…That the old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act of baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s Table…the system was churchly, as holding the Church in her visible character to be the medium of salvation for her baptized children in the sense of that memorable declaration of Calvin (Inst 4.1.4) where, speaking of her title, Mother, he says: “There is no other entrance into life, save as she may conceive in her womb, give us birth, nourish us from her breasts, and embrace us in her loving care to the end.”
In any household, there is the question of the perpetuation of that which identifies the core of the household. A family passes down its particulars to its descendants. What makes us who we are up one side and down the other is largely inherited. And whatever isn’t effortlessly inherited is deliberately engendered.
When it comes to the Christian faith, the confessional Reformed ethic, once again, differs from the evangelical one. Where the evangelical ethic seeks to perpetuate the faith by bringing outsiders into the fold, the confessional one emphasizes the mini-congregation within the congregation. Where the evangelical ethic looks to seek those who are “afar off,” the confessional one looks to live births, namely the covenant family. It is not that the evangelical has no consciousness toward his children, or that the confessionalist places no value on missions or evangelism. While how each does those respective activities differs (i.e. Reformed do evangelism differently than the evangelical), it is also worth noting that the question of emphasis is also a distinguishing mark. In a word, where the evangelical emphasizes “afar off” evangelism, the confessionalist practices the catechism of covenant children.
The pull for the confessionalist to “do better” in his evangelism is more a push by the evangelical ethic upon him, wholesale. It is typical for the confessionalist to be made to feel somehow inferior, but really he should not. He is not an evangelical. Just as it would be unrealistic for the confessionalist to expect the evangelical to adopt his emphasis, it is equally unrealistic for the evangelical to expect the confessionalist to turn his attention primarily outward instead of nurturing his own. Yet, it is often not the evangelical who feels relatively ashamed of his inability to catechize his children so much as it is the confessionalist who senses the need to hand out just as many Bibles to the natives and be as obsessed with “growth” and “numbers.”
It is, after all, the evangelical ethic that fuels much of the mega-church phenomenon being compelled to behave more like a conference center that “packs ‘em in” than a church nurturing souls. Very often, I have found, the Reformed are accused of not being particularly strong when it comes to evangelism. This is usually laid at the doorstep of our Calvinism or the very idea that “God saves sinners,” the doctrines of election or predestination, etc. This, I think, is a great miscalculation on the part of the evangelical. Still greater, and even more pathetic I might add, is the confessional acquiescence to the idea and subsequent efforts to behave more “evangelically.” I am not beyond admitting that Reformed confessionalism can lend itself to a less-than adequate purview on evangelism. But, at the same time, I think that once it gets to this stage one is really beginning to deal with forms of hyper-Calvinism or other errant forms of determinism over against sound and biblical Calvinism.
No, our perceived “weakness” with regard to evangelism really comes from a skewed understanding not only of our Calvinism but also a misunderstanding of the confessional ethic of an inherited faith, a covenant theology that informs us that the faith is one handed down more than it is propagated amongst the outside world. But it is not a weakness if we truly understand this dimension of a confessional tradition, one that is increasingly eaten alive by the surrounding evangelical ethic. That it is perceived as a weakness really is to reveal an underlying Evangelical assumption, which is itself informed by an individualism and set of assumptions about what it means to perpetuate the faith. Look around any church of any tradition, including Evangelical, and the evangelical ethic simply falls apart. Most heads in pews are there because they have indeed inherited the faith of their forbears. Most are, in point of fact, not made up of converts from outside the group. Just as covenant theology itself acknowledges the realities of near-eastern phenomenon of treaties and applies them to the understanding of cultic truth and praxis, the confessional ethic in this way mirrors what is true in natural or cultural life: belief systems are primarily handed down from within, inherited, perpetuated by younger generations that begin by mimicking the elder and then internalizing that system through a natural human process of maturation.
The confessionalist understands this about the order of things and applies it to his system of faith. For my confessional money, I would much rather be about the business of molding young souls that are naturally designed to mimic and internalize in the privacy of my own home and church than err on the side of making myself a nuisance to those who couldn’t care any less and over whom I have absolutely no jurisdiction. Granted, it has its obstacles (does any parental duty not?), but I tend to find I have much more success six days a week with those malleable souls given to me for such a task than always looking to legitimate my secular vocations by seeing how many times I can force any given situation for an in-road toward awkward personal evangelism.
With this in mind, I think we might begin to ask whether what we do to answer the questions pertaining to the perpetuation of faith seem more evangelical (outward bound) or confessional (inward bound)? Are we as congregations assuming much too much about just how the faith is handed down while evangelistic efforts keep getting more and more ramped up? Do we intuit that the promise is less for “you and your children” and really more for those that “are far off”? We should be wary of the American impulse to say both, which can be at once an unrealistic and frenzied drive to “be all things to all people” or a lazy answer designed to merely bark out an ideal response when we all know it is impossible. Just as in most secular life issues, we must all make choices and create emphasis when we do sacred life. The evangelical ethic places its emphasis on those that are far off and makes no apology for it; they should not be begrudged and only congratulated on being consistent.
In the same way, confessionalists should feel no shame in also taking a side and being consistent, since we have historically done just that. We should resist the push to be evangelical in this way, seek and recover the lost art of being true confessionalists.