Re-forming Reformed Evangelicalism.
In the first article we surveyed some of the great heritage of English Christianity up until the death of Spurgeon. I also took notice of the burgeoning Liberalism of the 19th Century. The second article charted the progress of Liberal theology and the corresponding waning of the conservative cause until things picked up owing to the influence of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others in the middle of the last century. Nevertheless, the muddy boots of the Liberals have left their marks all across the English religious landscape, with the result that many people in Britain are thorough-going secularists today. The second feature ended with an imaginary visit to one of the Grace Baptist Churches in England. And I left off by alluding to the fact that things were in the process of change.
This brings us to the present day scene, which I shall attempt to describe, evaluate, and then to peer into the future of. Hopefully, by the close of this essay you will have a reasonable idea of the state of Evangelicalism in England.
- A Withering Plant.
The American philosopher Elton Trueblood once wrote that “…the fruit separated from its root… is bound, in time, to wither, even though it may look good for a time.” – Foundations For Reconstruction, p. 2.
Although Trueblood was referring to the fragmentation of morals in the West, his words well describe the present scene within Evangelicalism in the U.K. We have seen how that land has been blessed with many great men of God down the centuries – it is a rich heritage indeed. Yet the heirs of this inheritance, while repeating the old refrains of Reformed orthodoxy, are more and more showing themselves to be devotees of the prevailing ethos of pragmatic expediency. They are lured by the outward success of the charismatic fellowships, and they believe that with a bit of ‘tweaking’ here and there, they can have a slice of the action. Thus, normative church services such as the one I described in my last article are in the throws of being revamped. Meanwhile, the old leadership is seeking to pass the buck for the new downgrade by pointing to soft- targets outside their own particular sphere.
- Evangelicalism Divided.
The recent book by English Reformed writer Iain Murray entitled Evangelicalism Divided shares in the general excellencies and deficiencies of his other works. After a brilliant opening 100 or so pages Murray then gets bogged down discussing a theological hobby-horse (in this case it’s Evangelical Anglicanism), before closing off his book with thoughtful observations and helpful applications (I can’t be the only one who feels this way). The book was written to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Lloyd-Jones’s seminal address in 1966 in which he warned Evangelicals of the need for separating from the theological liberals within their denominational ranks. The book does contain some helpful information and analysis. For all that, I have to say that an American reading Murray’s book would probably come away with the idea that the Anglicans are to blame for the problems besetting British conservative Christianity today. Indeed, one might come away with much the same opinion after perusing The Banner of Truth magazine as well. The whole trouble is with these Anglican evangelicals! That is where the finger must point.
Now the trouble with that view of things is that it is simply false. Yes, the Packer-Stott line has been influential in some quarters, but the buck does not stop with them. The truth of the matter is that the downward slide of Evangelicalism has had many contributors who are outside the pale of the Church of England.
- Weaving Down A Straight Line.
Granting the constitutional myopia which afflicts us all when our own circle is at fault, it is still disturbing to find the leaders within the independent churches in the U.K. fastening blame upon those dissembling Anglicans. I do not intend to follow suit.
Aside from those benighted Anglicans (Packer, Stott, et al.) the Evangelicals are largely represented by three organizations; the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), the British Evangelical Council (BEC), and the Association of Grace Baptists. None of these groups is now what it was originally meant to be. This is why people like Dr. Peter Masters, minister at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, is not in membership with them. Certainly, there are still a minority of “old-style” evangelicals within these groups, but Dr. Masters is pessimistic about the future. He has written, “…we are profoundly doubtful that the existing evangelical organizations will take any stand against the advancing corruption of our churches.” – (Sword & Trowel magazine, 1999, #4, page 11).
One example of such corruption was the subject of an article from Dr. Masters’ pen just one year later. In the first number of 2001 Sword & Trowel he commented on a new hymnbook initiated by leaders within the FIEC and Grace Baptists. This hymnbook, called “Praise”, introduces contemporary charismatic songs into Reformed churches. It is the culmination of a movement that has been growing in impetus since many of these fellowships adopted the “Mission Praise” songbook which accompanied Billy Graham’s Crusade of 1985. The leaders have had their set agenda, and they will see it through. For sure, the fruit will remain for a time , but it has to wither. As Peter Masters so poignantly expresses it;
“What is the point of preaching or contending for sound doctrine, if the church’s practice has submitted to the world and become offensive to God?” (emphasis his).
The hard truth is that doctrinal exactitude (whether Reformed or Dispensational) is never enough.
Masters asks: “But are there not some reformed men who have espoused [this]?… With great grief we acknowledge that there are; but we can only say that Reformation tenets are in their head, not their heart; in their claims, but not in their allegiance; in their words, but not their deeds. In the days ahead the onward march of contemporary worship will reveal some painful surprises.” (Ibid, p. 7). Someone needs to sound the alarm.
- A Personal Experience.
I found out while attending Seminary in London that a ministry of warning is disallowed ‘up-front’ by men whose job it is to know better. If you will permit me one of many personal experiences. Our Theology Lecturer had two 90 minute periods left in which he wanted to discuss a prominent issue with the class. We were to put forward suggestions and then vote on them. My suggested topic was “New Evangelicalism” – which received the most votes. For the rest of the period our Tutor dithered and vacillated about and managed to evade the chosen topic. Come the next 90 minute period he took another vote. To his chagrin the class again opted for my previous suggestion. Whereupon we were treated to a lengthy discourse on…church architecture! There and then I learned why our churches were wide open to declension. The ministry of warning, repeatedly taught in the NT, was not welcomed. A vacuous orthodoxy might sound good, but it is impotent to retard the ranks of evangelical high-flyers who have mastered the art of accommodation. I am reminded of something that John Frame wrote. He said “The present climate of theological criticism has become almost too genteel, it is virtually unheard of for one to charge another with heresy.” – Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 356. And so we choose soft targets to convince ourselves that we are made of the same stuff as our forefathers. How easy it is to trot out those Reformed catchphrases. But it is quite another thing to emulate the men who first expounded them.
- Rifling Through The Baggage.
As the subtitle indicates, this section is a bit of a smorgasbord. Space will only permit me a cursory look at the state of things.
I start with the Alpha Course, a hugely successful course of basic introduction to the Christian faith. Or at least that is what it masquerades as. In reality it is a watered down version of the real Gospel. Sin is depicted as an unfortunate inability to live together with God. God Himself is not so foreboding, nor is He so full of majesty as scripture presents Him to be. The holiness of God is scarcely mentioned, leading to an unbiblical disjunction between God’s holiness and righteousness and His love. The whole direction of Alpha is anthropocentric.
Backed in the US by Fuller Seminary, (that purveyor of all things suspect that still paints its face to persuade the unwary that it is evangelical), together with endorsements from J.I. Packer and Luis Palau, this adventurous but misguided group study is perfectly adapted for those who equate moral reformation with conversion. Developed at a charismatic Anglican Church in London, Alpha is being enthusiastically used by a broad spectrum of churches (including Roman Catholics) It scores because it is positive, inoffensive, and hopeful. It also offers the individual something that she needs in order to be fulfilled. With its impressive results and arresting merchandising, Alpha will either cause faithful Christians to contend for the true Gospel, or capitulate to its message. We hope that they will be steeled to respond in both a decisive and a relevant way.
Another sign of the weakness of the church is the large amount of congregations without pastors. It has been my experience that these fellowships have in the past been in a position to call a new pastor, but have failed to do so partly because the deacons have been content to rely upon the steady supply of lay-preachers (of which I was once one), thereby insuring that things do not change. Also, many pastors have grown old with their congregations and have neglected to adjust to the times. They have let things slide due to a lack of vision and a wariness of new blood. I say it with some sympathy, these congregations want to preserve the status-quo, and have consequently got trapped in a Time-warp. I well remember preaching at a Church where the head deacon frankly informed me that they were not looking for a new pastor as the deacons were well able to run the church without one! There isn’t space for me to analyze this, but I believe that a root cause is an unwillingness to be in step with the times. Golden memories of former days obscure from view the reality of removed lampstands in so many local churches up and down the land.
The Evangelical Line represented by the FIEC and the Grace Baptists has taken the steps that can only lead them away from the light. The Banner of Truth and Westminster Conferences delight in the battles and personalities of yesteryear, but they have little or nothing to say to the present. Only Peter Masters and those who will associate with his outlook offer the needed antidote. First, a presentation of well articulated and sensitive experimental theology (with its roots in the past but its branches grasping the present), and, second, a willingness to confront error and engage in a ministry of warning. And while I do not agree with all he does or says, I nevertheless hope to see his influence grow. There is no other sure leadership in sight.
- In Closing.
My objective in these articles has been to leave the reader with an overall impression of the English evangelical scene. I have had to be very selective, yet I believe I have got the pulse. If my comments have seemed somewhat negative I reply by saying that I am not a dispassionate reporter – though I have aimed at accuracy. These sentiments would be echoed by a good number of people “back home“, and I have incorporated some of their insights in these pieces.
It remains for me to offer a thought about the future. We are living in very different times to those known to the Puritans, or to Spurgeon, or even to Lloyd-Jones. We have entered a new paradigm where few people think in categories informed by the language of the Bible. Believers in the U.K. must be men and women of the hour – encouraged by the past, but not controlled by it. Christians have just one Word in the modern thoroughfare of words. It happens to be the only saving Word. But it needs to be spoken relevantly, intelligently, uncompromisingly!