It’s a fairly banal observation, at this point, to note that the success of Billy Graham and other mid-century evangelicals, like Carl F. H. Henry and Harold Ockenga, came from their ability to formulate a centrist vision of American Protestantism. To their right stood the fundamentalists and on their left was the mainline. Like the fundamentalists, evangelicals held to a high view of Scripture—many of the leaders of this centrist, mid-century evangelicalism would be involved in drafting the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy—as well as the centrality of the cross and the necessity of personal repentance. Like the mainline, they valued the life of the mind and were concerned with the social applications of the Gospel. Out of this attempt to balance the perceived poles of American Protestantism came the most successful branch of the movement in 20th century America.

The success of this movement is not hard to see: It’s there in a purely numerical analysis if you look at the sheer volume of people Graham reached in his life. The later attractional model of church growth has nothing on Graham if we’re using a purely quantitative analysis. It’s there institutionally too—these mid-century evangelicals helped launch or relaunch two major seminaries, Fuller and Gordon-Conwell, a major missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity called Urbana, and the flagship publication of the movement, Christianity Today.

Further, through the ministry of InterVarsity Fellowship and InterVarsity Press as well as Graham’s crusades in the UK, these mid-century evangelicals helped bring British voices to the American church, John Stott and J. I. Packer both published with IVP and, of course, another slightly later mid-century evangelical great, Chuck Colson, would be a key player in helping bring C. S. Lewis to the masses of American Christians. Through these British voices and particularly through Stott, the mid-century evangelicals were able to validate their professed interest in the life of the mind and introduced their audience to works like The Cross of Christ, Mere Christianity, and Knowing God, both of which would become landmark books in American evangelicalism. Moreover, Stott, with his obvious concern for the social implications of the Gospel and Lewis, with his pipe and unapologetic love for good beer, both helped to further highlight the distinctiveness of this movement relative to American fundamentalism.

The Fragility of a Politically Defined Center

That said, it may well be the case that American evangelicalism of this more properly theological sort—rather than the nakedly identitarian thing it has lapsed into today—existed only during the prime years of Graham’s (and Stott’s) ministry. This is why: For this sort of Graham-style mid-century evangelicalism to exist, there needs to be a right and a left for them to position themselves in between.

Unfortunately, neither of those wings seems to exist today. Both the heirs to the fundamentalists and to the mainline have become parodies of themselves. The more right-wing Protestants spent the better part of 40 years talking about the importance of Christian character, America as a Christian nation, and so on, only to discredit all of it by endorsing a thrice married philanderer and abuser who once claimed, sincerely, that he did not ask God for forgiveness. The result is that “evangelical” today functions more as a bizarre identity label for people who claim to be evangelical despite the fact that they probably don’t attend church regularly and don’t know much, if anything, about evangelical theology.

Similarly, the American mainline is now languishing as its seminaries are unable to stay open and the recent presiding bishop of one major mainline church suggested that the account of Paul and the demoniac slave girl in Acts 16 is actually a text about how Paul’s misogynistic views essentially no-platformed a young woman.

In brief, there is neither a functioning right or left for “evangelicalism” to pull from as it defines itself as a “centrist” movement of American Protestantism. The wings have vanished and so the center loses its points of reference, to say nothing of the sizable audiences to either side of them that they were once able to draw from. What, then, of the evangelical center?

To answer the question, we must note one further thing about mid-century evangelicalism: By largely defining themselves relative to the Protestant groups to their left and right, they essentially acquired their key principles from the two wings—a high view of Scripture and the cross from the right and a concern for society and the intellect from the left. Thus the problem is not simply that the old right and left wings of Protestantism provided evangelicalism with its frame of reference; they also supplied it with its key principles, which were snatched out of their context from the other schools. We should not be surprised that such a grab-bag approach would lead to eventual ideological incoherence within evangelicalism. This is not to say Graham and Stott and the rest were wrong to build their movement in the way they did. I tend to think theirs was the best possible strategy after what was a rather devastating series of defeats during the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. I am simply noting that their solution was particularly addressed to a very specific historical moment and is not easily transferrable to other eras.

A New Approach to the “Center” Question

Though its critics may celebrate the passing of the center, as a failing attempt to either slowly embrace progressive theology or to make bigotry more respectable, Christians should lament this development for many reasons.

In the first place, the whole reason such a move was possible in the first place is because there really were robust fundamentalist and mainline movements in America. Say what you will about both, each is preferable to the more secular left with its disdain for religion, unborn infants, and the natural family and the secular right, with its increasingly naked white nationalism. If nothing else, the evolution of the theologically right and left into nakedly partisan right and left entities is a net loss for the American republic.

But there is a second issue as well: As Tim Keller, himself a Gordon-Conwell graduate, noted in his eulogy for John Stott, the brand of Protestantism that has been consistently the most successful both in sustaining itself in the west and growing in the majority world has been centrist evangelicalism. If you care about the viability of Christianity long-term in the west, it seems to me that you must care about evangelicalism. But how can a centrist movement that has lost the frames of reference that define it continue?

In one sense, it can’t—not as a centrist movement, in any event. That said, the Reformed author Jim Belcher, a graduate of both Gordon College and Fuller Seminary and, at the time, a pastor in the PCA, hinted at the move we can make in his book Deep Church, published by IVP, which at the time was, tellingly, hailed as the most successful critical engagement with both more fundamentalistic brands of American Protestantism and the, at that time still relevant, emerging church movement. Thus the book is something of a modern-day version of the old mid-century evangelical centrist move, drawing from both the right and left of American Protestantism. But Belcher does not approach the issue in quite the same way as his evangelical predecessors.

In the book Belcher addressed one of the perennial questions of church life in America: Which comes first, belief or belonging? Belcher argued that both more conservative forms of Protestantism and more liberal answer the question poorly. The right, he said, errs by setting up a perimeter around the church that one must pass through, which is done by articulating the “correct” theological view on a wide range of topics, in order to be part of the Christian faith. Belcher called this a bounded-set approach to church: There are a number of clearly defined boundaries and if you transgress any of them, you cannot be part of the group. For their part, the emergent crowd essentially dispensed with the boundaries altogether in favor of building and maintaining relationships. Belcher said both of these approaches are inadequate.

As an alternative, he proposed what he termed a center-set approach to the question. To explain, he used the analogy of Australian shepherds who, faced with the enormous amount of land their herds can roam, simply gave up on the possibility of fencing it all in. Instead, they simply dug wells near the center of their lands. They knew the sheep needed to drink and, therefore, couldn’t afford to wander too far from the center.

A number of critics have noted that Belcher’s formulation is somewhat misleading. It is not really a true via media between conservatism and emergent. Belcher is not taking elements of both the bounded-set and relationally set churches and forming a third way. Rather, he is essentially assuming a bounded set, but radically redefining the function of the boundaries, which also has the effect of changing the extent of the boundaries. Don’t protect all of the land with fences and boundaries; just protect the well.

So the critics are right that Belcher isn’t doing a third-way project. But this criticism largely misses the point as the point was not to actually chart out some via media between irreconcilable options, but to try and find a better, more enduring definition of “the center.”

What a center-set mentality does is two-fold:

First, it affirms that the center of the Christian community is the Gospel, the free forgiveness of sins offered to us thanks to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is this confession that calls the church into existence and which nourishes it in its life.

Second, it implicitly defines “the church” in the traditionally Protestant terms of “the sheep who hear the shepherd’s call.” (The text being alluded to here, John 10:27, was a significant text for many early reformers as they sought to define the church in explicitly Scriptural terms.)

If we look at this more closely, a picture should start to develop for us: We have a “center” that is defined by the free grace of the Gospel, mediated through Christ and offered to the world, and we have a community that is defined not by a firm perimeter running along the length of the community’s land but in terms of those who recognize their need for the water and willingly go to the well. Thus we have the material principle of the Reformation—justification by faith—and the formal principle of the Reformation—the church is simply made up of those who hear the shepherd’s call and respond; the sheep who come to the well to drink.

Reformed Catholicism and Ecclesial Centrism

During the 16th century the argument made by early Protestants was not that they were breaking away from the church and founding a new one. They knew from Scripture that there was, and is, only one church. Their goal was not to start a new purer Christian movement, but to reform the one holy, catholic church.

Over time, history forced them to clarify their terms, of course. Or, more accurately, conflict and division with the body of Christ did. After all, if your goal is to reform “the church” you must have some idea of what “the church” is.

It quickly became apparent to Luther and the others that the leading authorities in the church, Leo X foremost amongst them, was not open to reform. Indeed, the church responded to Luther much the same way that it responded to other leaders it judged to be heretical during that era. One of the men dispatched to deal with Luther, Cardinal Cajetan, was the very same man who, in his younger days, had made his name by disputing with Pico Della Mirandola, an Italian humanist whose own views had already been condemned by the church and whose books had been burned.

Given the pope’s entrenched position and the similarly robust support he received from the Roman curia it became apparent to Luther and the other reformers—even more mild-mannered ones like Bucer and Melanchthon—that the church could not simply be identified as the institutions which recognized the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, given the form that office had taken at that moment in history it seemed more likely that the bishop could be identified with antichrist rather than Christ, which is precisely the move the reformers made.

That said, while the Roman curia was obviously a foe to the cause of reform, the reformers’ attitude toward members of the Roman church was more complicated. At Regensburg, Martin Bucer and Phillip Melanchthon negotiated with German members of the Roman church who were sympathetic to the reform movement. Together they arrived at a series of statements expressing broad agreement on many theological topics, including justification. The work was undone temporarily by the rejection of the proposals by both the Pope and Luther himself and would permanently fail at Trent when the Roman church anathematized those who confessed justification by faith with Melanchthon and Bucer.

But the example is telling: The reformers would dismiss the Roman curia, but their attitude toward members of Roman churches, even some bishops or cardinals, was far more ambiguous. This is not simply an historical quirk brought about largely by Bucer and Melanchthon’s widely known ecumenism or any latent feelings of fondness they have had for the Roman church. It was, rather, a principled stance they took: at its most basic level, the church was not, according to the reformers, identifiable with any human institution; it was simply the body of people who heard the shepherd’s call and responded in faith to it. And, of course, many in the Roman church have done that and continue to do that.

Today our examples of ecclesial institutions that have largely forgotten the Gospel have multiplied, but the principle remains unchanged. One’s membership in the people of God is not contingent upon one’s belonging to any human institution; it is contingent upon whether or not one hears the call of the Gospel and responds to it. Thus even in our divided day, this core principle of Reformational ecclesiology can serve as a cornerstone of a renewed evangelical center.

The Reformed Tradition and Center-Set Churches

Of course, many will hear this argument and laugh not chiefly because of objections to the central argument, but for the simple reason that the thought of the Reformed churches providing a balanced, big tent center for American evangelicalism is laughable. This reaction comes from years of witnessing Reformed leaders fight and bicker amongst each other, sometimes driving whole churches and denominations into rivalry and discord. It is, of course, not an unreasonable reaction.

That said, there are two points to make in response to this, both of which collapse down into one basic point:

First, if the Reformational principle is correct, then the presence of division in the church need not necessarily trouble us, depending on the nature of the division. Put another way, the mere fact that a variety of ecclesial institutions exist is not, in itself, sinful or a proof of sinful discord in the body of Christ. It can be those things, of course. But it does not have to be.

Second, if the reformational principle is true, then the movement is large and robust enough to handle this sort of internal strife. Indeed, the example of Jacobean England in the early years of the 17th century would suggest something very like this point, as would the broader testimony of the reformed tradition. When you scrape past the prickly exterior and take a closer look at the tradition, you’ll see that we bear the marks of that diversity: the American Reformed movement even today encompasses Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Presbyterians, some Baptists, Acts 29, Korean Presbyterians, and a host of other churches as well. Similarly, the fact that Christians from all these various groups are able to work together on narrow, selective projects through organizations like The Gospel Coalition highlight how this movement can be both principally reformed and big-tent in its approach.

Indeed, one could reasonably argue, I think, that TGC has its own trio of leaders that mirror the Graham, Henry, Stott triumverate of old evangelicalism. John Piper, a Fuller Seminary graduate, plays the role of the charismatic, fiery southern evangelist who pioneered new ways of using technology to spread the Gospel, D. A. Carson is the academic with wide-ranging interests who provides some intellectual ballast to the movement, and Tim Keller is the professorial pastor in a major global city with a unique talent for evangelizing young people and whose ability to explain both the individual and social implications of the Gospel makes him a unique and compelling voice to a large audience.

It’s not just in America where you can see the diversity of the reformed churches though: A look at the global picture tells a similar story: there are large reformed presences in Ghana, South Korea, Brazil, and Indonesia, to name only four examples. Indeed, as Philip Jenkins has pointed out, there are more Presbyterians today in Ghana than in Scotland. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil, meanwhile, has nearly three times as many congregations as the PCA, three times as many members, and, if you include evangelists and missionaries, roughly three times as many ministers.

Being reformed, in this broad, historical sense of the word, gives you a surer foundation for holding the center than any other form of western Christianity. The Anabaptists cannot do this for you. The Roman church certainly cannot, as the resurgent interest in traditionalist Catholicism in our own day makes quite clear. Even the Baptists will struggle on this point due to their insistence on a pure, politically constituted church: as soon as you start lapsing into some sort of precisionist approach to church life you will inevitably make it harder to preserve the center; this lesson is as old in America as the halfway covenant.

In this sense it is probably telling that many younger Christians in traditional strongholds of evangelicalism, such as the western suburbs of Chicago and Colorado Springs, are making their way away from the Baptist churches of their youth and toward Anglican churches which can, though they sometimes fail, credibly stake out the sort of broad center-set positioning I have described above either for coherent reasons—a basic embrace of the two principles of the reformation described above—or for oddly jumbled ones, like an odd sort of Anglo-Catholicism that seems, to me, to implicitly grant Roman ecclesiological assumptions right up until we come to the pope. In either case, the movement toward Anglicanism in Wheaton and Colorado Springs is telling.

The future of American Protestantism, then, will not be a movement toward a politically defined center set between the right and left poles of our movement. It will, rather, be a principled movement toward a “center-set” approach to church life and movement building that seeks to define the center not in terms of a grab-bag set of principles appropriated from several different groups but in terms of internally consistent theological principles.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • I am reposting as I wonder if my comment got lost.

    Great post, Jake! Thanks for the read.

    How do you see this center-set approach affecting how churches approach the process of membership with prospective newcomers?

    • Ryan – Thanks for reading and asking!

      I tend to see polity questions in terms of what is prudentially appropriate rather than what is simply right or wrong. I don’t think Scripture is super clear on how churches should organize themselves relative to one another or how they should handle membership. I see a practical case for membership in as much as elders need to know who they are shepherding and who they aren’t. But I’m pretty reluctant to say more than that, at least speaking prescriptively. Practically speaking, I think the PCA’s approach to membership is pretty good: interview with the session, share your testimony, get to know them, take very limited membership vows that are basically just affirming traditional orthodoxy. But I don’t have very strong opinions on these things.

  • Stephen Morton

    “Cardinal Cajetan, was the very same man who, in his younger days, had made his name by disputing with Pico Della Mirandola, an Italian humanist whose own views were far mor”

    Think you’re missing something there.

    • Yes, someone else pointed this out too and I updated. Thanks!

  • Jordan Andlovec

    These are some great thoughts Jake, and super helpful as I’ve been trying to figure out how to place a “centrist” position in between two poles that no longer exist. The bound-centered model (which originally was laid out in the book The Shaping of Things to Come) is super helpful, and I’m glad it’s getting more use.

  • Jake, I recall you writing in an article several years ago about critiquing denominational attempts at codifying “essentials.” Since you defined “center-set” theologically here, it would seem you have changed your mind? Or, was I mis-reading you years ago? My stake in the question is that, as I have commented on before, the EPC for instance actually codifies essentials and the PCA doesn’t. Some would argue that that makes the EPC confessionally weaker and less rigorously presbyterian (and lament the fact) and others would concede the point (and applaud it). Where do you stand on this, Jake, being in the PCA? There are a lot of closet EPC sympathizers in the PCA…

    • Dave – Can you say more? What do you mean by “codifying essentials”? I’m not as familiar with the EPC’s approach to these things.

      • There’s actually a “center-statement” that narrows the Westminster Standards to a theological center called the EPC Essentials ( This is designed to have wider unity with other Christians and potential members (members don’t have to agree to the Westminster Standards, only the Essentials). It’s weakness is that it tends to be the ‘only’ theology certain pastors/elders/members will acknowledge, functionally, and so there’s not as much confessional ‘bite’ to the depth of the tradition (which I could outline with lots of examples). I’d rather have them than not have them, but the EPC is trying to stay perched atop that razor’s edge with formal denominational documents: a center-set Evangelicalism within a particular Reformational tradition. Hope that helps. I only brought it up because (and I could be mis-remembering) you wrote an article 2-3 years ago critiquing those low-bar evangelical-essentials documents. There are definite critiques to be had; I’m just curious when you might distinguish big tent movements as worthy vs. going deeper in one’s tradition as more worthy.

        • Cal P

          Even though I’m behaving like a spider on several threads on this post, I’m not a troll. But Dave, I’m wondering how functionally different EPC is from the PCA or even more confessionally rigid denominations, such as the LCMS. I worship within a PCA church, and have had experience within the structures of the session, and I will say that confessional stricture has had little effect at both levels, it just depends upon who wants to enforce it.

          There is the case of the witch-hunt for Leithart and the case of Kellerism. The latter is basically sacrosanct, he is a functional archbishop within the denom. It has less to do with ideas, and more to do with numbers and money. I’m not faulting Keller, I just see the limits of denominational power. No one would ever seriously threaten Keller because he could, at the end of the day, pack up and leave, and the worse off for the PCA. They need him far more than he needs them.

          So, at the end of the day, I don’t know whether it matters if you take a EPC, PCA or OPC approach to confessional standards. It matters far more how it actually works in practice, adumbrating what’s possible and what’s not. You get results not from bureaucratic machinery, but more intricate connections of people with people, and social networks with social networks.

          • CalP, I don’t disagree with your assessment. But, if what you say is true, then something beyond what Jake suggests in the above article is needed besides theological statements that ‘center’ evangelicalism appropriately.

            As a thought experiment, I wonder what that would be? Leithart’s suggestions in the End of Protestantism are as good a place to start as any: weekly communion, gospel-centered preaching, local ecumenism, etc.

  • Cal P

    This is an incredibly naive and poor grasp of the history behind not only the Reformation but Evangelicalism as a whole. The Roman Church of Luther’s day was open to reforms, but of a certain kind. Mirandolla was a Hermeticist and involved in the alchemical underground. Luther’s condemnation came swiftly and mercilessly because he threatened to undo a Papal taxation mission, threatening to agitate already volatile Germans against paying and reigniting the gains of the Investiture Controversy. Frederick the Wise already got Wittenberg put under the ban before 1517.

    Evangelicalism’s appeal was about becoming a social force with political power. It was a revival of turn-of-the-century Fundamentalists, with their symbolic last gasp in the Scopes-Monkey trial. It had less to do with any doctrine, let alone prizing the life of the mind, unless you equate intellectual vigor with controlling universities. It was about institutions and the ability to exert social pressure. Evangelicalism’s life was tied, from the beginning, to presidential regimes, beginning in Eisenhower up to the Moral Majority surge in Reagan and the neo-Con falseflag in the real believer empty-suit like Bush II. The handwringing about Trump appears dishonest (there were similar complaints about Hollywood Reagan the divorcee with his occultist, drug-addict wife).

    It has always been about power, numbers, social credit, and money. This article ignores that completely and gets a confused story instead. But instead of learning from the lessons of greed and lust, we want to do it again.

    • Cal P

      Addendum: My fire comes from the fact that this sort of recapitulation of Protestant history is not only false, but misleading. Without a single word of comment, the Anabaptists are refuted without a critical thought. I’m not an Anabaptist, but Leonard Verduin (Dutch Reformed!!) spent his career arguing against brainless condemnation, and that the healthiest parts of the church in the US owe credit to the Anabaptists. It discredits the Christian witness, and makes us appear as deluded power-slaves.

      • casey

        I’m just reading Verduin a second time in preparation for teaching on the Reformation at my church. Much of what the Reformed condemned and killed the Anabpatists for, now Reformed churches have adopted in the modern era as status quo. The Reformers could not conceive of Church without the power of the sword to uphold and enforce it.

    • Ian

      Jake may not have intended to but I read strong parallels to Matt Milliner’s talk, “Towards a Visual Ecumenism,” which brought to light counter-intuitive cooperative efforts confessional history tends to overlook.

      I’m not sure that would cool some of the fire you bring to this but I would say it’s at least worth examining to temper some of the revisionist charges you’re laying out. History is, of course, vastly more complex than any of our fuzzy trace logic would admit and when you bring the temptation towards a theology of glory with the property lines and shibboleths of confessional history in it’s very easy to overlook strange, graced instances of catholicity on the ground. I am not, of course, accusing you of this, but I am reminding us all of the splintery edges of the very difficult real history we share.

      • Cal P

        I know history is hard, but I’m not bringing up anything evenly remotely controversial. You can google it or find it on wikipedia. Saying history is hard is a cop out. I know it’s hard (and I’d have written more, but my long comments get caught in the spam filter), but if you’re going to lay it out for the purposes of giving a prescriptive program (and you have to for it to be convincing, then be prepared for push-back if you arrange the facts poorly. You can’t ask for local counter-examples when what we’re talking about is Billy Graham and Martin Luther, pretty much the exact opposite of “on the ground”.

        • Ian

          I certainly don’t want to push for a cop-out; the allusions to Bucer and Melancthon provoked my memory of the Milliner presentation. But I think I disagree that Luther is pretty much the opposite of “on the ground.” As looming a figure as he is now, the fact is that he was a local entity responsible for concrete ecclesiastical dilemmas in one area. Yes, his influence obviously percolated out from here, but the pastoral task he undertook was, truly, local.

          I would like to know more specifically what you take umbrage with as the marriage to civil power was in full-force in the Reformation itself- it’s hardly unique to the power jockeying we’ve seen in 20th and 21st century America. I’m not sure if you’re suggesting the Billy Graham centrist move is insufficiently like the Reformers’ political strategies or is too similar and thus compromised from the get-go. (In which case, appealing to Bucer and Melancthon’s precedents won’t probably accomplish much.)

          • Cal P

            Yes, obviously Luther was a man with corporeal limits, living in physical time and space. But even in his own day he was a legend. Even his personal and private dimensions were turned into propaganda or into sticking points of policy. Luther lived his life as an actor on a stage, knowing that he was always being watched and that every decision he made had an ocean of performative value. Even his marriage and his obesity were publicly oriented and polemical. He was the equivalent of a Hollywood celebrity.

            I’m taking umbrage with the inability to account for the severe moral failings of both the modern Evangelical movement as well as the Magisterial Reformation. Usually it involves hemming and hawing about Human frailty, real politik, and historical context, with a whole lot of question begging and well-poisoning to boot.

            My constant example is this: all Blaurock, Grebel, and Manz wanted was for the church to be out of the state and no longer an assumed part of the volk. And Zwingli tried as he might to put them all in the ground. Zwingli knew that they agreed on almost everything too, but he feared that the Zurich government would turn back to Rome. What’s a few martyrs for the whole city? Why do we think we’d reason differently? That’s the same Evangelical calculus that gave rise to both success and the current state of things. It’s funny, but when it comes to social or political issues, Reformed (which I count myself as) can be the most Pelagian of all.

          • Ian

            “…when it comes to social or political issues, Reformed can be the most Pelagian of all.”

            I completely and utterly agree and I now understand much better what your grievance is. As much as you have protested it over the years, your Anabaptist patch is still there on your tattered denim jacket hahaha

            All the same, I’m interested in how the church can live with its history of brute facts (and brute leaders) without demanding nothing less than perfect leaders. How do we live with the right sort of compromise that is sick of coercive bastards and blowhards but also doesn’t succumb to Pelagianism or Donatism?

          • Cal P

            I mean brute not in the sense of brutal, but in the sense of rough or unrefined. I won’t try to hazard a substantial answer to that question, but I will say that I’m more concerned for the credibility of witness than looking for the perfect, ideological, political platform. Christians have thrived under some secular regimes, which restrain any one group imposing upon others. Whether its modern day Egypt, or early Tang-era China, one does not need to build Christendom to live in relative peace.

          • Ian

            I understood, I just couldn’t resist linking facts and leaders with some homonym-ity.

  • Sean

    Please address the propensity for authoritarianism in the Reformed circles that you cite (particularly Piper’s sphere). It’s a scary thing to propose a center of those who err on the side of extreme “church discipline.”

    Also, is there any substance behind the throwaway comment about Anabaptists?

    • Re: Anabaptists: The critique is the classic Reformed one: Because the Anabaptists treat “the church” as being “a politically constituted group of people with a shared profession and shared moral code” they end up with a different version of the Roman error: There is One True Church somewhere in the world existing as an institution. So if you really want to be consistently Anabaptist, I think you need to go the Bruderhof route and withdraw into a kind of comprehensive community that is an entire society unto itself. Anything short of that and you end up with something that, in my view, is pretty confused–which is the main critique I’d make of someone like Russ Moore. Susannah said much of what needs to be said on that point here:

      Re: authoritarianism: So this gets complicated really quickly, but ultimately you’re trying to balance two goods that need not necessarily compete but, in practice, often do: Scripture tells us that teachers will be judged more harshly and regularly liken the task of being a leader of God’s people to the task of being a leader in a household. There is also Christ’s warning about causing a little one to stumble. All of these things suggest that spiritual leaders in the church have *some* sort of responsibility for the people in their church and how they lead them. So, on the one hand, these leaders want to do everything they can to shepherd their congregations–and shepherding, as that metaphor suggests, will sometimes involve correcting a straying sheep. This, understandably, can turn very quickly toward conversations about church discipline, a pure church, etc. Thus has it *always* been in the Reformed tradition. (Read Morgan’s Visible Saints.) That said, Scripture also gives us a picture of a mixed people of God–the parable of the wheat and tares is very clear on this point, but I think if you’re following the logic of the warning passages in Hebrews those tell us the same thing: not everyone who is part of the institutional church are actually regenerate. And when pastors look at this ambiguity and rage against it, as did many Puritans and Baptists and Anabaptists, they end up doing real harm by claiming for themselves an unhealthy degree of power that tends to lead toward abuse.

      That being said, in the big picture the solution here is mature, humble, Godly leaders. There is not an institutional or ideological fix that can solve for abuse. That’s one of the points Loftus made in his sexual abuse series we ran recently:

      I’ve seen this in practice too: I think the PCA’s structure is very good at dealing with abusive leaders–and also IDing potential abusers before they get power and preventing them from getting into a powerful office in the first place. But we still have them. On the other hand, when I read some of the 9 Marks stuff I get *very* nervous about the vision they have for the institutional church and the power they think elders have. That said, I’m not sure I’ve met a more humble, gentle pastor than Jonathan Leeman. When we ran a negative review of his book last summer, he spent probably 10 hours on the phone between conversations with myself and Joe Minich, the reviewer, and most of what he was doing was just asking questions and trying to understand where we were coming from. And then we got the chance to meet at ETS and he was as gracious and friendly in person as he was online and on the phone.

      All of which is to say that I understand the concerns about abuse, but I think there are resources within the reformed tradition (particularly Presbyterian polity and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers) that should militate against some of those issues. That said, ultimately leaders are human and they are sinful and they will fail. But whether that is a personal issue in them or a function of their theology is a very complicated question.

      • Cal P

        That’s not what the Schleitheim Confession says, nor was that the primary issue in the mid 16th century. The classic Reformed trope is false and libellous, as Verduin’s scholarship proved and successfully amended the Three Forms of Unity within a Dutch-American Reformed denom to remove the condemnations of the Anabaptists. You’re literally spreading libel, and won’t address it because it doesn’t fit the narrative.

        • Cal – I’m not sure how it is libelous. What I’m describing is running closely parallel to the positive proposals put forward by someone like Hauerwas in _Resident Aliens._

          • Cal P

            First, closely parallel is not exact. Hauerwas does not believe that any particular congregation is in fact the One Church. It’s actually not clear what Hauerwas thinks “the Church” is, which is a constant criticism he receives. He doesn’t seem to be referring to anything concrete.

            Second, Hauerwas is not ‘the’ Anabaptists. He is certainly someone who learned from John Howard Yoder, but neither Hauerwas nor Yoder are paradigmatic. To appreciate what they did, you must understand the Radical Reformation in relation to the Magisterial Reformation. What did the Anabaptists wants and why were they so hated? And it takes intellectual acuity and research to parse the data, seeing between the misunderstandings and the libel that many Reformers continued or created.

            Wouldn’t you want someone appreciating the depth of the Reformed tradition to read the Confessions and the Catechisms? To understand the historical development? To read broadly and not only one particularly strange, but popular, representative (what if someone said Barth ‘is’ the Reformed tradition)? I’m trying to provide you historical context, but you seem unable to grasp it. You make the Anabaptists out to be fools, which fits the idea that the Reformed is the responsible center, but it’s not a fair characterization. As Cassie said below, most Reformed today have addopted the major concerns of the Anabaptists without giving them credit.

  • David Graham


    I found the article interesting and thought-provoking but also a little confusing. My apologies for how scattered these thoughts are:

    1) What do you mean by “right-wing Protestantism”? Wouldn’t many of the reformed exemplars you mentioned at the end still qualify? (e.g. even if their leaders tend to be more publicly nuanced or apolitical, they still largely accept the alliance between social and fiscal conservatism) When you speak of right-wing Protestants lapsing or devolving into identity politics, have you not confused a part with the whole? (Maybe this is true on Youtube, but as a general statement, I’m not so sure.) What of those who didn’t vote for Trump, or did so regrettably, and haven’t given up on the notion and practice of a quasi-religious right?

    2) What do your mean by “reformed” and where do Wesleyan evangelicals fit? Do Pentecostals count? You say that you define it broadly, but as far as I could tell your examples only include soteriological Calvinists.To call this “big tent” reformed seems a little ridiculous from my Canadian-holiness-evangelical point of view.

    3) Do your comments on division and diversity match empirical reality? If we define reformed as broad as I’d like to define it, then it becomes clear that we’re dealing with something more serious than a “prickly exterior.” The major intra-Protestant divisions (e.g. Lutheran vs. Calvinist vs. Arminian) have often taken the form of mutual condemnations, or at least a lack of mutual recognition. And in some ways this arguably continues. E.g. Virtually every neo-calvinist evangelical I meet today considers non-calvinist teachers to be untrustworthy or worse. Many of them treat Arminians as a mission field. (While I disagree with Roger Olson on many things, his strong push-back against this is understandable) This being the case, I wonder if it’s more complicated to develop a center-set approach grounded in “internally consistent theological principles”?

    4) How does this relate to global evangelicalism? If evangelicalism is bigger than the English-speaking world, and perhaps primarily non-Western, shouldn’t our discussions of its future within America grapple with its nature outside it?


    • Thanks for commenting, David!

      1) So my only concern with “right-wing” Protestants in this piece was within the broader religious context of mid-century America when you had conservative Protestants (fundamentalists), centrist Protestants (Graham’s evangelicals), and liberal Protestants (mainline). I perhaps should have avoided “right-wing” so as to avoid creating that very confusion you’re talking about.

      Do the people I’m saying should form the new center still fit with the right wing? Well, if we’re talking theologically, sure. But politically it’s more of a mix–go back and read Keller’s intro in _Reason for God_. He sees the political crackup coming way back in 2008: He says something to the effect of “don’t be surprised if we see more theologically conservative young Christians who do not embrace the right wing politics of the previous generation.” It’s also really hard to square Piper as a normie right-wing evangelical given his comments on guns and racism, I think.

      2) Well, the two founding principles of the Reformation are the two I outlined above–justification by faith and scripture as the chief authority in the church. What I said about ecclesiology follows from that point about Scripture. The people I would say that it excludes would be anyone who gets into any sort of “One True Churchism” in which we primarily identify “the church” as the people who belong to a recognizable institutional entity. I would imagine Holiness movements would fail this test. That said, many soteriological Calvinists do too. The North American Puritans are obsessive about church membership and refuse to grant full membership to anyone who does not have a fairly specific kind of conversion story. If you want to get a better sense of where I’m coming from on church questions, my friends and I have published a collection of essays defining the traditional Protestant eccesiology I am implicitly affirming in this post:

      3) On this I think we must just be running in different circles. The PCA pastors here in Lincoln are all part of a prayer group of local pastors that includes Baptists, Acts 29, non-denoms, Pentecostals, and a few others. My pastor is actually doing an event next week with a UCC minister that he is friends with on the differences between mainline Christians and evangelicals. We also still do a fair number of things with local Catholics here in town around anti-abortion activism. But my wife also runs a dance studio that has a number of Catholic students and the studio uses space in our church and we’ve had no problems with anyone so far. Certainly there are groups you can get into that are genuinely divisive–try getting trolled by Anonymous OPC Twitter sometime–but I tend to think the future of reformed evangelicalism looks way more like Keller than it does someone like R. Scott Clark. (That can come with problems of its own as many younger guys are not as talented as Keller but want to be Keller and end up in a bad place, but in that situation the error is not that they’re TRish.)

      4) Well, so this is a tricky question too: Much of the global church growth is pentecostalism. I don’t know enough to say too much but I am inclined, based on what I do know, to say that pentecostalism is its own branch of western Christianity distinct from both Rome and Protestantism. That’s the line Jenkins takes in his books on the future of global Christianity. That said, the largest Christian university in Indonesia, for example, is Reformed. The Presbyterian church in Brazil is, as I mentioned above, quite large and much closer to the PCA, from what I have gathered, than it would be to, like, McIntire’s old Bible Presbyterians. I also have a close friend who is currently a church planter with MTW in Japan. TGC has also done some events with a Reformed Baptist pastor in Lusaka, Zambia. So there is some of what I’m describing internationally, but I think much of global Christianity right now is various shades of pentecostalism and I’m too ignorant to say much more than what I’ve already said about that.

      • David Graham


        Thank you for taking the time to respond! This is very helpful.

        Re; # 2, I’ll have to read that collection. Perhaps we just have different impressions of contemporary holiness-based churches, including Pentecostalism. For example, I grew up and was baptized in the Christian Missionary Alliance and I’m now a member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. In my experience, there’s no question that these churches and many others like them (e.g. Nazarene, Free Methodist, etc.) abide by the founding principles as well as their attendant ecclesiology. (e.g. My current Pentecostal church features a congregation made up largely of former non-Pentecostals, a pastor who reads obscure puritan commentaries, and a bookstore that sells contemporary neo-Calvinist authors who almost certainly think we’re heretics.) But I suppose that even in Protestant denominations that pass your test, there are sectarian impulses in particular cases.

        Thanks again.


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