point is clear. Baptism is an “appeal to God for a clear conscience;”[19] it publicly calls upon God to grant what He has promised in Christ. Baptism is “into Christ,” and those who are baptized “have put on Christ”[20] Baptism unites the believer to the “death” of Christ, even mysteriously “burying” the believer “with Him,” and also unites the believer to a “resurrection like” Christ’s.[21] Thus, repentance and faith are surely the first responses of the new believer when he or she hears and understands the gospel (at least in a logical and theological sense), but baptism is the initial visible response, whereby the believer is signaled to have converted from the “domain of darkness and transferred… to the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.”[22] Baptism is the way a new believer makes a public confession of faith in the Lord [i.e., King] Jesus Christ.

One final remark in this section will also lead us into the next. This covenantal identification in baptism is a pledge or oath from both directions – from the one baptized and from heaven itself. From the one baptized, the pledge or oath is to publicly commit oneself to Jesus Christ as Lord. It is a promise to “obey all that [Christ] commands” as His disciple.[23] From heaven, the pledge or oath is a formal and public answer to the request implicit in calling upon Christ as Savior. But how does the new disciple know that his or her plea for acceptance has been answered in the affirmative? Who actually makes the heavenly declaration, “This person is indeed a Christian”? The answer is the church.

These Christians Affirm This One

Baptism is the way new disciples become public or visible Christians, and baptism is also the way existing disciples affirm new ones. In fact, it is manifestly obvious that this second feature necessarily corresponds to the prior claim. The previous section dealt with the idea that baptism is the visible sign of conversion, but one cannot baptize himself. An existing Christian (usually an assembly of them) is a necessary and responsible participant in this Christ-instituted act.

In this section we must further consider baptism as part of the overall process of conversion in order to better understand the necessary role of existing Christians. In fact, building on the previous claim, we must continue with a necessary correlation. In making judgments about who is and who is not a Christian, existing Christians speak for Jesus in the authorized administration of the ordinances. But this requires an explanation which must reach further back into Matthew’s Gospel before we proceed.

Some theologians have observed that Matthew 28:18-20 is not only a foundational text for understanding baptism, but also a climactic one. Jonathan Leeman has argued that Jesus’s Great Commission is the zenith of the major theme in Matthew’s Gospel – the authorization of kingdom representatives to speak with the authority of King Jesus in the world.[24] Leeman, as John Cotton did before him, especially sees this theme hitting significant points along the way in Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-20.[25]

There is no room for a full exposition here, but Leeman argues that these two passages together speak positively[26] and negatively,[27] describing Jesus’s authorization for His disciples (specifically an assembly of them “gathered in [His] name”)[28] to make judgments regarding the “what” and the “who” of Christ’s kingdom in the world. In Matthew 16, Jesus’s disciples are authorized to speak positively, binding right confessors within the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom. In Matthew 18, they are authorized to speak negatively, loosing those who do not live in keeping with a right confession from the kingdom boundaries. Leeman says, “Jesus means to build his church not on persons or truths, but on persons (who) confessing the right truths (what) – on confessors.”[29]

So then, when he finally arrives at Matthew 28:18-20, Leeman understands that Christ is announcing that He does indeed possess all authority in heaven and on earth, and that His disciples are now to speak with His cosmic authority, which Christ has authorized them to do (in Matthew 16 and 18). Particularly, they are to exercise their “jurisdictional and legal, revelatory and interpretive speech” in the use of the ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[30] Speaking particularly of baptism, Leeman says, “To baptize someone ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19) is to make a truth claim about a person’s union with Christ and citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.”[31]This is the heavenly pledge, speaking in the name and with the authority of Jesus Christ, which corresponds with the believer’s pledge in baptism.

Baptism, then, according to Matthew 28:18-20 (full of pregnant meaning from Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-20), is the way a new disciple becomes a public or visible Christian, but only in so far as this one is affirmed by these existing Christians. Baptism is the initiatory oath-sign whereby individual believers become partakers in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ, but only if the existing New Covenant community (i.e., the local church) authoritatively provides the heavenly affirmation through baptism. And, of course, this is exactly the way we see the earliest disciples practice baptism as they began to preach the gospel and bring new converts into churches (or forming them as such) throughout the book of Acts. 

From the hub of Matthew 28:18-20, these other baptism passages jut out as spokes of the doctrinal wheel. In Acts 2, Peter was the first disciple to bear public witness to Jesus Christ by preaching the gospel on the day of Pentecost. When some in the crowd responded by asking, “What shall we do?”, Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.”[32] And “those who received his word were baptized,” and there “were added” to the existing New Covenant community “about three thousand souls.”[33] 

In our next section we will consider further the direct link between baptism and church membership, but presently we can already see some consistent application of the authorization, the mandate, and the method described above. Peter preached the gospel, called for unbelievers to repent and believe, and urged those who believed to be baptized. The invisible realities (regeneration, repentance, and belief) were immediately visualized in the act of baptism, which gave a clear historical record of thousands of confessing converts in a single day.

It must be acknowledged that in Acts 2 there is no explicit mention of baptizing the existing disciples in order toaffirm them as new converts. A strong argument could be made, however, that such an affirmation is the necessary implication of baptism since Jesus’s commissioning statement (in Matthew 28) and His previous teaching and authorization (in Matthew 16 and 18) ought to be assumed even when such features are not explicit. This is not an argument from silence, but an argument of consistency; Jesus taught previously that this is what baptism is. But as the gospel expands, and as more people are converted, the text does become explicit in describing how the earliest disciples understood their responsibility and authorization to judge and affirm (by baptism) only those whom they believed were included among the New Covenant community.

In Acts 8 the responsibility of authorization is implied by the apostolic visit to Samaria from Jerusalem. After persecution intensified in Jerusalem, Philip traveled into Samaria, and he preached the “good news about the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ.”[34] There were some who “paid attention” to Philip’s teaching, and they “believed” Philip’s message, thus, “they were baptized.”[35] In Samaria, Philip was the only existing disciple at first, so he alone was the one who affirmed these new Samarian converts by baptism. It is significant, however, that “when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John.”[36] This appears to reinforce the biblical understanding that Christian affirmation was an essential aspect of baptism, since the Christians in Jerusalem seem to have acted on their responsibility to investigate and participate in what is going on in Samaria. 

In Acts 10, the responsibility on the part of existing Christians to make judgments about who is in and who is out of the New Covenant by way of baptism becomes obvious. The Apostle Peter received special revelation from God that the gospel promises were not only for Jews but also Gentiles. By divine appointment, Peter preached the gospel to a gathered group of Gentiles whom God regenerated, as evidenced by their “speaking in tongues and extolling God.”[37]Peter’s next words are telling. He asked, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”[38] What are we to make of this question if not that Peter and his believing companions were acting on their perceived responsibility to judge the who and the what of the kingdom of Christ by either granting or withholding baptism? The clearest and most obvious understanding is that they were pronouncing their divinely-authorized judgment. These Christians (in this case Peter and those with him) were publicly affirming this one as a partaker in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ by baptizing him (in this case Cornelius and those of his household). 

In summary, we have demonstrated in the first section that biblical baptism is the initiatory oath-sign whereby individual believers become partakers in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ. We have demonstrated in this second section that both an individual confessor and an existing Christian (at least one) are necessary and responsible participants in this Christ-instituted act. In the next section, we will argue that Christ’s authorization to judge who is in and who is out of Christ’s visible kingdom is normally the prerogative of the local church. Indeed, baptism not only visibly unites new believers to Christ, but it also unites new believers with a visible assembly of existing ones.

This Christian is United with These

In our day, the assumptions of individualism and some sort of personal autonomy are pervasive. One is much more likely to think of their conversion as a personal and private act, rather than a communal one in any way dependent upon others. However, an overemphasis on the personal requirements of repentance, faith, and regeneration does violence to the biblical notion of conversion. Indeed, the invisible components of conversion are essential for one’s inclusion in the kingdom of Christ, but we live during the age when such a kingdom has not yet been fully displayed. In our age, the kingdom of Christ takes visible shape in the form of local churches, gathered in Christ’s name, marked off by the ordinances which the Lord Jesus authorized as the signs of covenantal citizenship. And, by definition, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper can only be practiced in community.

Drawing together the various strands of teaching we have already considered, we must return to the hub of our wheel. In Christ’s commission, His ordaining or decreeing instruction for baptism, He commanded existing disciples to baptize new ones in the name of the Triune God. This command sets atop Christ’s teaching that the door in and out of His visible kingdom is operated by those who “gather” in His “name.”[39] The ones who make the good confession concerning Christ, as Peter did, are “bound” within the “kingdom of heaven.”[40] Those who live in keeping with the good confession remain visibly within the New Covenant community, the “brotherhood” of Christ’s kingdom or church.[41] But those who do not repent of sin and continue in belief are to be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector.”[42] This is old covenant language which means that the unrepentant sinner is to be considered outside of or “loosed” from the covenant community.[43] All of this is not to say that local churches are authorized by Christ to make the decisive statement on one’s inclusion or exclusion from the New Covenant itself, but it is to say that Christ has authorized local churches to make the only sort of judgment that can be observed before that final day when Christ shall render His ultimate verdict.[44]

The direction we are headed now requires us to make a distinction between the invisible and visible kingdom of Christ, the universal Church and the local church. The kingdom of Jesus Christ shall one day become visible in the eschaton, the glorious age to come when God Himself will make all things new in Christ. We see this displayed in the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” singing the song of salvation.[45] Near the end of the book of Revelation, the Apostle John saw “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down our of heaven from God,”[46] and the “holy city” is the kingdom of Christ in which God will “dwell with” His people.[47] That eschatological kingdom of Christ – the assembly of all those who persevere in faith – is sure to come, but it is not yet visible.[48] What is visible now is the kingdom of Christ that shows up in the form of local churches, and baptism is the observable act which demonstrates who is numbered among Christ’s kingdom-citizens.

Stanton Norman has written, “Christian baptism is… only… [for] those persons whose allegiance belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ.”[49] In other words, those people who pledge allegiance to Christ above all else are baptized as an official pronouncement of their citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. Others have drawn upon the idea of an “embassy” to describe the local church on this conceptual basis.[50] And, since baptism is the way Christians initially affirm new believers, it serves as a sort of passport for citizens of Christ’s kingdom on earth. But without physical boundaries or geographical lines on a map, Christ’s kingdom is more like a foreign nation existing in the form of scattered outposts among the kingdoms or nations of this world.

Local churches act as embassies of Christ’s kingdom when they proclaim the message of their King, call present inhabitants of this world to pledge allegiance to Christ (i.e., repent and believe), and authoritatively declare a new citizenship (by baptism) to those who exhibit the fruit of regeneration. Baptism, then, is tantamount to membership in the visible kingdom of Christ; it is the door of church membership.[51] Shawn Wright observes, “baptism is the entrance marker of a converted person into the membership and accountability of a local church.”[52] From the nineteenth century, Edward Hiscox wrote, “[baptism] stands at the door [of church membership], and admission [into the church] is only on its reception.”[53] Indeed, Jonathan Watson shows the relationship between baptism and ecclesiology when he writes, “A local church administers baptism to persons as a means of making them disciples… Thus, the doctrine of the church – its fellowship and obedient mission in the world – is bound up with this rite as well.”[54]

Rustin Umstattd, a contemporary Baptist theologian, agrees with this point as far as it goes. He writes, “The baptism in the Great Commission was both a profession of faith by the one coming to Christ and recognition by the church that he was being accepted into Christ.”[55] But in the same article, in which he advocates against delaying baptism, Umstattd seems to overemphasize the profession to the detriment of the recognition. He says, “delayed baptism, for evidentiary purposes, causes the church to abandon (de facto, if not de jure) the concept of credobaptism, in favor of what one might call ‘certo-baptism,’ this latter idea being defined as the baptism of someone whose bona fides have been underwritten officially by a local church.”[56] However, one’s bona fides is precisely what a church is recognizing and underwriting by baptizing a new believer.[57] The one desirous of baptism may indeed be regenerate and believing, but the church is responsible to make a judgment regarding this very question.[58]

It is important to note here that Baptists make no claim of infallibility with regard to a local church’s decision to baptize a confessor into membership in Christ’s visible kingdom. Wright says, “When a church receives a person as a member, they are saying, ‘As far as we can tell, you are one of us. You have been born again. You are a pilgrim along with us on your way to heaven’” (emphasis added).[59] Donald Ackland makes it clear that Baptists today “can lay no claim to a full measure of apostolic discernment;” therefore, he says, “we should exercise every care in determining that those who seek the privilege of church membership possess the basic spiritual qualifications.”[60] Thus, baptism and church membership do not confer salvation, nor is baptism an affirmation that cannot err. And yet, Baptist churches do mean to include only regenerate confessors, those who presently pledge allegiance to Christ and demonstrate the sort of behavior that accompanies repentance and faith.[61]

In summary, we have attempted to show that baptism is the way new disciples become visible Christians, inherently joined with other visible Christians. It is not the only or even the “legitimizing” feature of conversion, but baptism the biblical way Christians make a public profession of faith and become partakers, along with other partakers, in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ.[62] We have also argued that there is a necessary correlation between a public profession of faith and a public affirmation of that profession. Simply put, existing disciples must affirm new ones by way of baptism; no one baptizes himself, and baptism is intrinsically an affirmative judgment. And, finally, we have labored to explain the biblical, logical, and historical connection baptism has with church membership. Baptism is the initial way new disciples unite with others, and this normally occurs in the context of the local church.

Subjects and Context of Baptism

Having defined baptism, we should confront a common assumption that appears to pervade modern Christianity in America. Some church leaders and Christian authors do not seem to think there is any such thing as a disordered baptism, even less a false one.[63] All is fair game, and each believer should feel personal freedom in answering the questions of who should be baptized and how. Some emphasize an interest in maximizing the number of baptisms while avoiding altogether questions about propriety or fidelity to Scripture’s teaching on the subject. 

Kelly Bean, in her book How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church, describes what she calls “alternative forms of Christian community.” She calls them “non-goers,” those people, like her, who call themselves “Christian” and even “faithful,”[64] but who also purposefully avoid membership with any local church. She argues that this group is growing in number, and she thinks this is just part of the inevitable change that must always happen. When she finally does address the subject of the ordinances or sacraments, she says these can be easily adapted to various forms of uncommitted and untethered faith-communities. She says, “Sometimes non-goers will assemble with other non-goers in a small community to share in the sacraments of communion or baptism… Most non-goers understand themselves to be part of the priesthood of all believers and accept responsibility and authority for administration of the sacraments.”[65]Bean is representative of a large number of professing Christians who feel perfectly free to practice the ordinances in any way that seems right to them.

It is not just untethered Christians who feel this freedom. Some church leaders seem to believe the increased number of baptisms justifies any loss of biblical warrant for their practices. Elevation Church produced a “How-To Guide” for “Spontaneous Baptisms,” which called for other churches to follow the method and pattern they used.[66]They recorded between 13% and 18% of their audience followed in baptism at the “Spontaneous Baptism event” in 2008, and between 9% and 16% in 2011. “Volunteers played a vital role,” they said, and they called for “15 people [to] sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call.” Other volunteers are to be arranged in the hallways to “create an atmosphere of Celebration.” The key throughout the “How-To Guide” is speed and efficiency, a “smooth interaction” and avoiding any “slow down” in “traffic flow.” Those being baptized are encouraged to “tweet… that they are being baptized today,” and volunteers are “looking for 1 or 2 great stories” from among the people in their “group” awaiting baptism. And yet, there seems to be little time for any sort of pastoral inquiry. There is no information in the guide to call for screening some out of the throngs wanting to be baptized, and church membership is not mentioned either. It is not clear that these baptisms are connected in any way to membership at Elevation Church.

Professing Christians seeking alternative forms of community and church leaders calling for spontaneous baptisms both seem to be heading in the exact opposite direction of the meaning of baptism urged in this essay and exemplified in history. Shawn Wright provides a voice of reason when he says, “those who are to be baptized should be presented to the fellowship for its approval before the baptism. One of the responsibilities of a fellowship is to receive its members… It is therefore the congregation’s responsibility to hear the testimony of the one to be baptized so that they might then receive him into their membership in a meaningful way.”[67] Yes, this is the sort of practice in keeping with the meaning of baptism articulated above. The matter we are concerned with here is orderly baptism, as opposed to disordered baptism. 

Who, then, should be baptized? 

Only those people with a credible profession of faith should be recommended for baptism. A proper confessor is one who has heard and understood the gospel of Jesus Christ, who has understood the basic requirements of ongoing repentance and faith, and demonstrates at least some evidence of spiritual life. Because baptism is an affirmation that this one is a Christian, those Christians affirming such a thing must take some care to know – as best as they are able – if the one to be baptized is actually born again. Such a practice will usually necessitate some passage of time, since the Christians affirming a new believer will need to know something about the person to be baptized. Is she repenting of sin? Is he showing love for Christ and love for other Christians? Does she seem willing to pursue holiness alongside the Christians among this local church? All of these questions and more will need time to answer. Baptism is more than a profession of faith, though not less, and those Christians responsible for affirming such a profession must love potential converts enough to help them assess whether they possess saving faith.[68]

When should a professing believer be baptized? 

Since baptism is a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and since baptism is to be observed in the name of Jesus or in the name of the triune God, it is most appropriate to closely join the practice of baptism with the preaching or proclaiming of the gospel message. Furthermore, because baptism unites a new believer with existing ones, it would be most appropriate to baptize a new believer among the gathering of a local church. Since churches regularly gather on the Lord’s Day, baptism would be best observed in the context of a formal church liturgy. Having gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the congregation has heard the gospel proclaimed, they have sung songs affirming the gospel, they have prayed prayers to the triune God, and they should now see the initiatory oath-sign of the gospel promises and requirements.

How should a professing believer be baptized? 

There is consensus among scholars today that the New Testament practice was baptism by immersion.[69] Moreover, the action of immersing a person in water clearly visualizes the ideas baptism is meant to convey – death of the old self with Christ, cleansing of sin, rising to live a new life in a new way. Thus, professing believers ought to be baptized in the name of the triune God by fully immersing them in water. There may be rare occasions when sufficient water is not available or other complicating factors that make full immersion highly difficult for a particular person, such as bodily ailments that should not be exposed to water. Immersion is the proper or orderly form of baptism, but it is not of the essence of the ordinance. However, every effort should be made to practice full immersion. Similarly, it is not essential for a pastor or elder to perform the baptism, but it is appropriate for such a one to do so, since a pastor or elder is publicly recognized as one who faithfully preaches and teachers the gospel among a particular congregation.

Conclusion

Baptists have historically believed that baptism is not essential for salvation, but they have never believed that baptism was a dispensable feature of Christian conversion. Indeed, Baptists are Baptists precisely because of their high view and applied practice of baptism. Baptists have sometimes spoken more harshly than necessary against those whom they believed practiced a kind of baptism that is not baptism (i.e., paedobaptism), but this is not the aim here. This essay has attempted to avoid belittling those who disagree, but instead to present a positive case for the consistent practice of believer’s baptism. The goal has been to argue for and explain the biblical meaning and practice of baptism, which, along with regeneration, repentance, and faith, is inseparable from Christian conversion. This ordinance is the initiatory oath-sign whereby the individual believer makes a public profession of faith and existing believers publicly affirm the one being baptized as a partaker in the visible kingdom of Jesus Christ, united with the Savior and also with His people in the world. Stein summarizes it by saying that during the earliest days of Christianity baptism was how the “individual receive[d] Christ,” it was “administered by the church,” and it was “through this experience [that] he or she [became] part of the body of believers.”[70]

Baptism, then, is the subjective display and application of God’s objective promises in the New Covenant. As such, believer’s baptism, as defined in this essay, is vitally important to every Christian and every local church because it best “preserves the pure witness of the gospel.”[71] May God grant that every true church will be a bold witness of the gospel of Christ, and may He also grant that we all seek to adorn the doctrine of the gospel with consistent practices in our churches.


Endnotes

[1] Gregg R. Allison, The Church: An Introduction, Short Studies in Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021). 107.

[2] Bannerman argues, “there belongs to [baptism] the… character of a seal, confirming and attesting a federal transaction between God and the believer.” And “if Baptism be the seal of a federal transaction between the party baptized and Christ; if this be the main and characteristic feature of the ordinance… it would appear as if there were no small difficulty in the way of admitting to the participation of it those who, by reason of nonage, can be no parties to the engagement in virtue of their own act or will… the primary and ruling consideration in the controversy must be the express Divine appointment on the subject.” James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, Franklin Classics, vol. 2, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868). 49, 67.

[3] Hans Kung, representing a modern Roman Catholic view, says, “Baptism is… not only a condition but also a guarantee of being made a part of the [universal] Church.” Hans Küng, The Church, trans. Ray Ockenden and Ockenden, Rosaleen, Twelfth (New York, NY: Continuum, 2001). 210. And Miroslav Volf summarizes John D. Zizioulas’s teaching on this point, representing a leading Eastern Orthodox view, saying, “baptism makes the human being into a ‘catholic entity’; not only is that person incorporated into the church [i.e., “baptized… into a network of relationships”], he is also himself made into the church.” Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, Sacra Doctrina (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998). 90.

[4] Bannerman argues, “The principle of representation found under the Old Testament is the very principle introduced by the Apostle [in 1 Corinthians 7:14] to explain the position and character of children in the case where no more than one parent is a believer and member of the Church… The Holiness of the one parent that is a member of the Christian Church, communicates relative holiness to the infant, so that the child also is fitted to be a member of the Church, and to be baptized.” James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, Franklin Classics, vol. 2, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868). 90.

[5] John P Sartelle, Infant Baptism: What Christian Parents Should Know (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985). 8.

[6] John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order, Second (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012). 13. John P Sartelle, Infant Baptism: What Christian Parents Should Know (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985). 6.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016). Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture references are from the same.

[8] Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30, 26:20; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 7:10; 2 Peter 3:9 (and many more).

[9] Acts 2:44, 4:4, 8:12, 10:43, 11:21, 13:48, 16:31; Rom. 1:16, 3:22, 10:9 (and many more).

[10] Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 52.

[11] Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015). 40.

[12] Of course, repentance, belief, and regeneration are all evident in the life of a believer. This seems to be one of the main points of Galatians 5. But these are not immediately or objectively observed. 

[13] Jamieson, 40.

[14] Ibid, 64.

[15] Ibid, 64.

[16] Ibid, 64.

[17] Jamieson, 69.

[18] Dagg, 71.

[19] 1 Peter 3:21.

[20] Galatians 3:27.

[21] Romans 6:3-5.

[22] Colossians 1:13

[23] Matthew 28:20.

[24] Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nasville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016). 74-109.

[25] John Cotton, The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: And Power Thereof, According to the Word of God, ed. P. Joseph (Copppell, TX: Independent, 2021). Cotton does not explicitly connect Matthew 28 with chapters 16 and 18, but Cotton argues much as Leeman does regarding the “keys of the kingdom.” The “keys” refer to the authority of the local church to speak on Christ’s behalf in the matters of true Christian doctrine and true Christian converts. Cotton is a paedobaptist Congregationalist, and Leeman is a credobaptist congregationalist, but they both see a good bit of the same substance in Matthew 16 and 18.

[26] Matthew 16:13-20 speaks positively, demonstrating by Peter’s example what a good confession and a good confessor is. Peter received Jesus’s own blessing and affirmation, and then Jesus authorized all future judgments to “bind” or include right confessors with right confessions within the New Covenant community (i.e., the earthly kingdom of Christ).

[27] Matthew 18:15-20 speaks negatively, demonstrating what the church is authorized to do with an unnamed “brother” who “sins” without repentance. Jesus authorized all future judgments that would expel or “loose” any unrepentant sinner from the New Covenant community (i.e., the earthly kingdom of Christ).

[28] Matthew 18:20.

[29] Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members. 75.

[30] Ibid, 81.

[31] Ibid, 81.

[32] Acts 2:37-38.

[33] Acts 2:41.

[34] Acts 8:12.

[35] Acts 8:11-12.

[36] Acts 8:14.

[37] Acts 10:46.

[38] Acts 10:47.

[39] Matthew 18:20.

[40] Matthew 16:19.

[41] Matthew 18:15.

[42] Matthew 18:17.

[43] Matthew 18:18.

[44] Revelation 20:11-15, 21:7-8.

[45] Revelation 7:9-10.

[46] Revelation 21:1-2.

[47] Revelation 21:3; see also the expanded description in verses 9-21 of a “city” with a “great wall” which likely matches the distance of the entire Hellenistic empire in the first century.

[48] See the repeated use of the word “conquer” throughout Revelation (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21, etc.), meaning “persevere” or “keep” faith in Christ (Rev. 2:26), and the specific promise in Revelation 21:7, “The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”

[49] R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005). 134.

[50] Jamieson, 88. and Jonathan Leeman, “The Church: Universal and Local,” TGC: U.S. Edition (blog), accessed July 2, 2022, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-church-universal-and-local/.

[51] Norman does not seem to know of any “Christian group” that does not “perceive baptism as the initiatory rite into church membership.” R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005). 134. There are known historical exceptions, however, including the Quakers and the Salvation Army, each holding idiosyncratic views on baptism. It may also be noteworthy that the modern development of non-denominational churches (which are often disconnected from historic Christian doctrine), the recent practice of spontaneous baptisms, and the increase of ecclesiastically isolated para-church ministries (which sometimes take it upon themselves to practice a strange and untethered form of the ordinances) have all begun to dissociate baptism and church membership (in practice, if not in theological argumentation). 

[52] Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015). 124.

[53] Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Coppell, TX: SolidChristianBooks.com, 2022). 83.

[54] Jonathan Watson, “The Ongoing ‘Use’ of Baptism: A Hole in the Baptist (Systematic) Baptistry?,” Southwestern Journal of Theology61, Fall 2018, 9-10.

[55] Rustin Umstattd, “Credo v. Certo Baptism: How Delaying Baptism May Change Its Meaning from Profession of Faith to Evidence of Sanctification,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Spring 2018, 6.

[56] Ibid, 4.

[57] Robert Matz avoids this responsibility of the congregation entirely in his argument concerning the cognitive abilities of children. His focus is on the understanding of the child, but he does not address a congregation’s responsibility to observe apparent evidence of regeneration. He says, “cognitive developmental studies do not provide justification for restricting baptism from children… Children who can independently reason about faith, repentance, the Christian gospel and conversion and who can explain how such concepts apply to themselves personally should be affirmed as converts and baptized.” Robert Matz, “The Cognitive Abilities of Children and Southern Baptist Baptismal Restrictions,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 61, no. 1 (Fall 2018): 43–61. 60-61.

[58] See Klopfer’s emphasis on the intrinsically social nature of baptism. Specifically, she says, “The idea that baptism, like salvation, is personal needs careful clarification and reflection in order to be helpful to Baptists of the twenty-first century. Personal here does not mean private of privatized, words that are often used interchangeably. Personal is not the individual conscience or isolated ego, demanding that it be baptized as a rugged individualist in defiance of all family, church, and societal traditions.” Sheila Klopfer, “From Personal Salvation to Personal Baptism: The Shaping Influence of Evangelical Theology on Baptism,” Baptist History and Heritage, Summer/Fall 2010, 76.

[59] Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations. 126.

[60] Donald F. Ackland, Joy in Church Membership (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1955). 14.

[61] This is, in fact, a Baptist distinctive known as regenerate church membership. Historically, this conviction not only affects the way Baptists have practiced baptism, but also the way they have practiced the Lord’s Supper and church discipline.

[62] Robert Stein observed “that it is the gift of the Spirit that legitimizes the experience of baptism, not vice versa.” Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 45.

[63] The terms disordered and false each qualify the term baptism. A disordered baptism is true Christian baptism, but it has occurred in such a way so as to distance itself more or less from accurately communicating the meaning of baptism outlined in this essay. A false baptism in one or more ways neglects or denies in its practice the essential features of Christian baptism.

[64] Kelly Bean, How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2014). 10.

[65] Bean, 166.

[66] “Spontaneous Baptisms How-To Guide” (Elevation Church, August 2011).

[67] Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations. 125-126.

[68] Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:10; James 2:14-17.

[69] Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 81.

[70] Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 63.

[71] Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006). 3.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ackland, Donald F. Joy in Church Membership. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1955.

Allison, Gregg R. The Church: An Introduction. Short Studies in Systematic Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021.

Bannerman, James. The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church. Franklin Classics. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868.

———. The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church. Franklin Classics. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Murray and Gibbs, 1868.

Bean, Kelly. How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

Cotton, John. The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: And Power Thereof, According to the Word of God. Edited by P. Joseph. Copppell, TX: Independent, 2021.

Dagg, John L. Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order. Second. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012.

Dever, Mark, and Jonathan Leeman, eds. Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015. 

Duesing, Jason G. “The Church.” In Historical Theology For the Church, 231–74. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2021.

Hiscox, Edward T. The New Directory for Baptist Churches. Coppell, TX: Independent, 2022.

Jamieson, Bobby. Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015.

Keach, Benjamin. The Glory of a True Church. Kindle. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2018.

Klopfer, Sheila. “From Personal Salvation to Personal Baptism: The Shaping Influence of Evangelical Theology on Baptism.” Baptist History and Heritage, no. Summer/Fall 2010: 65–79.

Leeman, Jonathan. Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism. Nasville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016.

———. “The Church: Universal and Local.” TGC: U.S. Edition (blog). Accessed July 2, 2022. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-church-universal-and-local/.

Matz, Robert. “The Cognitive Abilities of Children and Southern Baptist Baptismal Restrictions.” Southwestern Journal of Theology, Fall 2018: 43–61.

Norman, R. Stanton. The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sartelle, John P. Infant Baptism: What Christian Parents Should Know. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985.

Schreiner, Thomas R., and Matthew R. Crawford. The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes. NAC Studies in Bible & Theology. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010.

Schreiner, Thomas R., and Shawn D. Wright, eds. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. NAC Studies in Bible & Theology. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2006.

“Spontaneous Baptisms How-To Guide.” Elevation Church, August 2011.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Umstattd, Rustin. “Credo v. Certo Baptism: How Delaying Baptism May Change Its Meaning from Profession of Faith to Evidence of Sanctification.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Spring 2018: 3–14.

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Sacra Doctrina. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

Watson, Jonathan. “The Ongoing ‘Use’ of Baptism: A Hole in the Baptist (Systematic) Baptistry?” Southwestern Journal of Theology, Fall 2018: 3–27.

Witherow, Thomas. I Will Build My Church: Selected Writings on Church Polity, Baptism, and the Sabbath. Edited by Jonathan Gibson. Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2021.

Can a Church Eliminate Committees?

The short answer to this questions is, yes. In fact, my own church did eliminate all our standing committees in 2020. I’ll tell you how we did it, and I’ll also tell you how we plan to create new committees when we need them.

In 2020, after several years of revitalization and reform, our church was finally at the turning point. We were, like many smallish Baptist churches, a committee led church with both administrative and service-oriented committees. Somewhere between four and ten church members participated in each committee for a 3-year duration, at which point some of them would stay on for another term while others would be replaced by other church members.

We had a “stewardship” committee that managed the church budget and finances, a “personnel” committee that managed staff and remuneration, a “building” committee that managed maintenance and upkeep, a “policy and procedures” committee that managed all our documents from the church’s confession of faith to the policies regulating the use of the fellowship hall, and a few other committees. All were permanent, and some had overlapping responsibilities and authority.

By 2020, however, our church had come to understand that some of the responsibilities listed and borne by committees were actually pastoral responsibilities. We also became convinced that pastoral leadership was being subverted (often unintentionally and with the best of intentions) by most of our committees. So, we decided to reconstitute as an elder-led (or pastor-led) congregational church – a church where the assembled congregation bears the ultimate authority to make the most important decisions (who our members and leaders are and what we believe and teach), and a church where the elders or pastor bear authority to oversee and to shepherd the congregation.

The practical implementation of an elder-led congregational polity will look different in various churches, but the overall principles and structure is the same – pastors lead and the assembled congregation follows while focusing on their primary duty to make disciples. In our case, that structure took shape (at least in part) by eliminating all our committees. But that transition took time.

In June of 2020, the assembled congregation voted to adopt our new constitution, which structured our church polity according to the principles I’ve mentioned above. However, we told the committee members we had that night to continue operating just as they had been until further notice. This basically meant that they would keep meeting and performing their duties until the elders or pastors were ready to absorb their responsibilities. For us, that did not begin to happen until September, since we waited until August to elect more pastors than the one vocational pastor we already had.

After electing three additional elders in August, the four elders of our church (one vocational pastor and three voluntary or lay-pastors) began meeting to discuss (among other things) the practical logistics of the transition. We (the elders) met with each committee individually to gain vital information about important decisions that had been made in the past, to learn how the committee had functioned well, and to individually express gratitude for the time and effort the committee members had invested.

In order to eliminate the “stewardship” committee our elders had to take on the specific responsibilities of arranging the annual proposal for a church budget, planning for financial expenses and projects, and forming a ministry philosophy that would guide such activities. The elders needed to create a basic system of meeting with staff to evaluate and to organize a pay-scale, to prioritize areas of expense, and to generally lead the church in understanding why we allocate our money the way we do. One of the main financial oversight obligations of the elders is now to propose an annual budget and to teach the congregation why each expense categories matters.

In order to eliminate the “personnel” committee our elders had to take on the specific responsibilities of evaluating present job-descriptions, creating new ones, ensuring ongoing training and education, and creating a basic flow-chart of delegated staff responsibility (we didn’t have any chart like this in place at the time). The elders needed to establish expectations for office hours, vacation days, and expense accounts. The elders needed to create pathways for addressing inter-office and staff issues when they arise, and they needed to establish the structure of how each staff member would relate to the others.

In order to eliminate the “policy and procedures” committee our elders placed supreme emphasis on our church’s fundamental documents – the confession of faith, the membership covenant, and the constitution. All of these documents were good and in place when we transitioned from a committee-led congregation to an elder-led congregation (the new constitution being ratified in 2020), so there was not much work to be done there. However, there were numerous (and often contradictory) policies on the books. So, the elders voted to wipe the slate clean, and to begin with some basic building use and church-wide activity policies. To date, we have not created many policies, but this will likely be a responsibility that the elders will delegate to a newly formed committee in the future (more on this below).

With our “building” committee and others like it, the elders decided to assign service tasks to specific deacons. Instead of having a committee of rotating members take responsibility for functions like mowing the grass, cleaning the building, providing occasional maintenance, and operating and maintaining the A/V equipment, we moved toward assigning these to task-oriented deacons who ensure such functions (either by doing them or by planning for other members to do so).

For full transparency, our elders are still trying to assign deacons for all of these roles and more. The church members are generally very gracious and generous with their time, so many functions are happening at present by various informal volunteers. Our elders would prefer to have specific deacons take formal responsibility for them, but we pay for God’s help in leading our members to better understand the role and function of deacons.

As for the future of committees, we have an option to create them articulated in our current constitution. Any new committee will be formed with a specific purpose, budget, and duration clarified with its formation. As I mentioned above, we believe that a committee will be helpful in creating certain policies, but committees will also likely be helpful by taking on assignments to investigate building renovation options, to procure better and more cost-effective insurance, and more.

Many churches today are coming to recognize the same reality that our church did during the late twenty-teens – that pastoral leadership is critical to the health of a local church. Good pastoral leadership is exercised primarily in the teaching and shepherding of the members, but such functions overlap with the exercise of oversight. And churches are sure to enjoy greater health and vitality (even if they do not necessarily grow in number) when good pastors lead well.

For those interested in talking through this more, there are probably several pastors nearby who could be a help to you. If you are in the East Texas area, I would be happy to provide a conversation partner. You can reach me at marc@fbcdiana.org.

A Dissertation Proposal: Developments in Polity Practices among Baptists in America in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Research Topic

Summary

This research project is focuses on studying the articulated and the practiced polity among Baptist churches in America during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in order to discover and document modifications in governance models over time. This project aims to help the reader better understand how leadership by volunteer committees, deacon boards, and/or professional staff became so common among the practiced polity in Baptist churches today. A primary preferred outcome of this project is that the reader might become better equipped, both by Scripture and by knowing how the present state of practiced polity came to be. Thus, the reader may be helped to recognize and address matters of polity in their own local church.

The present author’s understanding is that the earliest Baptists in America thoughtfully articulated and tenaciously practiced a form of government that included congregational and pastoral authority. From the seventeenth century Baptists in England (represented by the theologian Benjamin Keach[1]) to the nineteenth century Baptists in America (represented by the theologian John Dagg[2]) the fundamental ecclesiological convictions and polity principles seem to have been relatively consistent, though the specific details in allocating responsibility may not have been uniform. However, in the twentieth century, at least some Baptists in America were arguing for a return to historic Baptist practices regarding polity, such as Winthrop Hudson.[3] Changes had certainly occurred, and one can observe some of the most basic structural sort by reading from an incredibly influential Baptist churchman, J. Newton Brown. In his short and widely used church manual, he used terms like “treasurer,” “clerk,” “trustee,” and even “sexton” as though every Baptist church had such agents (or officers).[4]

Two extremes have arisen from this historic Baptist milieu that have become common over the last 120 years. A commercial and pragmatic polity governs many larger Baptist churches, often centralizing authority among professional employees. Many smaller Baptist churches function as a pure democracy, though this democratic form of government often includes committees (usually comprised of members with no other qualification than that they are a church member) and at least some authoritative oversight from elected deacons. Some modern Baptist authors, such as William Henard,[5]simply assume a committee-organized and demographically segregated polity. Others, like Ed Stetzer,[6] embrace a completely pragmatic approach, and they promote management models more akin to corporate America than to historic Baptists. Versions of elder-led congregationalism,[7] in which the congregation and the pastor(s) each share distinct authoritative roles, is the minority practice of Baptist polity in America today.

The modern label of elder-led congregationalism seems to fit historic Baptist polity well, but many Baptists today have seemingly embraced the view of Gregg Allison, who does not argue for any single church polity, but articulates various polity options without favoring one over another.[8] Allison, representing the Baptist polity zeitgeist of twenty-first-century Baptists (and other Evangelicals as well), even advocates for “offices not named in Scripture” to provide ministry “oversight” among the local church because they are “nonetheless practical.”[9] From whence did these pragmatic governmental structures and offices come (i.e., staff rule, deacon oversight, and authoritative committees)? How did nearly identical extra-biblical offices (i.e., committee member, clerk, and treasurer) become so pervasive among Baptists in America? Did anyone make a positive case that the early Baptists were wrong or ignorant in their polity practices? If not, are modern Baptists simply ignorant of the polity convictions of their forebears? And if the early Baptists were correct, how might the church recover its convictions and practices today?

Nature of the Problem

This project falls under the category of applied or practical research. It will address the perennial problem of local church health and vitality with a keen eye on Baptist polity because polity affects church health and life directly. The conviction of the present author is that much ecclesiological confusion was exposed during the COVID pandemic of 2020. Many churches are still reeling because of the circumstances that arose and the practices that were either already common or newly adopted. This research project will not focus on the leadership methods that should or should not be employed during a pandemic, but more fundamentally on broader polity principles. Of special interest are the principles of shared responsibility and authority between the congregation and the pastor(s) of particular local churches. What convictions did Baptists have from the beginning regarding pastoral and congregational authority, and how have the practices of Baptists changed over the last century? 

In many respects, polity is what makes Baptist churches Baptist. It was not the gospel or defining the marks of a true church that differentiated Baptists from their Presbyterian or Congregationalist brethren; it was polity. More importantly, if historic Baptist polity is genuinely biblical, the consistent practice will produce the healthiest, most faithful, and most effective churches. There is an apparent groundswell of recovering historic Baptist polity among Baptist churches today, and this project aims to contribute to that discussion and aid in the recovery effort.

This project is to be completed at the highest level of scholarship and under the purview of the Historical Theology department of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It will (Lord willing) contribute to the advancement of scholarly historical research in this seminary and the broader academic community. It will also (Lord willing) prove relevant to the practical discussions of ecclesiology and polity among Baptists today. The highest aim of this project is that it will be a genuine benefit to pastors and church members who are convictional Baptists and who want to help their churches organize themselves and operate in faithful submission to the Lord Jesus Christ… to the glory of the triune God. May He grant that it be successful to this end.

Identified Sources

Primary Sources

In this early phase of the project, the primary sources are defined as those which provide both historic and present displays of Baptist church polity, either by doctrinal argumentation or by exposing local church practices. These primary sources include books, articles, dissertations, the historical records of several local Baptist churches, and the records of at least one Baptist association. Documenting the development of polity among specific local Baptist churches since the turn of the twentieth century is paramount to this project. So too is understanding (to the extent possible) and describing the influences upon and rationale for any notable polity changes. Information will be gained from the historic and present-day minutes from members’ meetings and committee meetings, constitutional documents, church covenant documents, and the like. More information, as well as denominational and associational context, will be gained from the historic and present-day records of associational meetings from the Harmony-Pittsburg Baptist Association. This project has confirmed participation from four churches that are at least 100 years old, including the First Baptist Church of Diana, TX, the First Baptist Church of Salado, TX, the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, TX, and Oakridge Baptist Church in Marietta, TX. Participation from at least ten Baptist churches is desirable.

As this project develops, it will likely proceed by showing developments in polity, both articulated and practiced, among specific churches (as noted above). It will also show developments in the polity articulated by key theological proponents throughout history. Beginning with the mid- and late-seventeenth century, for the purpose of establishing continuity and consistency, this project will likely begin by evidencing the basic polity principles of the Independents (or Congregationalists) and the Baptists (English and American), both of which sprouted from the post-Reformation soil of the English Puritans.[10]

Benjamin Keach is among the earliest conscious Baptist theologians. Though he lived and died in England (now the United Kingdom) by 1704, he was greatly influential on early Baptists in America. Keach’s small book The Glory of a True Church[11] is a classic on the subject of Baptist ecclesiology, and Baptist polity is necessarily subsumed within that subject. John Cotton, in his booklet The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,[12] exemplifies the Independent or Congregationalist ecclesiology about fifty years before Keach. A Concise History of the Kehukee Baptist Association[13]by Lemuel Burkitt, Jesse Read, and Henry Burkitt offers some insight into Baptist polity in the eighteenth century, and Mark Dever’s compilation of historic Baptists in his book Polity[14] also provides foundational documentation through both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Iain Murray’s marvelous compendium,  The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan documents on Church Issues,[15] will offer even more detail and a broader historical perspective (i.e., Evangelical, and not merely Baptist) of this same general period.

Tracing the congregationalism of Baptists through the nineteenth century, Democratic Religion[16] by Greg Wills, The Baptist Church Manual[17] by J. Newton Brown and Manual of Theology[18] by John Dagg will each contribute just a bit more of the historic Baptist theology and practices which gave way to the twentieth century. Wills masterfully reveals the congregationalism practiced by Baptist churches, and Brown was a highly influential Baptist theologian and churchmen among nineteenth-century Baptists. His little church manual was a booklet used by so many Baptist churches that his enclosed procedural forms became the template for Baptist documents, both within churches and communication from one church to another. Dagg’s influence cannot be overstated. His manual was not as concise as Brown’s, but it represents the scholarly Baptist articulation and defense of ecclesiology in the nineteenth century and beyond.

This project has presently identified two primary sources from the twentieth century and one other source that may be quite interesting. The two main sources articulating Baptist polity during this focal period are currently The Churchbook[19] by Gaines Dobbins (published in 1951) and Training in Church Membership[20] by I. J. Van Ness (published in 1959). Both of these are popular-level works that promote and explain the function of Baptist polity in the life of the local church. The third source of written form from the twentieth century is A Biblical Defense of Plural Proclamation in the Local Church[21] by Gregory Kappas. This dissertation argues for more than one minister of the word in the local church. It is unclear at this point if Kappas was something of a forerunner to the surge of authors in the twenty-first century who wrote on the importance of word-centered leadership and of a plurality of pastors or elders. Still, if so, then Kappas’s dissertation will be of particular interest. More written sources from the twentieth-century sources are desirable, though the bulk of the source material from this period will likely be the documents from several local churches and at least one association (as mentioned above). 

Significant motivation for the project anticipated here arises from the fact that many works have been published at the beginning of the twenty-first century which aim to call Baptists to return to their historic polity convictions and practices. This overtly implies that there has been a drift over time or maybe even a conscious change of course at some point in the past. The main focus of this project is to discover and document the changes in Baptist polity that provoked so many Baptists to reprove, instruct, and exhort their co-laborers. Among some of these works are Baptist Foundations[22]by Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches[23] by John Hammett, the journal article Why Baptist Elders Is Not an Oxymoron[24] by Phil Newton, Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches[25] by Thomas White, Jason Duesing, and Malcolm Yarnell, Southern Baptist Identity[26] by David Dockery and others, and also a journal article by Robert Wring called Elder Rule and Southern Baptist Church Polity.[27] Dockery, White, Duesing, and Yarnell have all directly urged modern Baptists to consider and adopt the polity and practices of earlier Baptists. Dever, Hammett, Newton, and Wring have each offered modern Baptists an argument for the biblical and historical roots of the Baptist polity practiced by their forebears, often contrasting the older with the newer.

Critiquing the contemporary polity environment is not the only method by which some Baptists have been urging other Baptists to embrace their historic ecclesiology and polity. Many other works have simply offered a positive argument for and articulation of Baptist polity. Among these are Baptist Polity and Elders[28] and The Church,[29] an article and a book, both by Mark Dever. In the twenty-first century, Dever has been an especially noteworthy proponent of historic Baptist polity. Other works articulating and promoting Baptist polity are American Baptist Polity[30] by Robert Handy, Shepherding God’s Flock[31] by Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner, Elders in the Life of the Church[32] by Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker, and Polity and Proclamation[33] by Alvin Reid. These works are not only interested in promoting Baptist polity generally but are also mainly focused on the way pastoral leadership (as distinct from the leadership of staff or committees or deacons) functions in a congregational church. The emphasis of these sources makes them of primary interest to this project.

Other influential publications during the same period will provide a contrast to the works cited above. Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches[34] and William Henard’s Can These Bones Live?[35] have been prominent books for those interested in church planting and in church revitalization. Henard is an adjunct professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his text is part of the required reading in his course on church revitalization. Furthermore, Stetzer remains a leading voice in church planting strategies and methods among Southern Baptists and Evangelicals more broadly. His ideas largely shaped the discussion during the early 2000s. 

In addition to these two publications, two others are noteworthy as contrasting articulations of popularly practiced church polity today. One is The Prevailing Church[36] by Randy Pope. Pope was the senior pastor of a Presbyterian megachurch outside of Atlanta, GA (he retired from the pastorate in 2019, after 42 years at the same church), and his book has been highly influential among church planters and church leaders over the last twenty years. Pope presents an ecclesiological model that embraces efficiency, pragmatism, and industry, all highly prized features of common polities practiced among Baptist churches today and Evangelical churches more broadly. Such features might be hard to recognize as having any connection to the polity and ecclesiology of our Baptist forebears. 

One other articulation of popular church polity today is Gregg Allison’s introductory and popular-level book on ecclesiology, simply called The Church.[37] Allison, who is a member of the faculty at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, typifies the laissez-faire sort of attitude that many twenty-first century church leaders have about church polity. In his concise work (published in 2021), Allison lists various polities he perceives as being exercised in the New Testament without offering any notion that one might be preferred over another. Not only is Allison stepping away from his Baptist ancestors by omitting an argument in favor of congregationalism, but he also ignores the reality that many Baptists, Presbyterians, and those who embrace an episcopate form of church government (both historic and present-day) strongly argue that the Bible consistently prescribes one form of church polity over others. This certainly was and is a conviction of many Baptist churchmen.

In summary, these primary sources will contribute to this project by demonstrating the shape of Baptist ecclesiology and polity from the 1600s through the present day. This project aims to discover and document notable changes to the way Baptists articulate their polity convictions, as well as significant changes to the way Baptist churches practice their polity in real-time. First, the historical records of specific churches and at least one association are important. The books, articles, and dissertations that fit the primary source category will provide broader documentation expected to basically correspond to the convictions and practices of these churches on the ground.

Secondary Sources

Once again, there must be the acknowledgment that this project is still in its infancy, so the precise definition of each category of sources may change. At present, the secondary sources are those which offer observations and assessments of Baptist church polity developments during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These secondary sources include books, articles, and unpublished dissertations.

Several sources may provide historical documentation and a variety of assessments of historic Baptist polity. The most important of these will probably be The Reformation of the Church[38] by Iain Murray, Polity[39] by Mark Dever, Baptist Church Covenants[40] by Charles Deweese, and Baptist Confessions of Faith[41] by William Lumpkin. These books evidence to show what historic Baptists, spanning from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century, professed to believe, promised to do, and claimed as their polity. These books also offer assessments and commentary on the development of belief, practice, and polity over time. Additionally, several other sources will help add additional content on these same matters. These are A History of Democratic Church Polity[42] by Alfred Link, Baptist Concepts of the Church[43] by Winthrop Hudson, Polity Developments in the Southern Baptist Convention[44] by James Sullivan, Baptists: The Bible, Church Order and the Churches[45] by Edwin Gaustad, Democratic Religion[46] by Greg Wills, and Baptist Ecclesiology in Historic Perspective[47] by Douglas Weaver.

These sources are not only helpful to this project because of their particular assessment of Baptist polity, both past and present, but they are also valuable contributions at various points of the chronological focus of this project. Spanning from 1929 to 2014, these sources offer a critique of Baptist polity as each author perceived it during their own day. Further research into these sources may even provide real-time evidence (conscious to the author or otherwise) of polity changes as they happened.

Tertiary Sources

At this early stage of the project, the tertiary sources are defined as those that provide historical context for the noted Baptist polity displays and perspective for the various contemporaneous assessments thereof. These sources largely tell the story of Baptist history, each one from a different perspective and some focusing on a specific period or geography. Some of the sources listed below may not remain on the list, and others may be added that are not presently known to the present author, but those cited below are of interest to this project.

A few classic Baptist history tomes are A Short History of the Baptists[48] by Henry Vedder, The Baptist Heritage[49] by Leon McBeth, and A History of the Baptists[50] by Robert Torbet. These each offer a traditional and comprehensive view of Christian history, focusing on Baptists. More recent works will provide greater detail in one way or another. David Bebbington’s Baptists Through the Centuries[51] takes a more universal look at Baptist history, including those Baptists who spread beyond the western world. Evangelicalism Divided[52] by Iain Murray is not specifically focused on Baptists (as the title suggests). Still, it provides context and commentary on some of the most influential people and events which shaped Evangelicalism (including Baptists) during the twentieth century. Baptists in America[53] by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins offers a more focused perspective of specific Baptists, but it also gives a broader view of the social, political, and religious landscape for Baptists in American society. The Baptist Story[54] by Anthony Chute, Nathan Finn, and Michael Haykin is a concise summary of what many Baptist histories have provided before, but this work also takes on the perspective and culture of the authors who wrote it in the early 2010s.

Baptist polity and ecclesiology are convictions that have been applied over time and in various circumstances. Sometimes Baptists have been victimized by those with the power of government to oppose them, and sometimes Baptists have had greater freedom to congregate and to organize themselves according to their own convictions. At all times, Baptists have been proponents of local church autonomy and the responsibility of local congregations. Baptists have also recognized and advocated for the importance of biblically qualified church leaders in the form of pastors or elders, but the leadership structures in Baptist churches have indeed morphed over time to include various additional authoritative agents. Decision-making deacons, managerial staff, and supervisory committees have all become rival governing apparatuses for the shared responsibility and authority among the pastor(s) and the congregations of local Baptist churches. This project intends to discover and document both how and why such changes occurred.

Conversation Partners

While several of the sources already cited will offer points and counterpoints to the development and practice of polity among Baptist churches during the last century, two twenty-first-century scholars are likely to be critical representatives of the conversation this project aims to engage. These men have written dissertations with a strong emphasis on an elder-rule or elder-leader polity, and this project will likely benefit much from these two sources. The first is Robert Wring who submitted his Ph.D. dissertation to the Practical Theology Department of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in 2002. Wring’s paper is titled An Examination of the Practice of Elder Rule in Selected Southern Baptist Churches.[55]

Wring examines the leadership of elders among Southern Baptist churches in three areas: first, the exegetical development of such a polity from the Scripture (specifically the New Testament); second, the historical employment of elder leadership among the churches and the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention; and third, the influence of Reformed and Presbyterian theologians upon Southern Baptist theologians and church leaders. Of particular interest to this project is the method Wring used to document case studies of selected Southern Baptist Churches and the results of his studies. This project intends to discover and document the development of polity in a similar way. However, unlike Wring’s dissertation, this project expects to shine the light on how and why these historical changes happened, rather than merely observing and critiquing current practices.

Wring limits his research and evaluation to critiquing what he perceived to be a move from the “two-officer model of church leadership” (namely pastors and deacons) to a “three-officer model,” which includes a distinct sort of pastor or elder that does not regularly preach.[56] Wring’s research is essential to this project, but Wring’s focus is more narrow in the sense that this project will also investigate the development and use of various non-biblical officers, such as decision-making staff, ruling deacons, and administrative committees. Wring’s research and conclusions will also contribute to this project as a strong conversation partner, offering a divergent view from the present author (observing both past and present Baptists) on the role and function of pastoral leadership. It should be noted that the present author agrees wholeheartedly with Wring that “Southern Baptists need to develop ways to address the biblical and Baptistic position of church leadership…” However, the present author disagrees with Wring that the biblical and Baptistic position of church leadership is “by a [singular] pastor and deacons.”[57]

The second scholar who has previously done notable work in the field in which this project plans to toil is Joseph Silvey. Silvey also completed his Ph.D. through Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, and his dissertation was submitted in 2019 with the title The Role of Elder in Church Leadership: A Historical Analysis.[58] Silvey’s research and findings directly interact with Wring’s work at some points, and several other writers and works that have been cited among the primary sources of the present project. Silvey’s study method was similar to Wring’s in that Silvey began by exegeting various Scripture passages that speak to the role and function of church leaders, namely pastors or elders. However, Silvey’s method differed from Wring’s in at least two ways: first, Silvey concentrated his research on the role of elder among the broad terrain of Christian history, rather than focusing only on Southern Baptists; second, Silvey presented a comprehensive and extensive survey of the role of an elder, rather than focusing on the relationship of elder or pastoral leadership in the context of a congregational church polity.

Silvey’s research and conclusions will be important to the present project. Silvey will undoubtedly help direct the present author toward valuable historical sources and particular excerpts within those sources. Silvey also presents useful information that directly contributes to the goal of this project, specifically his chapter on “The Role of Elder in the Evangelical Period.”[59] Though Silvey offers a helpful historical outline of the use and function of elder leadership in the broad scope of Christian churches, including those Baptists churches that focus on this project, he also leaves much room for further inquiry.

In fact, both Silvey and Wring leave some gaping holes that this project aims to fill. Among these holes is the arrival of church committees. Neither Wring nor Silvey appear to notice this governing structure at all, and yet, administrative committees comprised of volunteers from among a church’s membership are omnipresent among Baptist churches today. The Southern Baptist Convention even has a Committee on Committees, which is either modeled after or serves as the model for such a committee on the local church level among Southern Baptists. Another hole is the origin and function of deacons in an administrative or ruling capacity. Neither Wring nor Silvey seem to address the fact that the dichotomous allocation of church offices – pastor/elder and deacon – has nonetheless morphed over time into what has practically become the office of ruling deacon. Wring and Silvey both acknowledge the importance Baptists have placed on congregational polity, and Wring even chides Baptists who may allow for a sort of ruling elder (the sort that overrides the authority of the congregation), but he ignores the overabundance of deacon bodies which rule many Baptist churches today.

Yet another hole in Wring’s and Silvey’s research is the arrival of and the present common function of church staff as authoritative leaders in the church. Program Directors and Office Administrators make unilateral decisions among many megachurches today that clearly fall under the responsibility of pastors or elders. In larger churches, staff personnel departments (or an individual employee) handle hiring and firing (sometimes of pastoral staff) completely separate from any input from (and sometimes even without providing any information to) the congregation. In smaller churches, church membership recommendation requests and letters are often a simple clerical matter, handled by a church secretary without informing the congregation, much less seeking consent from them. From whence have these practices come? When did such practices and agents become common among Baptist churches in America? Who argued for the adoption of these new roles and practices? Or did they simply show up on the scene by some unconscious assimilation from elsewhere? 

This project intends to delve into an apparent yet unexplored area of inquiry, namely the arrival of aberrant practices of Baptist church polity, which were unknown to our Baptist forebears. It is one thing for Baptists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to grant slightly more authority to elders or pastors than did the paedobaptist congregationalists before them, but it is quite another for them to invent an entirely new office (such as a program director, a decisive deacon board, or a committee chair) that wields more authority than does either the congregation or the pastor(s). That is a polity shift indeed! This project aims to discover and document the phenomenon and the rationale that produced it.


[1] Benjamin Keach 1640-1704., “The Glory of a True Church, and Its Discipline Display’d Wherein a True Gospel-Church Is Described : Together with the Power of the Keys, and Who Are to Be Let in, and Who to Be Shut out / by Benjamin Keach,” 1697.

[2] John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order, Second (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012).

[3] Winthrop Hudson, ed., Baptist Concepts of the Church: A Survey of the Historical and Theological Issues Which Have Produced Changes in Church Order (Philadelphia, PA: The Judson Press, 1959).

[4] J. Newton Brown, A Baptist Church Manual: Containing The New Hampshire Declaration of Faith Suggested Covenant, Rules of Order, and Forms of Church Letters (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1994), 36.

[5] William David Henard, Can These Bones Live? A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2015).

[6] Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006).

[7] Elder-led congregationalism is the modern label for a local church polity that simultaneously embraces both congregationalism and pastoral leadership. The forms may vary widely, but the elements are generally the same – authority is shared and distributed between the pastor(s) and the congregation. In an elder-led congregational polity, as in the earliest Baptist churches in America, the question is not whether the pastor(s) is over the congregation or vice versa, nor is it essentially a matter of greater or lesser authority. In elder-led congregationalism, in keeping with historic Baptist polity, responsibility and authority are based on complementary biblical assignments summarized by distinct job descriptions – one for pastors (singular or plural) and another for the assembled congregation.

[8] Gregg R. Allison, The Church: An Introduction, Short Studies in Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 93-104.

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Some have argued that Baptists can trace a historical line all the way back to the time of the Apostles. See J. M. Carroll, The Trail of Blood: Following the Christians Down Through the Centuries; or The History of Baptist Churches From the Time of Christ Their Founder, to the Present Day (American Baptist Publishing Company, 1931). Others believe there is a stronger connection between the European Anabaptists and American Baptists. See Paige Patterson, “Learning From the Anabaptists,” in Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, ed. David Dockery (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009), 123-138. However, this debate of history is beyond the scope of this project. What is clear and beyond dispute is that early American Baptists drew heavily upon their English Puritan predecessors, at a minimum by modeling their confessions after the First and Second London Confessions of Faith.

[11] Benjamin Keach 1640-1704., “The Glory of a True Church, and Its Discipline Display’d Wherein a True Gospel-Church Is Described : Together with the Power of the Keys, and Who Are to Be Let in, and Who to Be Shut out / by Benjamin Keach,” 1697.

[12] John Cotton, The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: And Power Thereof, According to the Word of God, ed. P. Joseph (Copppell, TX: Independent, 2021).

[13] Lemuel Burkitt, Jesse Read, and Henry L. Burkitt, A Concise History of the Kehukee Baptist Association From Its Original Rise Down to 1803 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1850).

[14] Mark Dever, ed., Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life (Washington, D.C.: Center for Church Reform, 2000).

[15] Iain Murray, The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987).

[16] Gregory A Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Antebellum South (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[17] Brown, The Baptist Church Manual.

[18] John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order, Second (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012).

[19] Gaines S. Dobbins, The Churchbook: A Treasury of Materials and Methods, Third Printing (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1951).

[20] I. J. Van Ness, Training in Church Membership, Revised Edition (Nashville, TN: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1959).

[21] Gregory A. Kappas, “A Biblical Defense of Plural Proclamation in the Local Church” (Portland, OR, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1988).

[22] Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2015).

[23] John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005).

[24] Phil A Newton, “Why Baptist Elders Is Not an Oxymoron,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 2, no. 1 (2004): 63–73.

[25] Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell, eds., Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008).

[26] David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2009).

[27] Robert A Wring, “Elder Rule and Southern Baptist Church Polity,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 3, no. 1 (2005): 188–212.

[28] Mark Dever, “Baptist Polity and Elders,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 3, no. 1 (2005): 5–37.

[29] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, 9Marks (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012).

[30] Robert T. (Robert Theodore) Handy, “American Baptist Polity: What’s Happening and Why,” American Baptist Quarterly 27, no. 4 (2008): 343–56.

[31] Benjamin L. Merkle and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds., Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond(Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2015).

[32] Phil A Newton and Matt Schmucker, Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership, 9Marks Life in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014).

[33] Alvin L Reid, “Polity and Proclamation: The Relationship Between Congregational Polity and Evangelistic Church Growth in the SBC,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 3, no. 1 (2005): 164–87.

[34] Stetzer.

[35] Henard.

[36] Randy Pope, The Prevailing Church: An Alternative Approach to Ministry Design (Chicago, Ill: Moody Press, 2002).

[37] Allison.

[38] Murray, The Reformation of the Church.

[39] Dever, Polity.

[40] Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990).

[41] William Latane Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. Bill Leonard, Second Revised (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011).

[42] Alfred Link, “A History of Democratic Church Polity” (New Orleans, LA, The Baptist Bible Institute, 1929).

[43] Winthrop Hudson, ed., Baptist Concepts of the Church: A Survey of the Historical and Theological Issues Which Have Produced Changes in Church Order (Philadelphia, PA: The Judson Press, 1959).

[44] James L Sullivan, “Polity Developments in the Southern Baptist Convention (1900-1977),” Baptist History and Heritage 14, no. 3 (July 1979): 22–31.

[45] Edwin S. Gaustad, ed., Baptists: The Bible, Church Order and the Churches : Essays from Foundations, a Baptist Journal of History and Theology., The Baptist Tradition (New York: Arno Press, 1980).

[46] Gregory A Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Antebellum South (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[47] C Douglas Weaver, “Baptist Ecclesiology in Historic Perspective: The Mid- to Late-Nineteenth Century,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 41, no. 3 (2014): 277–95.

[48] Henry C Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Philadelphia, PA: Judson Press, 1978).

[49] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987).

[50] Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, Third (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1980).

[51] David Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010).

[52] Iain Hamish Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Edinburgh, UK ; Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000).

[53] Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[54] Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A. G. Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2015).

[55] Robert Wring, “An Examination of the Practice of Elder Rule in Selected Southern Baptist Churches in the Light of New Testament Teaching” (Ann Arbor, MI, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 2002).

[56] Ibid., 211-212.

[57] Wring, “An Examination of the Practice of Elder Rule in Selected Southern Baptist Churches in the Light of New Testament Teaching,” 216.

[58] Joseph Michael Silvey, “The Role of Elder in Church Leadership: A Historical Analysis,” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (Ph.D., Ann Arbor, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 2019), ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection (2468703744).

[59] Silvey, “The Role of Elder in Church Leadership: A Historical Analysis,” 138-185.


Bibliography

Allison, Gregg R. The Church: An Introduction. Short Studies in Systematic Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021.

Bebbington, David. Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.

Brown, J. Newton. A Baptist Church Manual: Containing The New Hampshire Declaration of Faith Suggested Covenant, Rules of Order, and Forms of Church Letters. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1994.

Burkitt, Lemuel, Jesse Read, and Henry L. Burkitt. A Concise History of the Kehukee Baptist Association From Its Original Rise Down to 1803. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1850. 

Carroll, J. M. The Trail of Blood: Following the Christians Down Through the Centuries; or The History of Baptist Churches From the Time of Christ Their Founder, to the Present Day. American Baptist Publishing Company, 1931.

Chute, Anthony L., Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A. G. Haykin. The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2015.

Cotton, John. The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: And Power Thereof, According to the Word of God. Edited by P. Joseph. Copppell, TX: Independent, 2021.

Dagg, John L. Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order. Second. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012.

Dever, Mark. “Baptist Polity and Elders.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 3, no. 1 (2005): 5–37.

———, ed. Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. Washington, D.C.: Center for Church Reform, 2000.

———. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. 9Marks. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

Dever, Mark, and Jonathan Leeman, eds. Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2015. 

Deweese, Charles W. Baptist Church Covenants. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990.

Dobbins, Gaines S. The Churchbook: A Treasury of Materials and Methods. Third Printing. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1951.

Dockery, David S., ed. Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2009.

Gaustad, Edwin S., ed. Baptists: The Bible, Church Order and the Churches : Essays from Foundations, a Baptist Journal of History and Theology. The Baptist Tradition. New York: Arno Press, 1980. 

Hammett, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005.

Handy, Robert T. (Robert Theodore). “American Baptist Polity: What’s Happening and Why.” American Baptist Quarterly 27, no. 4 (2008): 343–56.

Henard, William David. Can These Bones Live? A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2015.

Hudson, Winthrop, ed. Baptist Concepts of the Church: A Survey of the Historical and Theological Issues Which Have Produced Changes in Church Order. Philadelphia, PA: The Judson Press, 1959.

Kappas, Gregory A. “A Biblical Defense of Plural Proclamation in the Local Church.” Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1988.

Keach, Benjamin, 1640-1704. “The Glory of a True Church, and Its Discipline Display’d Wherein a True Gospel-Church Is Described : Together with the Power of the Keys, and Who Are to Be Let in, and Who to Be Shut out / by Benjamin Keach,” 1697. 

Kidd, Thomas S., and Barry Hankins. Baptists in America: A History. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Link, Alfred. “A History of Democratic Church Polity.” The Baptist Bible Institute, 1929.

Lumpkin, William Latane. Baptist Confessions of Faith. Edited by Bill Leonard. Second Revised. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011.

McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987.

Merkle, Benjamin L., and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds. Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2015.

Murray, Iain. The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

Murray, Iain Hamish. Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000. Edinburgh, UK ; Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000.

Newton, Phil A. “Why Baptist Elders Is Not an Oxymoron.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 2, no. 1 (2004): 63–73.

Newton, Phil A, and Matt Schmucker. Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership. 9Marks Life in the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014.

Pope, Randy. The Prevailing Church: An Alternative Approach to Ministry Design. Chicago, Ill: Moody Press, 2002.

Reid, Alvin L. “Polity and Proclamation: The Relationship Between Congregational Polity and Evangelistic Church Growth in the SBC.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 3, no. 1 (2005): 164–87.

Silvey, Joseph Michael. “The Role of Elder in Church Leadership: A Historical Analysis.” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Ph.D., Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 2019. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection (2468703744). 

Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006.

Sullivan, James L. “Polity Developments in the Southern Baptist Convention (1900-1977).” Baptist History and Heritage14, no. 3 (July 1979): 22–31.

Torbet, Robert G. A History of the Baptists. Third. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1980.

Van Ness, I. J. Training in Church Membership. Revised Edition. Nashville, TN: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1959.

Vedder, Henry C. A Short History of the Baptists. Philadelphia, PA: Judson Press, 1978.

Weaver, C Douglas. “Baptist Ecclesiology in Historic Perspective: The Mid- to Late-Nineteenth Century.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 41, no. 3 (2014): 277–95.

White, Thomas, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell, eds. Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008.

Wills, Gregory A. Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Antebellum South. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wring, Robert. “An Examination of the Practice of Elder Rule in Selected Southern Baptist Churches in the Light of New Testament Teaching.” Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 2002. 

Wring, Robert A. “Elder Rule and Southern Baptist Church Polity.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 3, no. 1 (2005): 188–212.

Must Evangelicals be Divided? Well, yes and no…

In this post, we will (1) aim to establish a definition of the term “evangelical,” (2) expose what appears to be a critical faultline within evangelicalism, and (3) recommend a solution.

In his book, Evangelicalism Divided, Iain Murray traces some major events and leaders of the evangelical movement from 1950 to 2000. Murray does a masterful job of telling the story of evangelistic fervor and ecumenical ambition, which both seem endemic among evangelicals. Because “evangelical” is not a denomination or ecclesiastical body, and because of the meagerness of evangelical doctrine, the people who claim this label (e.g., evangelicals) can be found in virtually every Christian denomination and tradition. The tie that seems to bind them all is a zeal to see the number of evangelicals grow.

In this post, we will (1) aim to establish a definition of the term “evangelical,” (2) expose what appears to be a critical faultline within evangelicalism, and (3) recommend a solution.

What is an Evangelical?

According to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), there are “four primary characteristics” of evangelicalism, cited below.[1]  

(1) conversionism, the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus

(2) activism, the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts

(3) biblicism, a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority

(4) crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

Therefore, an evangelical is someone who displays these characteristics, at least to some degree. We might say, in summary, that an evangelical is someone who believes the Bible, emphasizes Christ as savior, affirms a personal conversion, and has an active interest in others doing the same. As a matter of fact, we might also say that the activity of gathering more people under the banner “evangelical” is the most definitive characteristic of all. We shall see that the other features are defined so loosely that they become rather meaningless in many cases.

The NAE boasts of evangelicals being a “vibrant and diverse” group, including believers from “Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions.”[2] According to the National Evangelical Anglican Congresses I[3] and II[4] and the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together[5], both Anglicans and Roman Catholics (as well as Anglo-Catholics) should be included among those “other” traditions mentioned. Simply put, evangelicalism is intentionally indistinct regarding doctrine, with the aim of joining forces with other Christians for the sake of evangelism.

A Critical Evangelical Faultline

In the previous section, we employed and cited words which would benefit from specific definitions. Just think about the varying ways in which the following words might be defined among evangelicals today: “Christian,” “gospel,” “evangelism,” “Bible,” “born-again,” “Jesus,” the “sacrifice” of Jesus on the cross, and the “redemption” of humanity. These words are all common to the evangelical vocabulary, but there is much confusion over their meaning. This is no coincidence since doctrine (i.e., defining our terms with precision and exclusivity) is undesirable among evangelicals. Murray quoted Alistair McGrath, a noted evangelical academic who verbalized this sentiment well when he argued, “we must not identify truth with ‘the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine.’”[6] With this assertion, McGrath represents the evangelical slogan doctrine divides, love unites. This, from a critical perspective, is a major faultline in the foundation of evangelicalism.

Evangelicals, in their desire to gather as many Christians as they may under the same banner, seem unable to meaningfully establish or lastingly maintain unity. Rather, evangelicalism seems inescapably tormented by a deep and “irreconcilable” rupture.[7] Evangelicals seem to want to gather Christians around a uniting mission – “Let’s do something for Christ!” – but they do not agree on what a Christian is, who Christ is, or what Christ would have Christians do in His name. Murray points out, on a number of occasions, “the question of who is a Christian lies at the very centre [sic] of [evangelical] disagreement” (emphasis added).[8] But this question, according to prevailing evangelical sensibilities, is unanswerable. Or if one does answer the question, he must make the answer so vague and so broad as to include anyone who may embrace the label evangelical. Therefore, this faultline is apparently inherent to evangelicalism itself.

Evangelicalism, as it is, cannot help but construct a superficial unity atop colliding tectonic plates of contradictory doctrine. Evangelicals may have majored on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith (i.e., those truths which are essential to the gospel and orthodox Christianity) early on, but evangelicalism has since widened its tent to include those who denied those same essential doctrines. In the name of unity, evangelicals have either forgotten what brought them together in the first place or they have revealed that orthodox Christianity was never their bond in the first place. Today, because of this antipathy for any precise or exclusive doctrine, evangelicals appear interested in uniting around nothing more than a label – namely evangelical.

Before we move on toward any solution to this critical problem, let us lament the shameful failure of evangelicalism. Murray says, “the greatest failure of professing Christianity in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century has been the way in which this division [who is and is not a Christian?] has been confused.”[9] If evangelicals are Christians, and yet are incapable of defining what a Christian is and is not, then who in the world is to answer this question? Furthermore, the gospel itself becomes obscured by the evangelical proclivity to reject doctrinal conviction. This not only undermines a basic characteristic of evangelicals (an interest in active evangelism), but it also damns people’s souls! 

Christians must be able and willing to answer the critical questions of life. What does God require of us? What is sin? Who is Jesus? What must one do to be saved? How shall we now live? The answers to these questions will either be doctrinally precise or utterly vacuous, either soul-nourishing or eternally devastating. It is a crying shame when anyone who claims the name of Christ offers condemned souls nothing more than empty platitudes. The shame worsens when we see that our reluctance to speak with certainty often stems from our desire to be liked or even admired. May God forgive us for seeking the world’s favor rather than the world’s salvation. 

An Ecclesiological Proposal

Because of the evangelical failure to define our terms, many professing Christians do not know what a Christian is. And when unregenerate people are allowed to call themselves Christians, they will reject any claims to the contrary. They will overturn biblical teaching on every matter of faith and practice that does not allow them to continue in sin. They will also war against any group or individual who seeks to regain a biblical standard of faith and practice. Murray was right when he wrote, “sometimes the true church of Christ hath no greater enemies than those of their own profession and company.”[10] And this is of our own doing.[11]

We have welcomed unregenerate persons into the membership of our churches and into leadership roles in our parachurch institutions. We have chased after numerical growth without considering the effects of false Christianity. And though we have failed to fulfill our duty, to guard against false doctrine and to promulgate the true, we must resolve now to stop this abdication of our responsibilities. We must take our place once more as heralds of God’s own words, not relying upon worldly organizations or instruments. Instead, we must embrace God’s wisdom in the formation and structure of local churches, and we must simply call sinners to repent and believe as we proclaim the gospel. In summary, we must take up the old ways, reestablish our boundaries, and give ourselves away in loving service to the world around us. We ought to plead with the unregenerate to come in, under the covering of Christ’s person and work, but we had better not tell him he is safe while he remains outside.

We are arguing here for the reestablishment of faithful local churches, defined by those essential marks of a true church – the right preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the ordinances. When the gospel is clearly preached, sinners feel the precarious nature of their condemned position and God opens the eyes of some to see His beauty and salvation. When the gospel is clearly preached, Christians learn what promises God has made and they learn how to persistently rely upon Him. When the ordinances are rightly practiced, Christians are distinguished from non-Christians and the bond of genuine believers grows increasingly resilient. When the ordinances are administered among covenanted Christians, while being withheld from those without a credible profession of faith in Christ, the thunderclap of heaven’s own pronouncement echoes throughout our world.

To state it bluntly, evangelicals must give up the foolish pursuit of worldly acclaim and public influence. We propose that evangelicals think hard about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a church. We propose that evangelicals make the gospel clear and prominent in the world today. We propose that evangelicals invest much effort and resources in the work of reforming and revitalizing disordered and dying churches. And we propose that evangelicals act like they believe the local church is God’s master plan for evangelizing and discipling the world.

May God help His people to be bold and loving, courageous and kind. And may He help us all to honor Christ through our own efforts in and through the local church.


[1] “What Is an Evangelical?,” National Association of Evangelicals (blog), accessed April 4, 2022, https://www.nae.org/what-is-an-evangelical/.

[2] “What Is an Evangelical?,” National Association of Evangelicals (blog), accessed April 4, 2022, https://www.nae.org/what-is-an-evangelical/.

[3] Andrew Atherstone, “The Keele Congress of 1967: A Paradigm Shift in Anglican Evangelical Attitudes,” Journal of Anglican Studies 9, no. 2 (November 2011): 175–97, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1740355311000039.

[4] Church of England, Church Society, and Church Pastoral Aid Society, eds., The Nottingham Statement: The Official Statement of the Second National Evangelical Anglican Congress Held in April 1977, A Falcon Booklet (National Evangelical Anglican Congress, London: Church Pastoral Aid Society, 1977).

[5] Iain Hamish Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Edinburgh, UK; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000).

[6] Murray, 197.

[7] Murray, 295.

[8] Murray, 294.

[9] Murray, 295.

[10] Murray, 275.

[11] The present author is a conscious evangelical, at least in the historical sense, even if not the current social or political one. The critiques in this post do not originate from a hostile outside camp, but rather from a sympathetic co-laborer.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atherstone, Andrew. “The Keele Congress of 1967: A Paradigm Shift in Anglican Evangelical Attitudes.” Journal of Anglican Studies 9, no. 2 (November 2011): 175–97. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1740355311000039.

Church of England, Church Society, and Church Pastoral Aid Society, eds. The Nottingham Statement: The Official Statement of the Second National Evangelical Anglican Congress Held in April 1977. A Falcon Booklet. London: Church Pastoral Aid Society, 1977.

Murray, Iain Hamish. Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000. Edinburgh, UK; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000.

National Association of Evangelicals. “What Is an Evangelical?” Accessed April 4, 2022. https://www.nae.org/what-is-an-evangelical/.

Isn’t Everyone a bit gender dysphoric?

When I was in Jr. high school, I was given a creative writing assignment. Generally, I don’t remember much about my childhood or teen years, so it’s a big deal (for me) that I remember this. My teacher asked her students to write about an individual with great personal significance. I could choose anyone I wanted, but it had to be someone of upmost importance to me. My mother was very disappointed that I opted to write about my football coach: Coach Seibert.

My mother and father divorced when I was too young to remember, but the consequences of their divorce continued long after their decision. As a little guy, I longed for adult male interaction and affirmation, but my father (during those years) was mostly absent. I loved him, and I wanted him near, but he was gone.

Coach Seibert, on the other hand, I saw almost every day for two years. I spent at least a couple of hours each day under his supervision. Not only did I see him every day; he instructed me, he rebuked to me when I messed up, he affirmed me when I performed well, and he demanded more from me than I thought I could give. Because that man had expectations for me, I began to have expectations for myself.

Though I hadn’t kept up with him for years, I was truly saddened to learn that Coach Seibert died recently because he had a huge impact on me. He made no distinctive effort to treat me differently than anyone else (at least none that I know of), but he was a man who taught me about what it is to be a man. He called me a man, and he demanded that I live up to it. He instilled in me much of what I experientially understand masculinity to be. I am grateful to God for the gift of Coach Seibert in my life.

Boys do not effortlessly become men; and the same is true for girls becoming women. Sure, we get older, and we are eventually able to legally drive, vote, and buy alcohol; but these are not what makes a man a man, or a woman a woman. Masculinity and Femininity are not rooted in the mere progression of time or even life experience. For example, one should not argue that a boy becomes a man simply because he kills an animal, rebuilds a jalopy, or gives away his virginity. These life experiences do not magically create a man, and no life experience will spontaneously produce a woman either.

What, then, is manhood or womanhood? This question is controversial in our day for multiple reasons, but at the outset we must be prepared to confront the reality that terms like “man” and “woman” are themselves controversial. In this essay, we shall explore the ultimate cause of gender confusion and look to the Bible for answers to some of the most important and applicable questions we will ask in our lifetimes.

What is a man?

What is a woman?

How shall we live as Christ-following men and women in a culture that finds the gender binary almost as offensive as the exclusivity of the gospel message itself?

Dysphoria is the modern mood regarding gender.

Gender Dysphoria” is probably a new phrase to most of us. In fact, it’s a new phrase for all of us, if you consider when it was actually first used to describe “Gender Identity Disorder.” The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which was published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), changed the previous label “Gender Identity Disorder” to the current label “Gender Dysphoria.”

While the APA still lists Gender Dysphoria as a psychiatric condition that warrants treatment, and keeps it listed among many other “disorders,” the change of label was motivated by a desire to remove the “stigma”of it. In a fact sheet, released before the 2013 edition of the DSM, the APA explained that mental health researchers wanted to “remove the connotation that the patient is ‘disordered.’”[1]

How a patient can have a “disorder” without him or herself being “disordered” is difficult for me to understand, but in our hyper-sensitive culture, I am repeatedly amazed by the lengths to which many people will go to try to deny the obvious.

And yet, I think the label “Gender Dysphoria” captures the mood quite well. “Dysphoria” is a feeling of “unease and dissatisfaction,” and placing the word “Gender” with the word “Dysphoria” accurately (in my opinion) identifies the issue. Indeed, this matter is a question of “feeling,” and not a question of “being.” It is true that a person may feel as though they are something or someone other than what or who they are. It is absolutely ludicrous, however, to suggest that a person may successfully deny reality without severe consequences. Of course, many sexual and political revolutionaries would have us believe otherwise, but there is great confusion even among themselves.

As a matter of fact, confusion (it seems to me) is the overarching theme of this sexual revolution we are experiencing. There is an all-out assault on the “gender binary” (the concept of two distinct genders – male and female), and the antagonists are arguing for “gender fluidity” (the concept of relativism applied to gender roles, characteristics, and even ontology). However, the death of the gender binary is not life-giving for anyone. It is ushering in total chaos.

For example, many have proclaimed the absolute indistinguishability between males and females. “Boys and girls are the same,” they say, “so they should be treated exactly the same.” But then someone will argue that a boy should be treated like a girl if he feels that he is actually a girl.

This is confusing… Is there any difference between boys and girls, or isn’t there? If there is not, then who cares what little Johnny wears to school or what pronoun “he” …or “she” …or “ze” wants to claim today? If there is no difference, then it makes no difference. If, on the other hand, there is a difference between girls and boys, then wouldn’t we be responsible adults by encouraging little Johnny towards masculine development (regardless of his feelings)?

Another example of the modern gender confusion is in the area of sports. Just a few years ago, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) of college sports moved the location of some championship football games so that they would not be played in North Carolina. This move was a direct attempt to penalize North Carolinians for their position on something that has commonly become known as “the bathroom issue.” The state of North Carolina passed a bill (House Bill 2) that prevented government and public facilities from being forced to accommodate the bathroom preferences of transgendered individuals. Basically, the bill required people to use the bathroom and changing facilities which correspond with their biological sex (male or female).

ACC officials said this is undue discrimination, but isn’t this just a bit hypocritical? I mean, as far as I know, there are zero female football players in the ACC. As a matter of fact, the ACC even makes biological females and biological males play in different categories for every sport listed under the ACC. The ACC website segregates “Men’s Sports” from “Women’s Sports” without a single exception.[2] Basketball, tennis, soccer, lacrosse, rowing and several others are all listed in gender-specific categories. Isn’t this the same kind of discrimination on the part of the ACC? Aren’t they being narrow-minded and bigoted by keeping the gender binary in place with such distinctions? One can hardly imagine how the ACC could be consistent if they truly believed that the gender binary should be replaced with gender fluidity.

Confusion abounds in American culture today. With the sexual revolution, the established sexual rules (whether moral or immoral) have been completely uprooted and tossed into a massive bonfire. There are some remnants that remain, but the sexual revolutionaries are aggressively collecting and burning everything that once stood in the way of sexual autonomy.

This is the way a sinful mind tries to solve the problem of dysfunction. Male-Female relationships are indeed dysfunctional across numerous measurements, and this dysfunction is harmful to everyone. Males and females alike are not living according to their intended design, and this creates all sorts of frustrations. People become frustrated with themselves, frustrated with others, frustrated with a broken system, and frustrated by failed solutions.

So, if “dysphoria” means unease and dissatisfaction, then I’m arguing that more than just transgendered people experience “Gender Dysphoria.” A whole lot of people today are dissatisfied by our failure to live in harmony and according to our God-designed gender.

The question we must address now is: “Where did this gender dysfunction come from?”

Gender dysfunction is a result of “the Fall.”

First, I do not want to take for granted that everyone will understand what I mean by “the Fall” or by referring to the subsequent “Curse of Sin.” Let’s look to a particular passage of the Bible (and also at its context in the book of Genesis) in order to better comprehend what these phrases mean.

In Genesis 1 and 2, we read about God’s creative intentionality and power. In all of creation, and especially in humanity, God displays His glory and majesty. All things find their origin in God’s design, and all things flourish when they abide under God’s good authority. But, in Genesis 3, we read about human disobedience; and we discover that there are profound consequences resulting from our first parents’ first sin.

Genesis 3:1–19 (ESV)

3 Now the serpent was more craftythan any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and themanand hiswifehid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

9 But the LORD God called to the manand said to him, “Where are you?”

10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

“The Fall”refers to that scene in Genesis 3, cited above, when Adam and Eve “fell” from their status of obedient subjects to the rank of usurping rebels. The “serpent” (who is the devil [Revelation 12:9, 20:2]) tempted Adam and Eve with autonomy (self-rule or self-government). He told them that they could be the ones to know and to decide for themselves between right and wrong (Genesis 3:5).

The devil’s accusation was that God was withholding something from them, and they bought into the lie. The Scripture tells us that the woman saw the forbidden fruit as “desirable” and a “delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6); and once she indulged, she also “gave some to her husband,” who was passively abandoning his responsibility to “keep” the garden that the Lord had given him (Genesis 2:15).

This “Fall” was immediately devastating. They showed their unwillingness to obey God’s authority, even with in the slightest regulation; and as soon as they disobeyed, they were guilt-stricken (Genesis 3:7). Their shame drove them into hiding. They were “fallen” indeed.

“The Curse of Sin” refers to God’s response to this human act of devastating disobedience. It is God’s “giving up” of humanity to all sorts of corrupting things (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). God had warned Adam to abstain from a single tree amidst a garden of pleasurable foliage (Genesis 2:17). Upon threat of death, Adam rejected God’s warning, and then God defined what He meant when He told Adam, “dying, you shall die” (môt tāmût). God came to Adam and Eve, and He confronted both their sin and their desire to hide from the consequences (Genesis 3:8-13).

God unleashed His righteous judgment upon all creation; He cursed everyone and everything (Genesis 3:16-19). The extent of God’s curse (its far-reaching ramifications) can only be understood in greater depth as the Genesis narrative unfolds. After God’s words of condemnation and cursing, there is evidence throughout Genesis that the curse was incredibly damaging.

Beginning with Genesis 4, we read of murder, polygamy, barbaric violence, and that is before we even get to chapter 5. In Genesis 5, we read the repetitive phrase “and he died,” which rhetorically hammers home the new reality of death in God’s created world. In Genesis 6, we are confronted by God’s dreadful declaration that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). This wicked evil brought destruction upon the whole earth, and God rescued only 8 persons from His deluge of judgment.

John MacArthur says, “Genesis also records the beginnings of such evils as homosexuality (Genesis 19:1-5); incest (Genesis 19:30-38); idolatry (Genesis 31:30-35); rape (Genesis 34:1-2); mass murder (Genesis 34:25-29); harlotry (Genesis 38:14-19); and numerous other forms of wickedness.”

Genesis (and really all of Scripture) shows the reader that the Curse of Sin is crushing and comprehensive.

Thanks be to God that His curse upon humanity and all of creation came only after He promised a redeeming Savior who would come to rescue fallen humans (Genesis 3:15)! If it were not for this gracious promise, and God’s work to fulfill it, then there would be no reason to hope for any escape from the “Curse of Sin.”

Looking back at Genesis 3, God’s specific words in the Curse (and the persons to whom He spoke them) are important for our discussion here. From Genesis chapter 3 (especially verse 16) we can learn much about why we experience gender dysfunction in this dysphoric life under the Curse of Sin.

Quickly, before I explain what the Bible says about gender dysfunction, as a result of the Fall, I want to make it clear that I am not saying, gender distinction is a part of the Curse of Sin.

Boys and girls are of equal value, because all humans are created in the image of God. Equally, males and females are image-bearers in God’s created world. Each gender is to uniquely reflect the character and nature of God in ways that nothing else in all of creation can.

Furthermore, gender distinction is also a feature of God’s good design. God created Adam as distinctly male, and God created Eve as distinctly female. The distinctiveness of maleness and femaleness is poetically and methodically on display in Genesis 2. This foundational chapter of the Bible is the constant reference point for all of the biblical authors when they address the subject of male-female relationship.

I will try to tackle our major questions at hand (“What is a man?” and “What is a woman?”) in just a bit, but let me be clear in saying that gender distinction is not a result of the fall, and it is not part of the curse of sin. Once again, gender distinction is a major aspect of God’s good design.

Having briefly explained the Fall and the Curse of Sin, and having quickly mentioned the goodness of gender distinction, let me now get into what I meant when I said “gender dysfunction is a result of the Fall.” I am saying that the Bible explains why we experience gender dysfunction in this life, and the Bible makes direct reference to male-female dysfunctionality in God’s Curse upon humanity.

Let’s take a closer look at God’s words in Genesis 3.

In verse 16, God spoke to the woman. He said, “I will surely multiply your painin childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” This “pain” and reference to “childbearing” is a direct curse upon the woman’s natural part in fulfilling God’s commission, which is to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

It is also significant that God promised that the woman’s “offspring” would be the serpent-crushing rescuer (Genesis 3:15). God’s triumph is precisely at the point of human defeat, and God’s power is demonstrated in human weakness.

God continues His curse in verse 16 by telling the woman, “Your desire shall be for your husband…” (Genesis 3:16). Now, the translation here can be a bit misleading. When we think of someone having “desire for” someone else, we probably think of something positive. A wife desiring her husband is not a bad thing; it is actually very good. But that is not the way verse 16 is speaking. The “desire” the woman has is actually against her husband, in that her desire or longing or craving is to rule over him.

The word used for “desire” here is the same word God uses for “desire” when He told Cain to resist the sinful urge he had against God and against his own brother, Abel. God said that “sin’s desire is for [Cain],” but God told Cain that he must rule over his sin, rather than allow his sin rule over him (Genesis 4:7).

Therefore, in Genesis 3, we are to understand that God is telling the woman that she will want to rule over or dominate her husband. This is the direct opposite of her created design; she was created as a “helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18, 20), not a competitor for his unique responsibility and authority.

And yet, the woman is not the only one with sinful desires, the man also became corrupted. Reading still further into verse 16, we see the fullness of dysfunction take shape. God said, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The word used for “rule” here connotes domineering lordship. Here we see that the man’s leadership will now be a perverted role. He shall not lead his wife well, nor shall he lead to her benefit. His “rule” over her is not naturally one of loving or gracious authority, but one of tyranny and neglect.

Of course, we have seen this play out in human history, haven’t we? Have you ever heard the phrase “patriarchal society?” In any history or sociology class, you will learn about the common social practices of a male-dominated and sin-saturated world. In history, and still today, females are often treated with shameful disrespect.

Today in Afghanistan, for instance, 6 out of 10 girls never begin an educational path of any kind. Only 5% of Afghan girls attend school past the 6th grade. Half of all Afghan girls are married by age 12, and their husbands are often much older men. One could hardly argue that the marriage is voluntary, since they are arranged by their father and their husband-to-be. In Afghanistan, women are not allowed to appear in public, and a female can only go out with a full covering and a male escort. The legal options for women are nearly non-existent, because the testimony of a female is ½ that of a male in legal disputes.[3]

This appalling treatment of girls and women is truly shameful, but it is also not unusual at all in the history of humanity. From Genesis 3 onward, females have generally been dominated by males. Exceptions to this rule only serve to prove the rule, because they stand out as peculiar among the norm.

Just think about various ways this still occurs in contemporary American culture. Females are often made into objects, and they are paraded about as eye-candy. Domestic violence is still quite pervasive, and men often act abusively towards women. Sex-trafficking statistics are very difficult to measure accurately, but awareness is growing for this heinous and pervasive crime as well. These degrading realities are true right here around us.

As we survey the ill-treatment of women at the hands of men, we should mourn over such a thing. Our hearts should break that women are often used and abused, rather than encouraged and appreciated. The curse of sin has caused much pain indeed.

The gender dysfunction we see, both on the part of females wanting to leave their God-designed role and on the part of males wanting to do the same, is a result of the Fall. Where we observe a woman who wants to prove that she can be just like a man, where we notice a man abdicating his responsibility, where we detect competition between the sexes in regards to their pursuit of power over each other; in all of this, we witness the curse of sin.

It is important to note that a major aspect of the transgender issue of our day is a technologically advanced way of doing what many sinful people have been doing for a very long time. If a man does not want to live as a male, then he is rejecting God’s design for him and the role which God has commissioned him to fill in life. This is not new.

What is new is the technological ability we have today to artificially prop up that same man’s sinful desire to reject his God-designed gender. Quite frankly, this seems to me to be the height of hatred for one’s fellowman (pardon the pun). I cannot think of any other area of life where anyone would believe it to be loving to affirm someone’s utterly foolish and obviously erroneous denial of objective reality.

In short, the reason for gender dysfunction is sin. Because we live in a fallen world, we will regularly encounter emotional confusion, psychological disorders, and relational strife. Because of the curse of sin, ideal manhood and womanhood is flipped upside-down. Men and women will both seek to function outside of their intended designs. Some men and some women will even seek to reassign themselves an alternate gender entirely. Though our disobedience may vary, to whatever degree we leave our God-designed role behind, we provide first-hand evidence of God’s curse upon humanity in Genesis 3.

What shall we believe, and how shall we live?

So far, I have argued that “dysphoria” is a pretty good way to describe life under the curse of sin, and I have tried to demonstrate from Genesis 3 that dysfunction is the reason for that feeling of dysphoria. I have also tried to describe how the Bible explains the reason for the dysfunction we experience in this life. Hopefully, I have done a sufficient job up to this point, but my responsibility is not fulfilled in merely pointing out our current status and our errors.

What good have we received if we only better understand our curse?

What hope is there for anyone who has not lived up to their God-designed gender?

What benefit have we gained if we only feel the guilt of our failures and sense the probability of our continued dysfunction?

Well, I’d like to make four assertions as a way to offer hope and a path forward.

First, we may believe the gospel.

As I mentioned earlier, God promised to save guilty sinners by way of a “serpent-crushing” “offspring” (Genesis 3:15). The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the one who was “born of woman” and the Son of God (Galatians 4:4). He was the fulfillment of what God had promised throughout the Old Testament (Luke 24:27).

Jesus lived perfectly, exhibited unimpeachable obedience, and then died under God’s wrath in order to take the place of all those who would trust in Him (Romans 3:21-26). This same Jesus who died was resurrected to life, and He demonstrated that He alone can rescue guilty sinners.

Therefore, Christ has borne the full weight of God’s curse upon Himself in order to set us free from the curse. Not only may we avoid God’s wrath for our sin, we may also begin to walk in newness of life right here and right now (Romans 6:4). By the power of God’s Spirit, He makes us new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). God not only calls us to live as godly men and women, He empowers us to do so (Ephesians 2:10).

May God help us to believe the gospel of Christ and embrace the freedom He provides for us there. May God help us to abandon our sinful desires for our own way and our own glory, and may God glorify Himself as He grows us in holiness.

Second, we may affirm godly manhood.

Affirming godly manhood requires that we understand how God defines such a thing. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that masculinity is measured by physical prowess, facial hair, meat consumption, vehicular horsepower, or any number of other superficial stereotypes.

According to the Scriptures, manhood is distinctly summarized as godly leadership. Allow me to quickly defend and argue for this definition.

Adam was created first (Genesis 2:7). The Apostle Paul says that this ordering (male-then-female) conveys something about the way in which males and females image the glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7-8).

Man “named” woman, and this was an act of divinely delegated authority (Genesis 2:23). In the Genesis account, think about how God named the “day” (Gen. 1:4), “night” (1:4), “earth” (1:10), “seas” (1:10), and “heavens” (1:8); but man named the “livestock,” “birds,” “beasts” (Genesis 2:19-20), and “woman” (Genesis 2:23).

Furthermore, the Apostle Paul says the male is to lead from a heart of love and with expressions of love in the marriage relationship (Ephesians 5:25-27). To say anything in the way of defining manhood without including man’s responsibility to lead, love, and serve would be to allow every man to believe that God has left him room for sinful truancy or tyranny.

If we are honest, men are inclined towards either living as absentee men who float from one relationship to another, or oppressive dictators who force others to submit to our rule. Often, men exhibit both of these tendencies in some horrific mixture. Neither truancy nor tyranny are expressions of godly manhood.

May God help us to honor and affirm what godly manhood really is.

Third, we may affirm godly womanhood.

As with manhood, we must also seek to understand how God defines womanhood. Regardless of societal expectations or personal experiences, we will find our greatest joy is knowing and following God’s design for us. We must avoid childish stereotypes for womanhood as well, and we must put away any notions of equality that do not allow for distinction.

According to the Scriptures, womanhood might be distinctly summarized as godly companionship. Once again, let us consider the biblical realities.

As was stated above, the order of creation is not just a purposeless detail in the storyline of Genesis 2. One must admit the incredibly careful word-choices, structure, imagery, and rhythm of Genesis 1 & 2. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Let us feel the significance and beauty of such a complementary design here.

God affirms the supportive role for which He is going to create this new companion by calling her a “helper.” God affirms the equal dignity and value of the helper by saying she will be “fit” or corresponding to the man. God affirms the complementary relationship of the man and the woman by saying that she is “for” him.

The Apostle Paul says the female is to submit to her own husband, in the marriage relationship, as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-24). Paul also roots female submission to male authority in the home in the creation account of Genesis 1 & 2, thereby eliminating the possibility of claiming that this was only a cultural norm (1 Corinthians 11:9-10). This is not to say that all women are to submit to all men, but it is to say that each wife is to submit to and enjoy the leadership of her own husband.

To say anything in the way of defining godly womanhood without including God’s design for godly companionship and the specific charge to willingly place herself under the leadership of her husband would be to allow for sinful subversion or obstinacy. Women, just like men, are inclined towards acting contrary to God’s good design.

May God help us all honor and affirm what godly womanhood really is.

Fourth, we may live as witnesses of the gospel in our confused age.

The Church of Jesus Christ is always called to live according to truth and provide clarity in the midst of a world that is hostile to both. The system of this fallen world is not accepting to such things as I have celebrated and affirmed in this essay. I have said more than just a few things that will get me into big trouble with many in our culture today.

But we must always remember what makes the Church of Jesus Christ so powerful… It is not our ability to be like the world; it is our ability to live differently and joyfully than the world.

Make no mistake: those who live contrary to God’s design will face the consequences of brokenness, guilt, shame, and frustration. They will live a dysphoric life (in all sorts of arenas) under the curse of sin. Of course, it may not always appear that way on the outside, but sin always leads to pain and death in the end.

In the midst of our confused and broken world, we have a grand opportunity and a high calling. So often we feel a longing to do something great, but here is the greatness offered to everyday Christians: simply strive to live a God-honoring life according to His design and under His authority (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). We can live as a testimony to God’s gracious grace and edifying wisdom by simply following Him in the ordinary and unexciting matters of life.

In fact, it is precisely in doing this that we may best be witnesses to the person and work of Christ. Kathy Keller spoke of this when she wrote,

“Jesus is the reason you can trust that God’s justice is behind your assigned gender role, whether you are a man who would rather not take leadership or assume risk, or a woman who wishes she could. Both get to play the Jesus role.

It takes both men and women, living out their gender roles in the safety of home and church, to reveal to the world the fullness of the person of Jesus.

The glory of gender roles, for me, is that everyone gets to reveal an aspect of Jesus’ life. Jesus in his servant authority, dying in order to bring his bride to spotless purity (Ephesians 5: 22– 33), has redefined authority and has demanded that his followers do the same (Matthew 23: 11; John 13: 13– 17). Jesus in his submissive servanthood, taking on the role of a servant in order to secure our salvation (Philippians 2: 5– 11), shows that his submission to the Father was a gift, not something compelled from him.”[4]

So, we may all (male and female alike) exhibit the characteristics of Christ in our relationships with one another. We may honor God by living in glad submission to His good design, and we may show a watching world that there are still at least some of us who are not confused at all about what God would have us believe and how God would have us live.

May God graciously help us to do it.

Endnotes

[1]http://www.dsm5.org/documents/gender%20dysphoria%20fact%20sheet.pdf

[2]http://www.theacc.com

[3]http://www.trustineducation.org/resources/life-as-an-afghan-woman/

[4]Keller, Kathy; (2012-12-25). Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry) (Kindle Locations 456-466). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Please clarify “Critical Race Theory” further.

I am the senior pastor of a rural evangelical church in East Texas. I have friends in Texas and also far beyond, and one of my good friends said that Bradley Mason’s recent article on Critical Race Theory (CRT) is “the most helpful summary of CRT to point Christians to when considering the issues and ideas today.” Well, I am a Christian who is considering the issues and ideas, and I read Mason’s article…. and, I’m still a bit unsure about what exactly CRT is asserting.

I also assume (which sometimes doesn’t work out) that the questions I have about Mason’s summary of CRT are probably not merely my own. It seems to me very likely that others would share my desire for greater clarity. It also seems to me that brief reciprocal volleys on social media are better at creating heat than light. So, to the end that Bradley Mason might read my long-form questions and respond to them, I think such a response might help folks like me understand a bit better.

Here’s to hoping for a charitable public dialogue and greater clarity as a result.

I will arrange my questions according to the format of Mason’s summary of the 11 “tenets” or “commonplaces” of CRT.

  1. Under the heading “Race is Socially Constructed,” Mason said, “race and racial categories were historically created to justify and maintain social hierarchy, slavery, and other forms of group-based exploitation…”
    • When was “race” or “racial categories” consciously created? Who did this? How can we know that such a thing was done for the purpose (partly or primarily) to “justify” or “maintain social hierarchy”?
    • If “race” was/is a “created” social construct, then how does CRT distinguish “race” from other social differences (such as gender, class, or national citizenship)?
  2. Under the heading “Differential Racialization,” Mason said, “Race, as an historically contingent artifact, was constructed to serve different social needs for differing social purposes at different times and in different places throughout history.”
    • My first question compounds here. Now I’d like Mason to help me know when “race” or “racial categories” were consciously created “at different times and in different places.” I recognize variations, but I am not ready to adopt the notion that these variations were consciously created instead of naturally occurring phenomenon amid cultural and societal interactions.
    • Does CRT view differential racialization as always, sometimes, or never morally bad/wrong?
  3. Under the heading “Intersectionality,” Mason said, “race is inextricably linked with other social constructions and/or social arrangements… [such as] class, gender, [and] sexuality” among other things.
    • How does CRT define “race”? And, according to CRT, how is “race” distinct from some other social construct or arrangement, like class or ethnicity or nationality?
  4. Under the heading “Racism is Endemic to American Life,” Mason said, “race was historically constructed by, in tandem with, and as integral to other central formative American systems and institutions…”
    • Does CRT claim that race was consciously “constructed by” Americans? If so, when and how was it “constructed” as opposed to adopted or transformed from the racial constructs already in existence at that time?
    • Are the “racial hierarchies and ideologies… integral to American life” uniquely bad in the world? Is CRT arguing that the racialized experience of all Americans is particularly worse than that of citizens of other countries?
  5. Under the heading “CRT is Skeptical of Claims to Neutrality, Objectivity, Color-Blindness, and Meritocracy,” Mason said, “CRT judges decision procedures by their remedial effectiveness in addressing the subordinated circumstances of people of color…”
    • What is CRT’s standard for judging the “remedial effectiveness” of any “decision procedure”?
    • How does CRT’s standard for evaluating the “effectiveness in addressing the subordinated circumstances of people of color” account for the agency, responsibility, or volition of “people of color”?
  6. Under the heading “Racism is a Structural Phenomenon and Explains Current Maldistributions,” Mason said, “racism is primarily a problem of historically racialized systems—created for the distribution of social, political, and economic goods—continuing to perform as created…”
    • Does CRT claim that all “maldistributions” are explainable by racist structures?
    • Again, as in my second question above, how does CRT account for the agency, responsibility, or volition of “people of color” with regard to any individual person of color’s social, political, or economic status? Does CRT assert that people of color have no personal agency, responsibility, or volition in such areas?
  7. Under the heading “CRT is Discontent with Liberalism and the Standard Racial Progress Narrative,” Mason said that CRT scholars do not want to “allow ‘enlightenment’ to run its natural course.” He said they “view such liberal… remedies as a means of preserving the status quo…”
    • What means do CRT theorists and adherents advocate for instead?
    • What probably costs might there be to such alternative means, and how might those have a more negative impact on the whole society (including both majority and minority “races”)?
  8. Under the heading “Interest Convergence,” Mason said, “racial progress is often ephemeral, and always prioritized in contrast with the rest of the traditional liberal program—i.e., individual freedom, freedom of association, free markets, vested interests, property rights, etc.”
    • How does CRT define “racial progress”?
    • What value does CRT place on the concepts of individual freedom, freedom of association, and property rights? And does CRT believe such concepts to be inherently at odds with “racial progress”?
  9. Under the heading “Unique Voice of Color Thesis,” Mason said, “Those who have been, and continue to be, marginalized through social identification with historically constructed groups are thereby uniquely placed to address their unique social, legal, political, and economic subordination.”
    • What does Mason mean by “address” here? Does CRT claim that only “marginalized” groups are able to offer and/or critique solutions to the social, legal, political, or economic problems specific to their group?
    • According to CRT, how does a social or economic “subordination” differ (if at all) from a social or economic disparity?
  10. Under the heading “CRT Aspires to be Interdisciplinary and Eclectic,” Mason said, “CRT seeks to incorporate a wide range of traditions and disciplines in order to address the various and sundry ways racialization is embedded throughout society.”
    • Does CRT aim to construct a completely non-racialized society?
    • Does CRT desire a racialized society of some sort that practices or experiences racialization better than the present practices or experiences in America?
  11. Under the heading “CRT is Both Theory and Praxis,” Mason said, “In the end, CRT seeks not only to understand race and racial subordination, but to change the subordinated circumstances of marginalized peoples.”
    • Does CRT seek to merely subordinate and/or marginalize different groups or races than those it presently perceives as subordinated and/or marginalized?
    • Or does CRT seek to “redistribute social power” such that no group or race is marginalized or subordinated?

If you’ve read this far, then I appreciate the time and thought you’ve given. I trust that my questions will be perceived as sincere, with the true goal of understanding. Maybe the questions I’ve asked here are already helping me and you both arrive at greater clarity, but I think further exchange might be even more helpful.

I genuinely want to know what Critical Race Theory is so that I might evaluate the system of thought more carefully. May God help me.

Celebrating the Protestant Reformation by Highlighting the Doctrine of Justification

On October 31, 1517, a German monk, named Martin Luther, posted a document for academic debate on what was effectively the local bulletin board, the castle-church door. Luther probably wanted a discussion and debate with other professors and theologians over a matter of theological concern.

Luther was only 33 years old at the time, but he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Doctor of Theology, and a professor at the university in Wittenberg. He saw himself, in that moment, as a faithful servant of the Church of Rome. But Luther had heard about a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, who was selling indulgences to people all over the Roman empire.

Indulgences, which are still part of Roman Catholic teaching and practice today, [1] are official letters from the Roman Church which absolve a person of some or all of their sin based a faith-infused act of some kind. Tetzel’s indulgences, authorized by the Roman Pope, were effectively absolution for sins for a financial donation. Tetzel’s jingle was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In 1517, Luther knew more theology than many, and he believed that indulgences were antithetical to any biblical understanding of repentance or forgiveness. So, Luther wrote 95 statements of dispute against indulgences – the document we know today as “Luther’s 95 Theses.”[2]

Some of his students translated Luther’s original document from Latin to German, and they also used the newly invented printing press to make lots of copies. Before Luther knew it, he had become the spearhead and voice of many discontents with Rome. In response, Luther also became the target of Rome’s fury, and he was the kind of man who usually added fuel to the fire.

On April 17, 1521 (not quite 4 years after he had nailed the 95 theses to the church door and probably about 2 years after he had trusted in Christ alone as Savior[3]), Luther was standing in a room with the Roman Emperor – Charles V – and several high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Copies of Luther’s books and tracts were piled on a desk in front of him and the full authority of the church and of the state was bearing down on him. The one question Rome asked was, “Will you recant (or retract and apologize)?”

Luther was forced to make a brief response. So, he said,

“I am bound by the Scriptures… and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[4]

Everyone, including Luther, expected that he would be burned at the stake. But in God’s providence, Luther was spared a martyr’s death. He lived another 3 decades, in which he translated the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to German, he wrote many more books and tracts, and he pastored and taught with a keen focus on the cross and the justifying work of Jesus Christ.

In one sense, Luther was a giant among the reformers. His voice echoed throughout the western world, and it continues to do so today. My own church still sings songs Luther wrote, and I still quote him in my sermons and teaching. But, in another sense, Luther was just one reformer among many.

Zwingli and Bullinger were notable reformers in Switzerland, and, in England, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley both lived and died for their Protestantism. These two, Latimer and Ridley, were burned at the stake together in Oxford, England on October 15, 1555. As the wood was being stacked around their legs, Latimer (now famously) said, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” And so, they did. The flame consumed them, but the gospel-fire spread wildly.

John Calvin was a French reformer who spent most of his time writing and preaching in Geneva. Calvin was nearly the opposite of Luther, a studious introvert and not the bombastic life-of-the-party. Calvin spent most of his life suffering from some chronic illness or another, but Calvin also had a precise mind and a profound ability to speak and write with clarity.

Every Christian is indebted to Calvin for his incredible work of systematic theology, a multi-volume set we know today as “Calvin’s Institutes.” He first published the text in 1536 as a “Basic instruction in the Christian Religion.” It was 6 chapters and about 200 pages long by today’s formatting. Calvin published the final version of that work in 1559, which has 80 chapters and about 1,600 pages, but Calvin still called it a “Basic instruction…”

Calvin’s preaching, which is available today in manuscript form, and his commentaries are both quality sources of deep intellectual study as well as practical/pastoral instruction. And, I believe, the Christian who throws Calvin out because of a distorted view of some truncated version of Calvin’s doctrine will inevitably suffer loss for it.

Each of these reformers, and many others like them, protested the common teaching and practice of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. But what was it exactly that they were protesting? And should Protestants still protest today?

On the one hand, Protestants and Roman Catholics, both then and now, have a great deal in common. We believe the same things about God as trinity, about Jesus as both God and man, and about the value of human life, which is grounded in the fact that all humans were-and-are created in the image of God.

But, on the other hand, Evangelical Protestants (including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and even non-denominationalists) have been and continue to be at odds with Rome on some very important issues. During the time of the Protestant Reformation, we can see at least two major disagreements, which still remain today: 

One, on the doctrine of justification… “How are guilty sinners justified before God?” And two, on the place of ultimate authority… “Who has the authority to answer this question, or any other on faith and practice, definitively?”

In this essay, I will (like a good Protestant) argue from the position that the Bible is our highest authority. But the authority of Scripture is not my main focus here, so I will just have to assume that point for now. For the interested reader, I’ve written on that subject elsewhere.[5]

Primarily, I’ll focus here on the question of how sinners can be justified. And I’ll argue that justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. I will make my case from the Bible and then I’ll urge us to believe this gospel, as opposed to any other, by clarifying the biblical position in contrast to others – both old and new.

If you’re reading this essay with your Bible beside you, then turn now to Romans 3, and let’s try to understand the biblical answer to our desperate question: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?”

THESIS

God justifies sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, and unjustified sinners should expect God’s justice; therefore, let us receive God’s righteousness by faith.

1.  GOD JUSTIFIES SINNERS THROUGH THE WORK OF JESUS CHRIST

Romans 3:9-28 is a small portion of an entire letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome during the first century. Though the “Roman Catholic Church” would grow to mean something far different in time, the “church in Rome” then was simply the united body of Christian believers who lived in Rome.

Paul’s letter to these Christians was and is a masterful treatise on the gospel. As a matter of fact, this letter was one of the books of the Bible which Martin Luther taught through at the seminary in Wittenberg. But he didn’t always enjoy the book of Romans as a marvelous display of God’s grace and love.

Luther initially had some trouble with chapter 1, verse 17, which says, “In it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness [or justice] of God is revealed…” Luther said of this verse,

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle [or letter] to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice [or righteousness] of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing [sinners]… My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my [good work] would [satisfy] him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.”[6]

Luther understood that sinners are guilty before God, and Luther knew God’s righteousness demands justice. And that’s where the gospel message begins for all of us… with bad news, and not good.

In Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he had begun his description of the gospel by talking about the unrighteous foolishness of all sinners, who naturally reject God’s truth and choose lies and sin instead (Romans 1:18-32). The Jewish Christians might have been tempted to think that they were better off than everyone else, since they had received God’s special revelation of His law… or, as Paul calls it in chapter 3, verse 2, “the oracles of God.”

Remember, up until that point in human history, God had only revealed His law to one people-group – the descendants of Abraham. But that revelation was not sufficient to solve the problem of sin for anyone – Jew or Gentile. And that’s where I’ll pick it up in chapter 3, verse 9.

Paul asked, “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And his answer was, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” The Scripture says, everyone is “under” sin… both those who know God’s law and those who haven’t received any special revelation of it. But, what does it mean to be “under” sin? 

Well, verses 10-18 describe it for us. Drawing from multiple Old Testament passages, Paul lays out a diagnosis of natural humanity – that is fallen, unregenerate, and unbelieving humanity.

Romans 3:10-18 says, “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, noteven one.’ 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This is terrible news! The Bible tells us clearly that no human being is naturally “righteous” (v10), no one “seeks for God” (v11), no one “does good” (v12), and no one has any “fear of God” (v18). Friend, this is a diagnosis of you and me. Neither of us naturally seeks for God; neither of us naturally does what is right; and neither of us naturally has any genuine fear or reverence for God.

Why in the world, then, should God be favorable toward us?!

The short and honest answer is, He should not be! 

But it gets worse. Even the benefit of God’s law is no help to sinners like us. Look at verse 19 and following. The Bible says, “19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19–20).

What does the Bible say God’s law does to us when it shows up in our lives? It “stops” our “mouths” and it shows us our “accountability” or “liability” or “guilt” before God. The law is no help to us, not because the law is bad, but because we are.

Do you feel the weight of what Luther was wrestling with when he thought the gospel revealed only “the justice” or the “wrath” of God? What does God’s “righteousness” or “justice” mean for sinners like us?

If God’s gospel only reveals the justice by which God judges sinners, then the gospel mocks us in our despair and misery by giving us wretched news. It only condemns us more profoundly.

But Luther kept on reading and he kept on thinking this through. He said,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Then I grasped that the justice of God is thatrighteousness by which… through grace and sheer mercy… God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise…”[7]

What did Luther understand that brought such a change? I think he understood the heart of the gospel, which we find in Romans 3, verses 21-26. The Bible says, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Friend, we see here the beginning of the good news. There is a sense in which God gives righteousness, through Jesus Christ, to those who believe. But how can this be? How can God, who is righteous and just, grant or give righteousness to dirty rotten sinners like us?

Look at the end of verse 22. It says, “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Friend, here we come right to the blazing core of the Christian gospel. The question we’re after is: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” Or, to put it the other way around, “How can God’s justice against sinners be satisfied without punishing sinners?”

The answer we see in Romans 3:22-25 is that God satisfied His own wrath by “putting forward” His own Son (Jesus Christ) as a “propitiation” …or as J. I. Packer put it, Jesus was put forward as a “wrath-quencher.”[8]

I don’t think it’s important that you be able to pronounce the word (propitiation), but your soul depends on you being able to understand the meaning of it. Propitiation is the act of appeasing or satisfying someone. In this case, the furious party is God, and the object of His wrath is the sinner (disobedient people like us). And the propitiating act was the work of Christ upon the cross.

We know Jesus offered propitiation at the cross because it was “by his blood” (v25). And we know that it was this substitutionary sacrifice that brought about “justification” because“justification” is what this whole passage is about. Those sinners who are condemned by their sin in verse 23 are “justified” by God’s grace “through” Christ’s “propitiatory” death in verses 24-25. And verse 26 continues the same thought. “It,” i.e. the propitiating work of Christ, “was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Only in the wrath-quenching death of Jesus, who died as a substitute for all those who repent (turn from sin) and believe (trust in Him), can God be both the just God who judges sin and the justifying God who saves or justifies sinners.

Only in the person and work of Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness displayed, both in the punishment of some sinners and in the reward of righteousness, which God gives to other sinners through Jesus Christ.

But is this reward of righteousness something that any sinner earns or deserves? NO! It is a “gift” that comes to sinners by or because of God’s “grace” (v24). And, now, Paul’s question in verse 27 is appropriate: “Then what becomes of our boasting?” And what does he say? “It is excluded. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”

You bet it’s excluded! What boasting can you do if all you contribute to your justification before God is your sin?! How can you boast if all you’ve done is passively put your faith in God’s gracious gift?!

God accomplished it all! God effectively, actually, and irrevocably saves sinners!

God alone and sovereignly makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross. This is why our hearts may rejoice as we sing: 

How deep the Father’s love for us… How vast beyond all measure…                    

That He should give His only Son… To make a wretch His treasure, 

Why should I gain from His reward… I cannot give an answer…                                  

But this I know with all my heart… His wounds have paid my ransom.

But what does this doctrine of justification by faith or trust in what God has done in Jesus mean for those sinners who do not trust in or have faith in Jesus?

2.  UNJUSTIFIED SINNERS SHOULD EXPECT GOD’S JUSTICE

This will be a relatively short point, but it’s one worth making. And it will probably be the second-most offensive point I’ll make in this essay.

If you look to verses 25-26 of our passage, you’ll read an interesting couple of lines. The Scripture says, “This [and This is referring to Christ’s propitiating work on the cross] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It [i.e. Jesus’ propitiation, His sacrificial death] was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time…”

Friend, the Bible never asks, “How could a loving God send someone to hell?” The Bible, unlike self-centered rebels like us, is far more interested in God’s glory than it is in man’s comfort or in our foolish presumptions about fairness.

In verses 25 and 26, the Bible is telling us that God’s own righteousness might have been in question if He hadn’t displayed His wrath in the work of Jesus Christ. The underlying question here is: If God is a perfect judge who always delivers impartial justice, then where is it?! Sinners seem to be walking around freely right now, and God has even promised to let some sinners escape His justice!

Ah, the Bible says, God hasn’t let His waves of justice roll just yet, but there is no question that God will pour out His wrath on all sinners everywhere. We know this because we can see God’s commitment to justice in the cross of Jesus Christ. Do you think God will spare any of us if He did not spare His own Son?  

Friend, do not presume upon the riches of God’s kindness and patience!

Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

You should turn away from your sin and cling tightly to Jesus. You should plead with God to blot out your transgressions with the blood of His own Son, so that you may be spared from God’s unrelenting wrath, which is surely coming.

God will show no pity in the day of judgment. Look what He has done to His beloved Son in order to save those sinners who are recipients of His grace!

The Bible says that if you do not repent and cling to Jesus then you are “storing up wrath for yourself” which will be poured out “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Unbelieving and unrepentant sinners should expect nothing but God’s justice.

3.  GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS RECEIVED BY FAITH ALONE

With this point, which will probably be the most offensive one to some readers, I’m going to contrast the biblical gospel with other versions of the gospel, which are not really any gospel at all. My purpose here is not to be divisive or mean just for the sake of meanness. But, rather, my purpose is to hold up the true gospel, right next to some other ideas that try to pass themselves off as the gospel, so that we will know better how to tell the difference. 

Remember our primary question. We’re asking, “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” I’ve answered this question already by pointing us to Romans 3, and by arguing from the Bible that God makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross.

But how does any sinner receive this gracious gift of righteousness? In real time and in the experience of our real lives, how do we move from being an object of God’s wrath to being an object of His grace and mercy? 

Well, from God’s perspective, the matter is already settled. From before the foundation of the world, He has loved and chosen a people for His name’s sake. And the Father sent the Son into the world in order to die as the substitute for those He came to save (or to justify). And God’s Spirit perfectly applies the work of Christ to all those the Father has loved and chosen.[9]

Praise God for such a marvelous salvation! He has decided it. He has planned it. And He will complete it perfectly… all the way through to the end!

But, from our perspective, the matter is still unfolding. We don’t come into this world knowing and believing the gospel of Christ. We are not naturally loving and serving our good King. Rather, we begin as guilty and rebellious sinners.

How, then, do sinners like us trade our unrighteousness for the righteousness of God in Christ? Or, to put it another way, what must we do to be saved (or justified) before God?

It will probably be helpful if I add a little clarifying note with regard to the precise language I’m using when I say “justified.” The Bible speaks of “salvation” as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen.

The Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. But this is a way of using the same word to mean slightly different things.

What we really mean when we speak this way is: The Christian has been regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God. The Christian is being sanctified, renewed, and spiritually matured. And the Christian will be glorified, resurrected, and made perfect in Jesus Christ.

So, to speak of “justification” is to refer to a precise aspect of the overall work and experience of Christian salvation. But justification is a critical piece of the puzzle. In fact, Martin Luther said,

“The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[10]

Indeed, to get justification wrong is to lose the gospel altogether. To get justification wrong is to lose salvation and to lose even the whole Christian church. So, let’s dig just a little deeper into justification here.

In the 16th century, and still today, the Roman Catholic Church taught and teaches that a sinner actively participates in his or her justification by (at minimum) observing the sacraments of the Church, of which baptism is primary.[11] In other words, justification is not only an act of God, but it is also an activity in which the sinner plays an “instrumental” role, namely the sinner contributes to the “process” of his or her justification by performing religious duties.[12]

In fact, Rome has formally condemned anyone who teaches or believes the view that justification is something only God does through Christ, which is to be received only by simple faith.[13] Simply put, Rome has officially declared eternal damnation on anyone who teaches or believes the doctrine of justification as I have explained it above.

But Rome is not the only church to teach a gospel of justification by faith plus religious obedience. Historically consistent Churches of Christ teach the same. For example, Graceton Church of Christ (located near me) affirms that baptism is “an act which is essential to salvation.”[14]  Very much like official Roman Catholicism, Churches of Christ seem to mix together faith in the Lord Jesus with other religious activities which Christians are commanded to do as a result of their faith in Jesus.

But the Bible doesn’t teach justification by faith plus anything!

The Bible teaches us that God justifies by His grace through the work of Jesus Christ. Justification is not something we do. It’s not something we can do! We don’t contribute to our justification in any way. We are passive recipients of God’s gracious and effective work, which provides perfect righteousness for us.

This is marvelous good news for sinners like us, because it means that we have a truly effective savior. Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible for sinners like us; He truly and actually died in our place. And in so doing, He quenched God’s wrath against us and made us righteous in God’s sight. We must simply believe or trust that this is true.

At 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546, Martin Luther was dying, and his friend asked him, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther simply responded, “Yes.”

May God help us too, to have no guilt in life and no fear in death. May God help us all to stand in the love, in the sacrifice, and in the power of Jesus Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Luther, Martin. The Large Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan. Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/wittenberg-boc.html

Packer, J. I., and Dever, Mark. In My Place Condemned He Stood. Crossway, 2007.

Rafferty, Oliver. P. Catholic Views of Justification. In P. R. Eddy, J. K. Beilby, & S. E. Enderlein (Eds.),Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Crown Publishing Group, First Image Books edition, 1995.

Sproul, R. C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Baker Books, 1995.

Waterworth, J. Ed. and trans. The Council of Trent. The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. London: Dolman, 1848. Scanned by Hanover College students in 1995.

ENDNOTES


[1] See the official Vatican authorization of indulgences as recently as March 20 of 2020. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/20/pope-francis-authorizes-plenary-indulgences-and-general-absolution-coronavirus

[2] See Luther’s 95 theses: https://marcminter.com/2017/03/30/martin-luthers-95-theses/  

[3] See this article on Luther’s conversion: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/story-martin-luthers-conversion/

[4] Quote from: Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[5] Here’s a popular level article I wrote on the subject: https://marcminter.com/2017/05/10/christians-dont-need-the-bible/ and here’s a more academic article on the same: https://marcminter.com/2018/11/01/sufficiency-of-scripture/

[6] Sproul, 56-57.

[7] Sproul, 57.

[8] Packer, 23.

[9] See all of this laid out in Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:27-39; 2 Timothy 1:8-12; and elsewhere.

[10] Sproul, 67.

[11] Rafferty, 280. See also chapter 7 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, which says, “Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only- begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just…”

[12] Rafferty, 278-280.

[13] See Waterworth, session 6, especially canons 9, 12, 24, and 30.

[14] See full content at http://www.churches-of-christ.net/tracts/job041u.htm

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