When President Dwight Eisenhower became a Christian, he made a public profession of faith in Christ, was baptized, and was extended the right hand of fellowship at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., the second Sunday after his inauguration in 1953.

Had the former President expressed interest in becoming a Christian a generation later under more consciously evangelical auspices, he might never have been challenged to identify with the body of Christ through baptism and church membership. A personal relationship with Jesus, he would have been told, is all that really matters. Witness the way many evangelicals have recently embraced a prominent cabinet secretary in the Bush administration who has yet to be baptized and received into the visible church.

While some people welcome the weaning of personal faith from the church, others will recognize the deeper issue at stake: the weakening—if not abandonment—of the doctrine of the church among American evangelicals. And the problem is not simply one for academics or theologians. Indeed, the doctrine cuts to the heart of Christian faith and experience. If the church is a nurturing mother for the souls of believers, as John Calvin proclaimed, those disconnected from her are nothing more than spiritual orphans. They are cut off from a vital source of spiritual nourishment and growth. They may think that spiritual fitness is an individual matter, but their failure to participate in the corporate life of God’s people can only stunt the kind of growth in grace that the apostle Paul envisioned in Ephesians 4. According to the church Fathers and Protestant Reformers, it may even leave them cut off from the very salvation they claim to possess. Augustine, for example, went so far as to say, “No salvation exists outside the church.” Luther echoed Augustine in arguing, “Outside this Christian church, there is no salvation or forgiveness of sins, but everlasting death and damnation.”

A “McChristian” Mentality?

That evangelicals would tolerate a weakening of any doctrine—including that of the church—seems strange, since they claim to be guardians of Protestant orthodoxy. But commitment to the church appears to be at an all-time low among evangelicals, a state of affairs manifested in three areas: the pattern by which they relate to churches, their growing neglect of baptism, and the structure of their ministry.

First, many evangelicals seem to feel less and less attached to the church, even at the congregational level. While the widespread decline of denominational loyalty has been documented throughout the broader Christian community, growing numbers of evangelicals are unwilling to commit themselves to any particular congregation. Operating as sovereign ecclesiastical consumers, they hop from church to church looking for the best spiritual “deal” in town.

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Pollster George Barna has documented this trend: baby boomers who, instead of submitting themselves to the authority of one church, attend a handful of different congregations, circulating among them as their needs and moods change. Plagued by what some have dubbed the “McChristian mentality,” these church nomads attend a church with good preaching on Sunday mornings, show up at a second church with a vibrant youth program for the kids on Sunday evenings, and participate in a small group from a third church during the week.

Recently I visited a thriving evangelical church on a Sunday morning when new members were being received into the congregation. During the brief ceremony, church members were asked to stand to welcome the new members. Less than half of the entire congregation stood, prompting me to ask about the status of those who remained seated. Were they visitors? Members of other congregations? No, they were “regular attenders,” an innocuous phrase applied to so-called independent Christians who see no value in church membership.

Some congregations take this attitude and institutionalize it. People’s Church in Willowdale, Ontario, Canada, maintains no official, congregational membership roster, delegating the task of defining the fellowship of the church to the individual. Any person 12 years of age or older, the church’s magazine claims, can simply “consider” People’s Church his or her spiritual home. No public profession, no baptism, no official reception by the church are needed.

Second—and perhaps worse—is the neglect of baptism by some evangelical denominations and independent congregations. Few ignore baptism altogether, but a number no longer require some form of baptism as a condition of membership or participation in the Lord’s Supper. The published polity of People’s Church says it all: “We dedicate children, baptize believers, and observe the Lord’s Supper, but we do not make baptism a door to communion or church membership.” In this context, baptism, if administered, celebrates the personal faith of the individual rather than the grace of God in uniting the candidate with Christ and the fellowship of his people, the church. Reduced to an option, baptism is administered less and less. That some evangelical congregations never witness a baptism in the course of a year is not uncommon.

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The final manifestation of evangelical indifference to the church is found in structures of ministry. Rather than working within ecclesiastical structures and enhancing the ministry of churches (whether at the local, regional, or national level), evangelicals seem to favor working through parachurch organizations. As a result, most of the major players in the evangelical subculture are not ordained ministers or denominational leaders but self-appointed “Christian leaders,” entrepreneurs who direct parachurch organizations while claiming to speak for “the church.”

Parachurch organizations in the twentieth century were initially chartered by conservatives as alternatives to liberal-leaning denominational agencies. But even after evangelicals organized their own denominations, they continued to channel resources into ecclesiastically independent operations. Some observers have estimated that more than half of the graduates of the major evangelical seminaries are called to serve these agencies. Their dramatic growth led Eternity magazine in June 1979 to call attention to “the great evangelical power shift”: “As these organizations have grown, the clergy and church leaders have wondered if the tail has begun wagging the dog. In influence and money—that is, power—the parachurch agencies are running away with the ball game.”

Accountability has been an enduring weakness of the parachurch movement, but true to their understanding of the church, evangelicals tend to interpret the problem more in financial than in theological or ecclesiastical terms. This was the case in 1979 when several parachurch leaders called for greater accountability, not by urging their groups to place themselves under the authority of denominations and churches, but by erecting another parachurch structure, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Parachurch organizations, evangelical church historian George Marsden believes, have become the source of evangelical identity. He writes, “Trans-denominational evangelicalism is built around networks of parachurch agencies. The structure is somewhat like that of the feudal system of the Middle Ages. It is made up of superficially friendly, somewhat competitive empires built up by evangelical leaders competing for the same audience, but all professing allegiance to the same king” (Evangelicalism and Modern America).

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Have The Theologians Helped?

The low status evangelicals assign the church may stem from an imbalance in evangelical theology that places greater value on some doctrines while downplaying others. While this may not always be bad, it has led to neglect of the doctrine of the church at the expense of single-minded attention to the doctrine of Scripture. Most evangelicals agree that Scripture requires a full-scale defense; but do not other doctrines, including that of the church, demand more than marginal attention?

It is not that evangelicals never think about the church. But judging from the literature on the subject, their thinking is heavily tilted toward practical matters such as Christian education, counseling, church growth and evangelism, and pastoral leadership. Someone looking for serious literature probing the nature of the church or exploring how the body of Christ relates to ecclesiastical and parachurch structures will find little help from American evangelicals. In 34 years of publication, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society has addressed the doctrine of the church only once—in the summer of 1969. In that sole piece, Michael Pocock, now a missions professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, lamented the lack of evangelical scholarship on the church. Out of a desire to cultivate a richer understanding of the nature of the church, the author had to turn to ecumenical—not evangelical—sources.

Except for a few lone voices, not much has changed in 22 years. Carl F. H. Henry warned the 1990 convention of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), “Evangelicals continue to neglect the doctrine of the church and at high cost.” The two most recent cooperative efforts to articulate evangelical theological concerns—Evangelical Affirmations and the Manila Manifesto—mirror this continued neglect.

An otherwise laudable effort, Evangelical Affirmations was drafted as an outgrowth of a 1989 Chicago conference called by Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer. Cosponsored by NAE, the conference aimed to “clarify the character of the evangelical movement and to affirm certain truths critical to the advancement of the church of Christ.” Unfortunately, the document did not fully define the very institution its affirmations were intended to advance. Its statement on the church is not nearly as strong or as precise as other sections of the document, as illustrated by this excerpt: “We affirm that the church is a worshipping and witnessing community of Christians who profess faith in Christ and submit to his authority. Christ is building his church where his Word is preached and his name confessed.”

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The same weakness stands out in the Manila Manifesto, a “public declaration of convictions, intentions and motives” of 3,000 evangelicals who gathered in the Philippines in 1989 as a sequel to the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization held in Lausanne, Switzerland. Developing the theme, “Calling the whole church to take the whole gospel to the world,” the document fails to explain what is meant by the “the whole church,” although it does caution against identifying the church universal with evangelicalism. Saying very little about the nature of the church, the manifesto articulates a functional ecclesiology: “Every Christian congregation is a local expression of the Body of Christ and has the same responsibilities. It is both a ‘holy priesthood’ to offer God the spiritual sacrifices of worship and ‘a holy nation’ to spread abroad his excellences in witness (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). The church is thus both a worshiping and a witnessing community, gathered and scattered, called and sent. Worship and witness are inseparable.”

Evangelicals who value their Reformation heritage will notice that both planks are as ambiguous in this area of theology as are neo-orthodox attempts to affirm biblical authority. In many respects they can be likened to the attempt in the civil realm to define the family, not as historically and legally understood as a husband and a wife with offspring, but as a group of people living together.

In their defense, the writers of Evangelical Affirmations had no intention of producing a comprehensive confession of faith. And many understood the Manila Manifesto to be as much a call to mission and witness as a complete theological statement. Furthermore, both groups were probably ill prepared to carve out a more thorough ecclesiology, given both the brevity of time in which they worked and the lack of serious evangelical scholarship on the church to draw upon. But the lack of attention to articulating the nature of the church is still puzzling.

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Accounting For The Problem

To some degree, evangelical indifference to the church is understandable, given the experience of many evangelicals who feel alienated from the more established denominations. Possibly because of ecclesiastical realities, evangelicals have opted for something akin to a platonic view of the church, emphasizing the invisible or spiritual nature of the church as standing against what they believe is her less important visible nature.

While admitting the distinction is somewhat artificial, Donald A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School defends current evangelical ecclesiology in the book Evangelical Affirmations, a collection of papers presented at the conference of the same name. Professor Carson, one of the few evangelical theologians in America who has seriously reflected upon ecclesiology, justifies the lack of attention to the subject partly because of “the theological suspicion that those who devote too much attention to the church are in danger of diverting attention from Christ himself.” Evangelicals, he claims, are too busy winning the world to Christ to concern themselves with ecclesiology.

How people can be won to Christ outside the context of the visible church is a question that Carson does not fully address, although he does call for greater cooperation among parachurch groups and churches. Nevertheless, his theological dualism helps explain why evangelicals today generally shy away from affirming the importance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, matters closely related to ecclesiology. Someone who devalues the visible aspect of the church will correspondingly devalue the outward signs of inward grace that help make that church visible to the world. This helps explain why Evangelical Affirmations and the Manila Manifesto, documents that say very little about the institutional church, say nothing about ordinances or sacraments.

While evangelicals may never think twice about it, their sidestepping of baptism and the Lord’s Supper has little historical precedent. Virtually all the Protestant churches since the Reformation have confessed the visible signs of grace as important elements of Christian faith and practice. While calling them by different names and administering them in different ways, the major churches have all affirmed their necessity.

As late as the nineteenth century, the Evangelical Alliance in Great Britain and America reflected that consensus. Of the nine theological principles the alliance deemed essential for cooperation, the final plank affirmed “the divine institution of the Christian ministry and the obligation and perpetuity of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

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How did this element of the nineteenth-century evangelical consensus not only become of secondary importance but drop virtually out of sight in the twentieth century? Carl Henry believes the shift was not intentional, but pragmatic. “In an attempt to mount an effective front against theological liberalism,” he said recently, “early evangelical leaders wanted to gather the largest constituency possible, and therefore avoided anything that would even appear to be divisive.”

Recent evangelical historiography also sheds considerable light on the situation. While George Marsden writes about the founders of Fuller Theological Seminary in Reforming Fundamentalism, his description of their concept of the church applies equally to the movement they represented: “When they thought of the church … they did not think first of institutions but rather of the ‘invisible’ body of all evangelical believers.” He further implies that the personalities of these men influenced their theology, noting that most were strong-willed, independent people who thrived in environments free from ecclesiastical accountability.

Prof. James White of the University of Notre Dame believes that nineteenth-century revivalism also influenced evangelical attitudes toward the church. He writes in the Reformed Journal (June 1986): “The central concern of revivalism was the producing of an individual relationship with God. The Church existed largely as a catalyst to make this reaction take place but it was not part of the new compound.”

Nathan Hatch, vice-president for graduate studies and research at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that deeper historical and cultural forces in the United States have influenced evangelical antipathy toward the church. In his recent book, The Democratization of American Christianity, he argues that American Protestantism “has been skewed away from central ecclesiastical institutions and high culture; it has been pushed and pulled into its present shape by a democratic or populist orientation.” Like revivalism, adventism, restorationism, the holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and fundamentalism, Hatch believes that contemporary evangelicalism reflects the grassroots American impulse against authority and tradition.

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If these historians are correct, evangelicalism has come a long way from the Reformation, which evidenced a passion for the church that is conspicuously absent today. But all is not lost: If evangelicals still value their heritage, they can lament the obscurity into which the church visible has sunk, a tragedy to which they have contributed in both word and deed. Furthermore, they can commit themselves toward a rediscovery of the church in our time, not just out of faithfulness to a tradition, but in devotion to their Lord who promised, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Reclaiming the Solitary Christian

What can be done to raise the status of the church among evangelicals? The answer most certainly does not lie in turning all denominations, independent congregations, and parachurch agencies into a single, evangelical superchurch. And while denominations should explore how they might better bear witness to the unity of the church visible, the most feasible starting place will be found at the local level.
The following “action items,” some of which proceeded from conversations with former NAE president John White, are among the first of many steps that could lead to a more church-based evangelicalism:
1. Evangelicals need to affirm aggressively the necessary connection between faith in Christ and commitment to his church. One cannot exist without the other, as demonstrated in Acts, where no one was counted as a Christian until he or she was baptized and received into the community of God’s people. So-called solitary or independent Christians need to be incorporated into the life and discipline of some congregation. Those who are already church members need to remain committed to their church, taking seriously their accountability to the congregation and resisting the temptation to “jump ship” when problems develop. At the same time, church leaders need to take more seriously their responsibility to discipline and nurture parishioners under their care.
2. Churches, whether they are independent or denominational, need to cooperate to reduce transfers of members from one congregation to another in a given locality. Before accepting transfers from another congregation in the same community, churches could urge them to settle grievances with the transferring church, which might encourage transfers to remain in the original church.
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3. Evangelical churches need to recover the Reformation consensus that the Lord’s Supper and baptism are important elements in the life of the church. These are, of course, administered in different ways in different traditions, and sometimes given different names. However practiced, churches should more fully appreciate these as necessary marks that help define the corporate people of God. Baptism needs to be practiced as a necessary rite of initiation into the fellowship of the church, while the Lord’s Supper should be served as a nurturing rite for continuation in the life of the church. Church discipline could then be restored as churches administered Communion only to those in good standing.
4. Parachurch organizations need to be assimilated into the fellowship and discipline of the churches. For example, parachurch college ministries could place staff on campus through a church or a coalition of churches, which would direct and supervise the local campus ministry. In turn, a church or churches could adopt the parachurch entity as an official agency.
5. Evangelicals need to resist the restorationist temptation to start churches from scratch. Efforts to reinvent the wheel, ecclesiastically speaking, reveal a profound disregard for the insights and perspectives of other Christians and other churches. Planting new churches should never be carried out in isolation, but with the blessing and assistance of other churches. In addition, both established and developing churches should demonstrate an awareness of saints long gone by incorporating in worship and ministry some elements that reflect continuity with the church through history.

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