22 December 2012

Evangelicalism & Ecclesiology

tron2For some time, I’ve not been inclined to describe myself simply as ‘An Evangelical’ (although I used to). David Robertson recently wrote that he doesn’t want to use the term ‘evangelical’ any longer. However, his reasons and mine are different.
 
David Robertson’s comments were made in relation to the debates about the events at St George’s Tron Church of Scotland in Glasgow, which have been making the news here in Scotland in recent weeks. David has been very critical of the Church of Scotland. Let me say at the outset that my sympathies are with the Tron to a very great degree as proclaimers of the orthodox, biblical faith in a denomination where a significant proportion strongly express liberal theological values. And, judging by the reports, the Glasgow presbytery seem to have dealt with their desire to secede in a disgraceful manner.

The Tron’s secession brings up the issue of Evangelicalism and Ecclesiology, but first back to the term ‘evangelical’. David Robertson thinks that the term now covers such a broad range of views within the church that it has become meaningless. It has always been the case that ‘evangelicalism’ is a broad movement (although I think in many cases it is being applied too broadly). David feels like he does because conservative evangelicals have attempted to co-opt the term as exclusively their own. The term is not meaningless. David Bebbington and others have argued that evangelicalism has four or five basic features. The fact that these features are present in many parts of the church doesn’t make the term meaningless. Evangelicalism’s four or five features can be worked out in different ways – it really is a broad term.
 
Evangelicalism technically takes no position on ecclesiology. However, in practice it tends to espouse one. And that is the ecclesiology of independents and baptists: the church is an invisible, virtual reality that exists within structures that are at best benign encumbrances, and at worst, necessary (or unnecessary) evils. The church is a pure body. The external structures and government are not the church, but are the impure paraphenalia. This was the view argued by Lloyd-Jones over against John Stott. The desire to find evangelical unity also inexorably and subliminally carries the view that ecclesiology is not important. This Evangelical View is not Reformed ecclesiology. Presbyterians believe in the Church. The church as a visible body and as a necessarily (for now) impure body. There exist within the church both those who are of true faith, and those who are not. It has ever been thus. Any particular church or denomination is either more or less pure to the degree that it seeks to be obedient to the Word of Life. The Church of Scotland is currently sailing close to the wind in flirting with the idea of sanctioning the ordination to the ministry throughout the Kirk of practicing homosexuals. Evangelicals seem to believe they must leave. But what about Evangelical Presbyterians, which they all ought to be? A Reformed ecclesiology doesn’t necessarily see things the same way – but very few seem to be arguing it’s position. And so the Evangelicals leave the CofS in dribs and drabs, and their warnings of demise become self-fulfilling prophecies.
 
One thing seems clear to me: an Evangelical is not the same as an Evangelical Presbyterian.  Especially in ecclesiology. Therein lies, to my mind at least, part of the problem with the situation at St George’s Tron. The problem is very similar to that in Wales in the second half of last century. Many Evangelicals responded to the call of Lloyd-Jones and left Presbyterianism to become Evangelicals in independency. I don’t personally believe that this has strengthened the witness of the church in Welsh society. Within the Presbyterian Church of Wales, a small number of congregations who have abandoned the tenets of Presbyterianism for so-called Evangelicalism continue to this day in the denomination, functioning as de facto Independents (and sometimes as baptists). If these congregations (whether in Wales or Scotland) are not Presbyterians by conviction, why do they reside in a Presbyterian denomination? Independency is there for them. But any congregation that changes its ecclesiology ought not to expect the denomination to embrace their change of doctrine with gladness. Professor Donald Macleod wrote in the West Highland Free Press some years ago: we are not Evangelicals, we are Presbyterians.