‘Essentially Evangelical’ is the name adopted by a group of evangelical ministers to a proposed organisation of individuals (and perhaps of churches) sharing certain convictions. The envisaged movement would not constitute a denomination with any form of centralised leadership, but would be a voluntary means of promoting co-operation. Other such groups already exist in British evangelicalism, and it is by no means clear how this new grouping would differ.
I was amongst those who were invited to the second preparatory conference organised by the pioneers. What follows is the edited text of my letter to the new association’s organisers expressing three major objections to their idea.
These bring into focus the only credible basis for association and co-operation between reformed congregations. The ‘Sword and Trowel’ of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, kindly published this is their current edition.
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I am a local pastor, and when I began my ministry my goal was obviously to establish a congregation which would love the whole counsel of God, and enjoy its comforts and strength.
This would naturally lead us to support, according to our own light and God’s providence, any group which would be endorsing such Puritanism or experiential Calvinism. I believe that there can be reformation only where there is such living theology. Its comparative rarity, thirty-five years later, is a barometer which indicates the abiding weakness of British Christianity.
1. Commitment to Puritanism Lacking
My first objection to the new organisation is that the men in leadership are not committed to Puritanism.
I need to define what I mean by Puritanism, and for this I have to go back in time. I would begin with the great ‘alones’ of the Reformation: salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, from the Scripture alone, and to the glory of God alone. The implications of grasping these are enormous.
Or take the familiar three motifs of biblical revelation–creation; Fall and redemption. The creation of the world and of man in the opening two chapters of Genesis and the Fall of man in the third chapter are essential historic events, which become the backcloth to all the history of redemption in the remainder of the Bible.
Reformation theology developed and was given a pastoral and evangelistic focus as it became enriched by the Puritans of the next century. There were the five points of Calvinism, a summary of crucial themes of the Gospel–man’s total depravity, God’s unconditional election, an atonement limited to effectively saving all the vast numbers of the people of God, God’s irresistible grace delivering those He would redeem, and the perseverance of those people.
But there was much more than these doctrines–an entire vision of the Christian life. There was a God-centredness about everything in Puritanism. Permeating the thinking of those preachers was the vision of God given to Isaiah in chapter 6, and the Lord who speaks in chapter 40. As this holy, mighty One was perceived, God’s ministers declared, ‘Behold your God.’
Such men preached the law of God to bring their hearers to see themselves as sinners in need of mercy. Alongside the law they proclaimed the immensity of the love of Jesus Christ, so that Christians were motivated to keep his commandments.
Again, Puritans presented the whole Christ to the whole man–the fact that he is a Prophet, a Priest, and a King. They would not separate these offices, so that the significance of professing to be a disciple of the Lord was known, and men counted the cost.
There are other characteristics of Puritanism: The blessings of assurance tested and strengthened by the promises of God, and made real by the Spirit; The evidence of a transformed life and the inner witness of the Spirit; God’s preserving of his people, indicated by their persevering in holy and loving obedience; Reverence, humility and godly fear in worship; Preaching as the climatic aspect of worship; Hymns of praise which reflect their theology and give all glory to God, and none to the engineering of man.
Puritanism is consistent supernaturalism, especially at the point of God dealing with men’s souls. There is an intimate confrontation, the naked soul meeting the living God, and an awed sense of that spreading through all that is said and done in church. We are fascinated by such workings of grace.
In the conflict with Rome the essence of the struggle was (and remains) that word ‘alone’. Rome believes in salvation by grace and accepts the Apostles’ Creed, but Rome sees grace coming by way of the church through all the paraphernalia of its many sacraments. Puritanism goes a different way from Lutheranism and from Anglicanism. It believes in the sovereign personal operations of the Holy Spirit. This is why we believe in the special calling and gift of the preacher, and the simplicity of worship, and why we reject all pragmatic forms of evangelism. This is why we see modern worship-songs and drama groups as a hindrance to understanding grace. The implications of a Puritan vision of the Christian life and the local church are enormous.
Those are the kind of convictions I believe to comprehend full-orbed biblical Christianity. As a young preacher my ambition was to spend my life working for an awakening of experiential Calvinism. I have tried to do this for almost thirty-five years and will carry on while God gives me strength. Whatever the organisation, if they were sympathetic to Puritanism I gave it my support.
I attend their conferences and have subscribed to their magazines. My church became a member of the British Evangelical Council, and the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales, and the Grace Baptist Assembly. I have written up these conferences, and reported back to the Congregation in Aberystwyth on what was said, and we have felt part of a movement which was promoting true piety, worship and evangelism everywhere in the British Isles. As a church we do not feel at all disaffiliated or lacking in co-operation with other Christians.
There are 11 signatories to your letter inviting me to come to the Essential Evangelicals conference. Apart from three, none of the rest of the men, including yourself are part of any of those gatherings which have been such a part of my life and my annual calendar for more than three decades. I never meet with any of you, although some of the 11 men actually live in the towns where familiar conferences take place, and all live far far nearer than I do. That attitude would be like my shunning the annual Aberystwyth Conference as unworthy of my attendance.
Little wonder you are all feeling some sense of responsibility about your failure to work closely with your brothers. But now you have decided that the way out of this neglect is to start yet another para-church agency. To get this going you are inviting men like myself to give up two days and spend £50 plus the costs of travel to talk about how we may ‘work more closely together’.
But this projected work is obviously not going to be focused upon the sphere of experiential Calvinism, because most of you do not feel it to be sufficiently significant to attend its principal conferences.
I have the same complaint with this mentality and its attraction to the vague nation-wide picture as I have with the publicity of the Proclamation Trust. The men in charge plan their own conferences–which is their liberty. Helpful things are frequently said–which is good. But attendance is promoted as somehow indicating that one is a true proponent of Christian unity, and that it brings one to the ‘centre ground’ of evangelicalism, rather than on the fringes.
From the sort of gathering to which you are inviting men like me there may, we are tantalisingly told, ‘be launched something significant’. The invitation expresses, I fear, that side of the English evangelical character that is so easily seduced by vague, universal, good intentions that get nowhere. To be encouraging a revived Puritanism would certainly be an immensely attractive ideal. But it is questionable whether we need another agency or conference to do what is already served by others. I doubt if I shall see the day when a group of young men within Anglicanism look in despair at their own denomination and turn to those true riches. None of them is interested in the cause of creationism. One of the committee of the Biblical Creation Society told me of their frustration in getting any Anglicans interested in the pro-creation and anti-evolution movement.
But my further complaint is that even the majority of you who know about Puritanism are not focused upon its motivating energies. Some of you have even lost that vision you once had. Without that commitment why should your future actions achieve anything theologically and ecclesiastically credible?
Presbyterians who truly hold to the Westminster Confession, and Congregationalists who accept the Savoy Confession, and Baptists who receive the 1689 London Confession have a rich base of agreement not only on worship, evangelism and pastoring but about God himself. They share such a sound foundation that they may co-operate in ministry and mission. I doubt whether what will come out of Essentially Evangelical will make a better contribution to Christians ‘working together’ than all the existing committee work, travels, conferences and speaking engagements. We are already very involved in cross-denominational structures with a Puritan base.
2. It promotes relationships with others who fellowship with opponents of the Gospel
The proposed new grouping has chosen to embrace those who remain in church fellowship with those who deny the Gospel. There are a couple of Anglicans amongst your eleven organisers. What can one say about the Church of England and its evangelicals? A myth has been circulated which suggests that the good Martyn Lloyd-Jones was manipulated by a coterie of lesser individuals who pushed his separatist Welsh tendencies to an extreme, so that there developed a nasty and unnecessary split between Free Church and Anglican evangelicals.
It is further said that the time has come for bygones to be bygones, and for that unnecessary division to be healed.
Have you read the views of the Anglican Gerald Bray in his review in the Churchman of McGrath’s biography of J. I. Packer? He says that the Packer-Stott line about staying in and influencing the Established Church might have had a good deal to commend it if only Anglican evangelicalism had been united around a coherent reformed theology. He continues in these words:
Those who wanted to ‘go into’ the Church of England, as they put it, were often quite happy to ditch whatever theology they possessed, especially if it could get them a bishopric. Whether Dr Lloyd-Jones realised this or not, subsequent events have showed that his was a prophetic voice.
At the Evangelical Anglican Leaders’ Conference in January 1995, for example, all the main speakers were bishops, but not all of them could be clearly identified with the evangelical wing of the church. A purple shirt was obviously more important than a committed soul, which is exactly what the Doctor could see coming twenty-five years before.
There have always been Puritan-minded Anglicans, but their position in the church (and their attitude towards it) has been complex. In attempting to bring an Anglican neo-Puritanism into being, Dr Packer was heading for trouble, as this book makes perfectly clear.
This is basically because modern Anglican evangelicalism is thoroughly ‘Arminian’ in character, and is deeply marked by an amateurish do-it-yourself outlook which is its true uniting character. Bash-campers (‘Christ for the upper crust’), charismatics and neo-evangelical liberals all have this in common–they do not believe in the total depravity of the human race, they most certainly do not believe in unconditional election (you have much better chance of being saved if you have gone to the right school, for example), and despite what they may claim, they have little conception of atonement, limited or otherwise.
Gerald Bray complements McGrath for his relatively guarded exposure of ‘the wickedness and deep-seated hypocrisy of the so-called evangelicals’ who made such a mess of things at Clifton Theological College when Packer and Motyer were teaching there. In spilling the beans on that story McGrath has shown ‘the moral void at the heart of so much Anglican evangelicalism, and unfortunately what he says can be supported by similar events elsewhere’.
Anglican evangelicalism will not shake itself free from this evil unless enough people are prepared to stand up and expose it, but public accountability goes so much against the grain in evangelical circles that the chances of this are remote.
Those are the judgements of someone who has worked within Anglicanism, teaching at Oak Hill College for years. Is it not true that evangelicals in the Church of England have virtually given up the attempt to reform it? Reg Burrows’ book Dare to Contend seems to indicate this. Were there more than one or maybe two evangelicals who took a stand against the ordination of women? There was no one for men like myself to admire and pray for. Were not the non-sacramentalist conservatives put to shame by the sacrificial actions of many Anglo-Catholics? Evangelical Anglicans were mute.
There are in existence groups which allow for men in modernist-dominated denominations to work with those who are outside it. But have any been set up deliberately with that narrow aim in mind? Is it moral to make it easier to channel the attention and costly reforming energy of Anglican evangelicals away from the unpleasant realities of the Established Church? Is our turning a blind eye to their compromises the action of faithful friends? Does it help them? Are we not providing another sticking-plaster when in fact crucial surgery is needed?
The concern of the evangelical Anglican today is to hang on to the most primitive expressions of morality. He is protesting about ordaining homosexual men, and women too–think of it! But to win ethical battles our brethren have to be successful in theological ones, and we are back to Puritanism, which is not on the Anglican evangelical agenda. The C of E organisation ‘Reform’ has to become reformed in theology, and not a political machine.
We have never found working with non-reformed Anglicans to be in the remotest way beneficial. The feeling is mutual. There was just one solitary Anglican minister who attended the Banner of Truth conference last year–out of over 300 men. That is average. Yet Dick Lucas has been invited to speak at Leicester. It has attracted no more Anglicans.
3. A lack of stirring goals.
The Evangelical Alliance is in the hands of the charismatics–and how much are Anglican evangelicals responsible for that? The Spring Harvest conferences are totally charismatic. But what about the British Evangelical Council? Clearly this new proposed agency is cool towards the BEC.
The latter is not charismatic in practice, even with the awkward membership of the Apostolic Church. Its members are a pretty broad spectrum of British conservative evangelicalism. The Free Church of Scotland, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, the Evangelical Movement of Wales and the Federation of Evangelical Congregational Churches are all members. In spite of that, you men want to establish another organisation. You must be indifferent to the BEC. What is wrong with it?
Perhaps it is that it does not seem to be doing much? Maybe so. But perhaps it is too reformed in its leadership, and so too stodgy to your taste? Maybe so. But is it, most of all, the absence of Anglicans from the BEC that estranges you? You badly want to be in an organisation with members of the Church of England, is it?
Are not the Anglicans, though there are only two on your committee, having a great deal to do with the formation of this new organisation? Is there, in fact, no rationale for this for this new organisation without the Episcopalian presence?
So you want to establish something which will include Anglicans and Baptist Union men who are in agreement with your little 9-point doctrinal basis.
You are not Puritan, but nevertheless, somehow, are going to be ‘committed to the absolute authority of Scripture’. Under that umbrella those evangelicals who are in the modernist-dominated denominations and those who are independent evangelicals will both be able to do certain things together (all of you being unhappy with the charismatic religion you keep running into, which you refer to as ‘a form of Christianity driven by experience and loose theology’).
The ethos of the new movement sounds rather familiar, like the magazine Evangelicals Now, and Proclamation Trust, and Word Alive, and the IVF some forty years ago. One can envisage the coming conferences with familiar speakers–including some of you 11 men–plenty of contemporary worship music, and a new hymnal. But is establishing this sort of organisation the way to capture the United Kingdom for God, when Puritanism is not at the centre?
The Crieff Conference of evangelical ministers in the Church of Scotland has always been impotent to influence that denomination. Consider theological training for the Church of Scotland today–it is a disaster! It is all in the hands of the state universities. Caesar is training Christ’s servants! There are fine speakers and great messages at Crieff, but every cause that the conservative men have raised they have lost at that Conference itself. The battles have never reached the floor of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the reason ultimately has been that ‘Crieff’ does not meet under the umbrella of Puritanism, though it has some Puritan speakers.
The sad reality is that Crieff men will acknowledge as ‘brethren’ ministers and elders within the Church of Scotland who would actually deny key statements of faith. Crieff-type para-church evangelical organisations are umbrella groups under which hide those sympathetic with the Toronto Blessing on one side and Banner of Truth on the other. ‘Essentially Evangelicals’ are out to provide another such agency.
You yourselves know that it is not enough to have unity in fellowship; there must also be unity in truth, but truth which steadfastly opposes error. Men have to make that same painful choice with which the apostle confronted the Galatian Christians–the necessity of a church which debars fellowship with those who preach another Gospel. This coming conference is simply going to erect another of those structures which welcomes men who are happy remain in church fellowship with the enemies of the Gospel. This is not how the BEC or FIEC or the IVF started.
What a difference there is between what you propose and the movement to reform the Southern Baptists in the USA! Already two large seminaries which once were centres of liberalism have been captured for the Truth. Modernists have been dismissed. Those who endorse women preachers have been removed from office. What unites those brave young men? It is Puritanism.
The Founders Movement of the Southern Baptists is unashamedly Spurgeonic. It actually endorses the maligned five points of Calvinism, and the results for the Southern Baptists have been extraordinary. What hope is there for the future!
If any of you are really committed to Christian unity then you need to show the reality of this commitment within present structures of local Christian unity by attending existing gatherings of brethren theologically near to your heart.
My heat helps you to feel my coolness in not coming to this two-day conference. First, it is not organised by the lovers of Puritanism or committed to its service. Secondly, it fails to deal faithfully and according to Christ’s rule toward those who insist on remaining in fellowship within denominations dominated by those who preach another Gospel. Thirdly, its goals fail to excite one’s affections.
For these reasons I cannot attend your gathering. I would feel like the wicked witch at the christening awaiting my turn to gatecrash. I know that turning down your invitation brings upon me the obloquy of an absentee from Peace Talks. But your agenda is loaded against my views. I insist that I am the one who is the mainstream Christian.
It is for you and your committee to give their reasons for their absence from gatherings of men who have joyfully co-operated and supported one another for years, and who cannot comprehend your words about a ‘greater degree of co-operation’, and your soon-to-be-announced ‘plan’ for some structural unity.
This scheme is one of the lesser priorities of British Christianity. My counsels as a non-leader are: Don’t inhale. Extinguish the thing now. You are losing your way, because you have lost your vision of full-orbed Christianity. Let the conference, which I guess must take place, be an exercise in damage limitation, and disband. The situation in the UK is confused enough without your additional grouping.
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