American “Evangelicals” and Heresy

Christianity Today is reporting on a new poll that shows that many self-described “evangelicals” say that they believe doctrines varying, sometimes wildly, from orthodox theology.

A friend who worships in a rather high Episcopalian church wrote to me to ask, “What’s going on? Don’t evangelicals recite the Apostles Creed in each service?”

I’m on the road just now, returning from lectures at the University of Calgary. But here’s what I was able to rap out to her in the airport lounge:

The finding that many evangelicals believe a lot of unorthodox things is, at least in the American case, about as shocking as finding that many Jews or Roman Catholics believe a lot of unorthodox things. The terminological confusion that I’ve written about here and there over the years continues: “evangelical” can mean “someone who believes and practices Christianity in a way of which John Wesley and Billy Graham would approve” or it can mean “some American who likes the term ‘evangelical’ for some reason as a self-descriptor but may or may not believe or practice even basic elements of the Christian faith.” If observant evangelicals were dropping orthodox doctrines right and left, that would be alarming indeed. But I know of no evidence that that is the case.

As for reciting creeds, well, no: evangelicals normally do not recite creeds in our services. Evangelicals that are not part of liturgical traditions—and that’s most of us—instead tend to worship in “hymn sandwich” services: lots of singing, with maybe a greeting and some announcements in the interstices, then a longish sermon, then more singing—with perhaps a collection and a closing prayer. There might be Scripture read sometime before the sermon, and it might be the text for the sermon, but maybe not.
But what there generally isn’t is anything else liturgical: no call to worship, no confession and absolution of sin, no series of Scripture readings (OT, Gospel, Epistles), no congregational prayers, no “Our Father,” no Creed…and so on. It’s pretty bad—and it’s actually regressing, I think. When Robert Webber and others chided and educated evangelicals about liturgy in the 1970s and 1980s, some responded by adding (back) elements to their services, but nowadays the trend-setting churches seem to have fallen back into two halves—singing and preaching—which, among other bad consequences, has put a very heavy burden on worship leaders and preachers to perform at a high standard, since that’s pretty much all there is to the service. Much better, instead, to let Thomas Cranmer’s brilliant liturgy in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or something similar, shoulder some of the responsibility to orient and inspire the congregation in worship.
And we might start, indeed, by reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds regularly…

19 Responses to “American “Evangelicals” and Heresy”

  1. BigB

    I see your point, and sure a creed or two could be very helpfull, however, have you attended extremely litturical services? I don’t meand to sterotype here, but I am reporting my own experience. I have attended these churches and after their ‘ritual’s some of the ones I observed have no problem with their hypcritical lifestyles. No heart change, just dead rituals.

  2. pmcdc

    or it can mean “some American who likes the term ‘evangelical’ for some reason as a self-descriptor but may or may not believe or practice even basic elements of the Christian faith.”
    my, oh my, is this ever true. and SO (los angeles and trendy elsewheres) today.
    great stuff here, john.

  3. Chris Appleby

    Sadly too many ‘liturgical Churches’ add old fashioned and often dirge-like music to their liturgy. They are often also in the liberal spectrum which affects their preaching. But there are lots of churches here in Australia at least where liturgy is used along with uplifting modern music and Biblical, expository preaching leading congregations to grow and flourish Thanks for your comments John.

  4. Verity3

    I have joined a Mennonite church in which we are trying to incorporate some services inspired by 1Cor 14:26-33, encouraging the entire congregation to consider bringing a Scripture verse or song, and to listen out for a Word from the Holy Spirit to share with the body. The two such services we have had so far seemed to be full of fellowship and God’s presence.

    I would love to see this practice become more common, perhaps leading to services-in-the-round, instead of the common speaker-“audience” dynamic. Why should not the body be edified by more than one professional “prophet” or small team of them?

  5. Flyn Ritchie

    Good comment, though I doubt things are ‘regressing’ in terms of liturgy. Our church has had a response time for years, and lately we have added more scripture reading, prayers for the people, responsive readings, etc. And I hear of similar moves at other evangelical churches. (Last night, for a change, we went to a sung Latin Mass on the Eve of All Saints at a local Catholic parish – admittedly, we don’t have much of that kind of thing at our church just yet!)

    • John

      I say that the trend is regressive, Flyn, when you look at the churches setting the pace for the others. You know this area, for example: Check out the large churches that everyone else cites as the “happening” ones among evangelicals. Got a lot of Latin masses being sung there, or even much in the way of spoken liturgy? I think not, my friend!

  6. RicMac

    While we are on the theme of “liturgical traditions, or the lack of them” I reflect on how I came to Christ in High School attending a charismatic prayer meeting at my little Roman Catholic parish in the NWT, then how I attended a Brethren fellowship while a university student in Halifax, then spent many years at an Associated Gospel church in Calgary, and now attend an outreach-minded Anglican Church. It just dawned on me that I am drifting back to my liturgical roots..

  7. Tim W. Callaway

    “…with perhaps a collection…”

    PERHAPS, John? PERHAPS?! would not a failure to have a collection in an evangelical service represent the ultimate in heresy worthy, at minimum, of a virtual burning at the stake?? 🙂

    • BigB

      We dropped the collection for a week at an Evangelical church in Scotland, and everyone agreed because it was a vacation bible school community outreach and we did not even charge for the event. No one person protested, in fact the we did not collect and the Sunday School got bigger beacuse of Gods favour and our attitudes. There must be other examples of this!

  8. Brian L Allen

    I arrived here through a facebook link from an evangelical classmate. I’ve actually read the poll about the heresy’s, and it really is not a big surprise to me at all, both the believed heretical theologies, and some of the disconnects which have been presented within the comments so far.

    It is true, there are some high church masses that resemble a classical concert, a forum for artistic performance, and there are far more ‘evangelical’ churches that resemble an emotionally overcharged sales and marketing rally, with some catchy tunes to jack up the emotions and increase sales. Neither end of the spectrum seemingly fitting as examples of Christian worship. Unless our attention is drawn out, we see the things we want to see.

    I’d like to address an observation that I have seen play out, more specifically when you put evangelicals and liturgy together.

    It is not, in my humble opinion, a very healthy mash up. I have been a member of the mainline church for most of my 40 years, with a 6 year stint in an evangelical church. I know and understand the regular dialog of Sunday morning worship, where the word is read, where the parts of the service are pre-printed in a book, where the space that we come before God in is sacred. I can also appreciate some of the passion and vigor that I have seen outside of what some would consider rigid and restrictive forms.

    I went to Bible College later in life, and disenchanted with evangelicalism (as a form and style of church) and shifted back into the mainline at the Anglican Church. For myself, it was like going home, and my wife is/was Roman Catholic, so it was a reasonably good fit.

    I was generally confused by the evangelical students who would come and participate, for a short term, for a long term. They confused me. After 6 long years of ‘going to the church show’ and having church done to me by the pastor, I was back in an interactive corporate participatory environment. If you just come to Anglican church for the show … it’s just a bunch of ritual, and dirges – art with a Christian context.

    As an Anglican Catholic, the BCP is the standard. The contents of Cranmer’s prayerbook (the one we have today from the Elizabethan settlement) is most definitely something that I share with my evangelical friends, and would encourage at least a critical analysis of. For almost 600 years there has been a comprehensive daily bible reading plan in print in English, which reaches back to earlier ages.

    Sound, orthodox theology comes out of Biblical study, and from responsible and accountable pastors. Unfortunately, what is also true, is that the take home theology that people contemplate, think about, and consider during the week ends up being a few catch phrases from the first part of a sermon, and the music.

    I really don’t think picking out a few select chunks of Cranmer and inserting it into an evangelical service is the best solution to a multi-faceted problem such as you described. However, for spiritually starved churches who feed on little more than a spiritual hymn sandwich, at least it would be a start.

  9. Brian L Allen

    What is an Anglican Catholic? A response in two parts.

    Anglican-Catholic is as a descriptor, a denominational identifier. In short, a name chosen by traditional Anglicans as a way to distinguish ourselves as continuing in the Anglican Traditions, yet apart from the Canterbury Communion. This has roots in the affirmation of St Louis (1977). As a very short overview (not claiming this as conclusive, or all encompassing) those in the Traditional Anglican Communion do not support ordination of women, and subscribe to the traditional prayerbook (1928 BCP) rather than the revised (1979 BCP) or the Canadian BAS, among other things.

    On another aspect, you will find Anglo-catholics in both the TAC and Canterbury communion. From inception, the English reformation was influenced both by Roman Catholic reformers and adherents, and by Continental reformers. Thus, there has been a strong catholic element within the Church of England, and a strong reformed sentiment as well, with struggles and tensions of both waxing and waning from the time of King Henry VIII to the present. A large part of what you see presently within the Anglican and Episcopal churches presently is due to a mid-nineteenth century resurgence of Anglo-Catholicism, which saw the restoration and renewal of churches with a more catholic influence (restoration and replacement of altars of stone, repainting the church doors red, among other liturgical and physical plant details).

    It is a denominational description. It is also a description of a theological viewpoint or outlook, which is heavily considerate of a small c catholic and orthodox view of theology.

  10. Brian L Allen

    To answer yes or no to “practicing a Catholic Mass” would be unproductive potentially adding to divisiveness, and would be perpetuating assumed ideas, those of which may or may not be implied or assumed by the writer, reader or observer of the question.

    I jointly participate together with my fellow Christians in an historic expression of faith, and in that we (and for that matter all Christians) should consider themselves as continuing in a catholic faith. Rooted backwards into the past, from this point in time back to Jesus himself. It is catholic in that it is universal, and all members of the body of Christ share that faith. That faith is taught as a summation of the gospel message and found seated in prominence at the zenith of the Eucharist – the anamnesis – “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” As Christians, this is the summative essence of the gospels, and our faith, and a component that speaks to the ‘catholicity’ of the Christian faith. It is more about our true fidelity to the Christian faith, than it is to putting spin on varying expressions of that faith.

    To answer yes or no would also be, to me at least, would be to perpetuate what has been described to me as ‘scorched earth’ ministry. I have been astounded over and again at how deeply seated the personal convictions and opinions of people are.

    It is precisely some of these deep seated core convictions that pose a problem when it comes to considering liturgical components within the contemporary evangelical church. There is, as has been identified by some contemporary writers, an anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that pervades the evangelical world. The roots of that coming from the Puritans, and other divergent groups out of the reformation.

    As a reflective observation, I’ve seen what happens when you re-introduce liturgical elements into and evangelical type environment. It was shameful. The congregation balked heavily at the Apostles Creed, and I heard from more than one person, ‘that’s catholic, we can’t do that, it’s wrong.’

    It’s sad, but that is the environment we have inherited.

    • BigB

      I go out of my way every week to help Catholics among others. I am polite and respectful but I do not share their core beliefs. Why not? My friend just became Catholic and I asked him a simple theological question. I was sincere and polite and merely asked him How can the Book of Hebrews chapter 10 be read to allow for the modern Catholic Eucharist practice of transubstantiation? He could not answer me and he is a trained theologian. It was not my intent to demonstrate hatred for him or his faith choice but I also do not understand his perspective at all and quite frankly neither is he able to articulate any defense of it and nor have I come across others who can.

  11. Brian L Allen

    I have been in the same boat that you seem to be in, with the same general questions. I can also understand why your friend probably gave you a blank look, and stammered for a response, ultimately ending in an unsatisfactory response.

    So, here are some observations, maybe helpful, maybe not.

    Hebrews 10 speaks directly to the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to atone for our sins. That, and then some, is the first paragraph of the Prayer of Consecration (Canadian BCP, pg 82). As a whole, starting from the Thanksgiving, and proceeding through the consecration, prayer of humble access, the peace, Agnus Dei and distribution – its all Bible. You can find Biblical support and reference for almost every statement in the communion. I also don’t find a conflict between Hebrews 10 and the words of institution (item c – this is my Body, item e – this is my blood).

    The sacrifice of the mass, at least according to the BCP, is a good thing. It is our good sacrifices that God wishes from us (our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving) that we bring with us to the altar. We are called to bring ourselves to Christ, to be a living sacrifice before God. I’m not well versed on medieval Roman Catholic theology so I can’t speak to ‘the sacrifice of the mass’ in any further detail.

    Transubstantiation – it’s just an obstacle word. There are just some things of faith that, when you try to use words to describe them, things fall apart. To say that, at the consecration, the host ‘magically changes in a meta-physical way into a piece of bloody flesh’ … well, that’s just awkward.

    The question isn’t transubstantiation, the question is – is there support for the teaching that at consecration – when the Priest (minister/pastor) consecrates the elements – is there a change in the elements. Does the host become the body of Christ? Is the blessed sacrament now a spiritually changed item? Considering 1 Corinthians 11:17-33, especially noting the state of those who have partaken in communion unworthily, it is logical to consider that there is something to however you want to describe the transubstantiation of the elements.

    If I have learned anything by studying theology in an academic environment it becomes rapidly clear that simple questions never are, and the best short answers are backloaded with hours of work.

    • BigB

      Okay, you have some really good points here, my mind still starts to go to……….Is Communion a memorial or a contemporary event…..When we look at Christ’s work on the Cross theologically, can we say it was finished. Is He resurrected, if so how can ‘His Body’ or ‘His Blood’ be present in the communion service two thousand years later? What do we do with Hebrews which states:

      For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. 25 Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26 Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.


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