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Voluntarity, Variety, and the Young Reformed

June 22nd, 2011 | 2 min read

By Kevin White

I want to offer something between an addendum and a counterpoint to Matt's excellent guest post at Ben Simpson's blog. He rightly describes how, in late modern society, membership in social institutions and social structures have become radically voluntary. Online social media has both reflected and accelerated that trend. Read his post. It's good, especially in the connection he suggests between the popularity of Calvinism and the rise of voluntary society.

There are many types within the Young Reformed crowd. I think there are two particular kinds that are relevant for Matt's post. Both are Evangelical, and both strongly embrace the doctrines of grace.  You might call them Parachurch YR's and Church YR's. Or perhaps the New School and Old School wings of the movement. For the sticklers, I'll admit they are overlapping categories that are not meant to cover all comers. Likewise, these are descriptive labels, not pointed claims. Judgement calls come a few steps after distinction-setting, right?

The "Parachurch" or "New School" prefer more informal church networks and more emphasize the big conferences as the anchor points for the movement. They are more likely to identify as missional and to be part of independent churches or newer church connections. (e.g., Sovereign Grace Ministries, Acts 29, Mohlerite Southern Baptists) The parts of Reformed Theology that they emphasize are sovereignty and the doctrines of grace. You might call them the "Evangelical Reformed."

The "Church" or "Old School" have a stronger emphasis on confessionalism and formal church polity. They more emphasize the visible church as a covenant community. The conventions are more of a supplementary fellowship opportunity. Like the 19th century Old School Presbyterians, they think revivalist, pietistic evangelicalism is a good thing, that can go hand-in-hand with the best of Protestant scholastic theology. They are more likely to emphasize Reformed ecclesiology as the context for the doctrines of grace and election. You might call them "Reformed Evangelicals."

So, what does this have to do with Matt's post? I suggest that these two approaches to the Young Reformed thing also represent two different approaches to voluntary culture. For the New School, with their more casual approach to doing church, the voluntary nature of church affiliation, theological approach, and conference fellowship is emphasized. And, like Matt said, tempered and chastened by the recognition that God is the King of History. We choose to attend Together for the Gospel 2011, but we remember that God had declared its attendance roster before the foundation of the world.

But I think the Old School, with its more formal and institutional approach to church, has a slightly different approach to the highly voluntary nature of present culture. We are to voluntarily choose, out of respect for God and His glory, to vow membership to this congregation and submission to these elders. Once entered, membership and fellowship become a holy obligation and a familial bond, not to be broken lightly. The visible fellowship of the church is made (ideally) a living critique of unstable, self-defined voluntary culture.

Kevin White