Alasdair Macintyre, the astute Roman Catholic philosopher, got off one of the better quips about the difficulty of feeling loyalty for the modern nation-state when he wrote that being asked to die for one’s country is like “being asked to die for the telephone company.” Whether it’s AT&T or Verizon, it’s just too big, too abstract, too bureaucratic for people to be willing to sacrifice anything meaningful. It’s even hard to imagine wearing a phone company t-shirt.
This is the way contemporary evangelicalism feels and it confounds me that so many Reformed Christians continue to show allegiance to a religious phenomenon that is as big, remote, and weightless as the phone company. A number of blogs recently have taken up the subject, Lee Irons’, Scott Clark’s, Ref 21, and the Confessional Outhouse among them. Also at Greenbaggins the posting of recent statements from administrators at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) on the schools relationship to evangelicalism was the occasion for reflections on the relations between evangelical and Reformed Protestantism.
Typically, Reformed types will concede that evangelicalism has its problems – theological especially – but the garden variety evangelical’s devotion to the Bible, sincere religious experience, belief in Christ as savior, and general zeal are all worthy of Reformed respect. So deep is this respect that many Reformed believers will speak of the fellowship they have with evangelicals.
Fellowship? How exactly is such fellowship manifest? Is it like being listed in the Yellow Pages? Where does this fellowship happen other than when American Protestants answer pollsters questions a certain way, when journalists lump everyone from Rick Warren to James Dobson under the heading of evangelical, or when a university press releases yet another book about evangelicalism in the United States?
The way Christians are supposed to consider fellowship is through the prism of the church – not the warm and fuzzy invisible church that incorporates believers the way Verizon sends out direct mail. It is rather the visible church that sets the terms of fellowship and these bodies have definite views about doctrine, worship, and polity. That’s why Orthodox Presbyterians may have great respect for Missouri Synod Lutherans but don’t exchange pulpits with Lutheran pastors. And yet, certain Reformed Protestants, who are supposed to know better because they have actually taken vows that circumscribe their ministry and membership within a specific communion, will speak of the fellowship and unity they have with Christians who are in communions not even within the Rolodex of the chairmen of their denomination’s committee on ecumenicity.
To speak of fellowship with evangelicals is really like speaking of oneness with fellow Americans who favor marriage. I do support marriage and am glad for as many citizens of this republic who value it as we can find. But what I share with pro-marriage Americans is hardly the same as the real fellowship I have, by virtue of marriage, with my wife. I wonder when Reformed Protestants will consider that their membership and ordination vows may be as serious as their marriage vows, and may even trump their identity as evangelicals.