The emphasis upon the indispensible nature of the church’s ministry in creating and nurturing faith in the hearts of God’s people gives rise to an interesting linguistic phenomenon to which D. G. Hart alludes in his book Recovering Mother Kirk: Why is it that Jews and Roman Catholics are usually described as observant or nonobservant while Protestants are classified either as true, genuine Christians or formal, dead ones?
This type of nomenclature betrays the latent pietism of much of evangelical Protestantism, for rites and practices such as baptism, church membership, corporate worship, and communion are all dismissed as incidental, if not inimical, to “true Christianity.” “The fact that American Protestants do not use the nomenclature of observance,” writes Hart, “demonstrates just how complete the triumph of evangelicalism has been.” (D.G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003)).
But if being Reformed is more than just a state of mind and actually involves participating in certain corporate, religious ceremonies, then perhaps formal, observant, churchly Christianity is not the bane of Protestantism after all. In fact, the insistence on the part of proponents of confessional, Reformed Christianity that our faith not be divorced from its ritualistic practice means that the sharp division between creed and deed made by church leaders like Rick Warren is unthinkable for us.
The divorce of “true Christianity” from its corporate practice is dangerous and unwarranted, particularly when the so-called “essence” of the faith is so mystical, personal, and romantic that it defies definition. To be sure, “I Wanna Know What Love Is” may still be the heart’s cry of many, but the love that Jesus demonstrated for his people, and the love they return to him, is more concrete than what is evoked by much of the “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” sentiment that is equated with genuine Christianity in the contemporary American church.
My point, then, is that the faith-once-delivered is also the faith-corporately-practiced. Ironically, the evangelical penchant for identifying the locus of “real Christianity” in some internal experience or “religious affection,” or in the practice of an extra-canonical sacrament such as quiet times or afterglows, is to fall prey to the Jesus of History/Christ of Faith dilemma so characteristic of early twentieth-century liberalism. After all, removing true Christianity from its objective, liturgical (see also “leitourgia“, e.g. Philippians 2:17) context leaves us with nowhere else to put it but into a realm that we can only hope to understand by playing God (and he hates it when his creatures do that…).
Like their evangelical brethren, confessional Reformed believers desire to see the Christian faith demonstrated in the lives of those who profess it. But rather than the litmus test being one’s devotional life, voting record, or collection of Left Behind novels, it should be sought in the fact that those who confess Christ gather together each Lord’s Day around Word and sacrament, confessing their sins, singing his praises, and hearing, eating, and drinking the gospel of Jesus Christ.