Without history and the perspective it provides, we are at the mercy of intellectuals and their ideas, even fads, that they promote to an unseeing, unreflective evangelical population. We live and decide based on conceptual toolkits with which we are provided. We rarely question their origin, suitability or prejudices. This has become an issue of vital interest in many fields of Christian endeavor, not the least of which is missions.
It has been our growing habit as evangelical Christians, for example, to evaluate issues concerned with the creation and propagation of believing communities through the interpretive and defining lens of social science. Decisions we make concerning whether one approach is biblically valid and another out of bounds is not simply the result of whether we have biblical justification for our decisions but, rather, how we interpret our Bibles. We interpret the Bible through lenses provided for that use. In or time, social science becomes the lens we rely on. The proof for that statement is not hard to find. When deciding whether an approach to church planting or community formation is “biblical,” we now evaluate our choices based, more often than not, on whether these ideas are appropriately “contextual.” Contextualisation becomes our measure of merit. How well does one approach communicate how well does one practice translate into another cultural context? A historical perspective, however, demonstrates the utter novelty of this lens.
Consider missiological approaches such as insider movements. How do we evaluate their appropriateness? It has become almost instinctive for us to start our evaluative process with the question of how well or poorly approaches to church planting, evangelism etc., communicate biblical truths in new cultural contexts. So, in that way, most decisions are reached on the basis of how well some eternal, disembodied truth can be clothed in another culture. Translation efficiency becomes our standard. Now, leaving aside the issue of whether or not biblical truth can be stripped of its context, let’s consider whether this lens is our only, let alone most appropriate lens.
For example, when we consider insider movements, the idea that one can embrace faith in Christ while remaining part of your original religious community, we are carried to consider that perspective’s biblical foundation. How do we interpret passages such as that of Namaan and the Temple of Rimmon in Second Kings Five or the Samaritan woman in John, or Paul harsh words to Peter in Galatians? How do we interpret Paul’s desire to be a “Jew to the Jews”? It is common these days to view each historical event through a contextual lens. For us, contextualisation explains why biblical decisions were made and, therefore, should inform our own choices in missions. Christians in the age before the creation of the sociology in the 19th century, however, viewed these passages differently. Often, ministry decisions that hinged on the interpretation of biblical passages considered them on the basis of ethics, not translation. For example, in the early church, Augustine and Jerome clashed over whether one passage or another fit within or violates injunctions against biblical lying. In their case, and during most of the history of the church, practical ministry decisions were evaluated on the basis of conformity to biblical ethics not contextual decisions connected to how well one idea translates into the context of another culture.
There are other lenses through which to evaluate what we do and what should be done. Another lens that is part of our heritage as the Church of Jesus Christ is the church itself. What effect do ministry approaches have on the church? Are these measures in fact consistent with God’s description of his church? When we make choices about one ministry model or another, do these harmonise or conflict with God’s description of his church? These are now long-forgotten questions. In large measure, the visible, historical church has been left in the dust as we pursue, headlong, evangelistic success. There is a shattering silence within evangelicalism. It is the sound of evangelical vacuum. What is silent as we consider our missionary strategy and tactics is any genuine ecclesiology. It is now a reality that utterly compromises contemporary evangelicalism. We should have seen it coming.
John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) was a man profoundly out of step with his times and more than familiar with the foibles located in contemporary Protestantism. He managed, in one lifetime to alienate a rising tide of Protestant liberalism because his support for German liberals like Schleirmacher was tenuous and fundamentally anchored in an older, conservative ecclesiology and simultaneously disenfranchising himself with a burgeoning, highly individualistic, modernist, revivalist evangelicalism. If Nevin is to be remembered at all, it will be because he foresaw the disintegration of pietistic evangelicalism more than 150 years ago. His two articles “The Sect System”, published in 1849 in the Mercersburg Review 1 , long forgotten by American Protestants, attempted to confront the seemingly endless proliferation of Protestant denominations, sects and cults. Nevin, an old school Calvinist, drew his ecclesiology from the Reformation’s connection to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church outlined in the Nicene Creed (325 and 381 AD). These four features, for Nevin, were biblical norms recognised by the visible church. They were not desirable but secondary features of Christianity. Nevin recognised that these four words encapsulated God’s church. He also knew that anything less than this added up to the creation of cults or sects, not the multiplication of churches. His two articles appeared in print after the publication of History of all Religious Denominations in the United States by John Winebrenner. 1848. That work gloried in the multiplication of different groups all claiming the same gospel, apostolic authority without submitting in any visible way to the historical church, much less claiming any kinship to it. For Nevin, this represented an unbiblical sectarianism that would also eventually undermine the witness of Jesus Christ. How could the body of Christ be fragmented? How could the church be in different bodies, each in denial of the other’s existence, but still have only one head, the Lord Jesus Christ?
Nevin issued a harsh critique of Winebrenner’s work. “The Sect system” offers a great look at how one 19th century evangelical, out of step with his own times, produced an evaluation that is proving to be a gold mine for those of us struggling with new crops of missiological innovation.
He begins his critique by highlighting a feature of contemporary evangelicalism: the claim that the Bible alone determines one’s ministries. His comments reveal the great distance separating his historical, nicene perspective and that of modern American evangelicalism.
However plausible it may be in theory, to magnify in such style the unbound use solely of the Bible for the adjustment of Christian faith and practice, the simple truth is, that the operation of it in fact is, not to unite the church into one, but to divide it always more and more into sects. 2 (138)
Nevin concludes that “No Creed but the Bible” is not a sufficient foundation for an ecclesiology or we have to admit that the proliferation of sects is appropriate and should be supported. 3 He is, of course, suggesting that this aphorism is inadequate and cannot be evaluated. He also did not believe that it was either historically consistent with the visible church or biblical. Nevin’s instinct was to see the proliferation of groups all claiming a biblical, apostolic mandate evidence of their sectarian, unbiblical roots.
Nevin also made an observation applicable to our own time.
As general things, sects are loud for liberty, in the more outward sense, and seem to be raised up in their own imagination for the express purpose of asserting in some new way what they call liberty of conscience. But all history shows that they are bold for this liberty only in their own favour, and not at all in favour of others. 4
His observations are prophetic. Insider movements repeatedly claim that all they want is a little respect. All they want is the chance to see how God will work through their approach. That agrees with our sense of fair play. For those of us well acquainted and scarred by our encoutner with missiologies of this kind, we know that missionaries and organisations that practice these approaches do everything in their power to silence critics of the approaches. A principal target of these methods, in fact, becomes the historic church. As Nevin notes, “The independence which it affects, in pretending to reduce all Christianity to private judgement and the Bible, involves, of necessity, a protest against the authority of all previous history, except so far as it may seem to agree with what is thus found to be true.” 5 These new ideas only flourish at the expense of God’s historical church.
These missiologies trade in a discounted, disappearing church, considered irrelevant by an increasing percentage of evangelical, low information voters. Nevin is correct at this point to note the stark choices facing evangelical Christians tempted to pursue a “churchless” faith. “The church is declared in the Creed to be an object of faith, a necessary part of Christianity. As such it is a divine supernatural fact, a concrete reality, an actual objective power in the world, which men have no ability whatever to make or unmake at their own pleasure.” 6 In this form it defines itself to be one, holy, catholic and apostolical. To conceive of the church as an institution not holy, not formed for holiness and not requiring it, would be at once to give up its existence altogether as affirmed in the Creed. And so it must lose its true power for faith, if it be conceived of as not one and universal and historical, not formed for all this, and not demanding it throughout as an indispensable part of its idea.” 7
So, either evangelical believers embrace the historic, visible church as it has always been defined or we discard it and take up with the sects. That is the choice we must make. “In its very constitution, accordingly, the sect spirit is an unchurchly spirit. It turns the church into a phantom; values it at best only as an abstraction; transforms the whole high and awful mystery into the creature of its own brain.” This of course necessitates the marginalisation of tradition to include the administration of the sacraments, the holding of church office, the historic marks of the church etc. Nevin concludes, “As thus unchurchly, the sect system tends to destroy all faith in the holy sacraments.”
Many of Nevin’s observations refer to their essential transientness. There is little that is permanent, much less eternal about them. “Very few sects remain constant at all to their own origin, or make it their business to understand and maintain them. Once formed, the body floats hither and thither according to circumstances, till finally its original moorings are lost sight of almost entirely.” 8
A fruit of these churchless approaches is their susceptibility to abuse. Visible churches, filled as they are with sinners, can be corrupted of course. Nevin’s point is that sects have a unique vulnerability. They do not have checks and balances. “The system is constitutionally tyrannical. Every sect pretends indeed to make men free. But only consider what sects are; self-constituted ecclesiastical organisations, called forth ordinarily by private judgment and caprice; …educated polemically to a certain fanatical zeal for their own separatistic honour and credit; and bent on impressing their own “image and superscription,” on all that fall beneath their ghostly power.” 9
The heart of the sectarian weakness is their inattention to theology, the careful reflection of biblical truth that serves as a counterbalance to evangelical zeal and piety. “The narrowness and tyranny of the sect spirit, unfriendly to all generous Christian life, is of fatal force in particular against the cultivation of theology, without which in the end it is not possible for the church to have any true prosperity.” 10 Nevin adds that without a carefully considered theology, every idea becomes nothing more than a local expression of their ideas and values. This is forcefully opposed by biblical theology done in concert with all of God’s people. “Theology can be no science, except as it has to do with the whole of Christianity, and is thus at once both churchly and historical in the full sense of these terms.” Insider proponents are often correct in noting the Western dominance of ideas that characterised the last generation’s missiological efforts. They fail, however, to see that their own sociologically-driven ideas are Western too, and beyond that, these efforts created nothing more than a fragmented body incapable of supporting its global members.
For the most part, these sects do not pretend to develop a theology or ecclesiology. They implement, rather, a pragmatic approach, a technique that promises results by its supporters. “Sects as they actually exist, have no theology, save as now mentioned; the miserable residuum only, so far as it may have any value at all, of the church life they had to start upon in the beginning, carried along with them as a mere outward tradition.” We hasten to add that Nevin is only half right here. The discounting of theology and embrace of radical contextualisation in its place is a theology itself-just a very poor one.
Sects and missiologies that promote ideas such as insider movements lay everything ultimately at the feet of personal experience. “It is common for sects to make a parade of their zeal, in such style, for the doctrines of grace and the interests of vital godliness; and this is often taken at once for a sufficient passport in their favour, as though any body of religionists professing faith in free justification and violent conversion, must needs be part and parcel of Christ’s church, however unchurchly in all other respects.” 11 Experience validates everything. Rather than seeing authentic biblical Christianity as the convergence of biblical doctrine, ethics, and worship, authenticity comes down to one’s fervent profession. Nevin rightly identifies this as belonging to the unbiblical sects and heresies of the early church, not with the genuine body of Christ.
For sects and their modern missiological innovations, church and its traditions become adversaries. “It hates church tradition; will hear of no binding force in church history; but straightway manufactures a log chain of authority in the very same form, out of the little yesterday of its own life, which it binds mercilessly on the neck of all its subjects.” 12(164)
These groups claim to be faithful to the Bible; that they are trustworthy caretakers of God’s word. “It is loud for the Bible, an open Bible, the Bible alone; but only as read through the medium of its own theological habit.” 13(165)
Nevin places the blame for the shiftiness of sects in a sub-biblical ethics. This, he sees as the natural consequence of attempting to substitute a sect in the place of God’s church.
It is owing in part at least, no doubt, to the vast inward lie which the sect system thus carries in its very constitution, that its influence is found to be so unfavourable actually to honesty and godly sincerity, in the case of those who surrender themselves to its power. All experience however shows, that the sect mind, as such, has a strange tendency to run into low cunning, disingenuous trickery and jesuitic policy. 14 By the very falsehood of substituting the sect for the church, it is involved necessarily in hypocrisy, which reaches always with fearful power at last into its entire life. It has a tendency universally to run into sham. It delights in all sorts of quackery. Nor is this dishonesty confined to the sphere of religion; it is very apt to infect the whole life. Hypocrisy towards God begets naturally unfaithfulness towards men. 15
Nevin notes that sects demonstrate a consistent relationship between their minimalist, anti-ecclesial faith and their ethics. They, in other words, live out of the identities they appropriate for themselves. In contrast, the biblical, visible, historical church of Jesus Christ achieves its identity through a consistent harmonisation of its biblically derived doctrines, worship and ethics. One’s personal relationship to Christ does not sum up what the Bible says. It simply sums up the relationship that should manifest itself in our identity as members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church called to worship the triune God for eternity and in so doing shining the light of Christ in a dark world.
- John Williamson Nevin, “The Sect System” (1849). Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1978). ↩
- Nevin 138. ↩
- Nevin 139. ↩
- Nevin 143. ↩
- Nevin 145. ↩
- Nevin 146f. ↩
- Nevin 147. ↩
- Nevin 158. ↩
- Nevin 158f. ↩
- Nevin 159. ↩
- Nevin 160f. ↩
- Nevin 164. ↩
- Nevin 165. ↩
- Nevin, as other Protestants of his time, feared the Roman Catholic Jesuits for their politics, intrigue, and disingenuousness. ↩
- Nevin 169f. ↩