Evangelical Maturity

Be Not Blown About By Every Fad

The need of the day for American Evangelicals is spiritual maturity. 

Much like teenagers, American Evangelicals adopt a new identity every year – quick to jump on board each new fad conjured up by the cool kid elites. Trendy worship styles, innovative theological claims, hipster preachers, and gimmicky programs all feature prominently in Evangelical church life. From the olden days of WWJD bracelets to the recent “He Gets Us” Super Bowl ads, the marks of immaturity are legion.

In his foreword to Leland Ryken’s book Worldly Saint: The Puritans As They Really Were, J.I. Packer addresses why one would even bother with the Puritans. His answer is timely. “[T]he suggestion that we need the Puritans…may prompt some lifting of the eyebrows… What could these zealots give us that we need? it is asked. The answer, in one word, is maturity. Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t.” Packer touches the problem with a needle. 

Mike Sabo highlights this dynamic well in his recent piece about the cage-stage phenomenon. “Theological cage-stagers can become puffed up with an assortment of facts but have little wisdom… They spend their days in fruitless ‘debates’ in Facebook groups, hammering away on their phones as dust gathers on their Bibles.” With an abundance of knowledge at our fingertips, many are able to parrot and mimic the newfound argument. What they lack, in most cases, is what they need most – maturity borne from experience.

This was true of me. Unlike many, I never had the cage-stage Calvinist experience, but I did come down with this malady regarding presuppositional apologetics. From my earliest days in the faith, apologetics was a passion. It was not long before stumbling upon John Frame, and from there Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen. After a few Bahnsen debates and a few hours of Jeff Durbin on the streets, there was no stopping me. I will spare you the details, but prideful immaturity was abundant. 

Over time, my outlook changed. Chewing through work by Augustine, Ambrose, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, etc. revealed the undeniable gap between my approach and theirs. Then came the beginning of lay ministry. The institutional work of the church tempered my hard edge and slowed my impatient pace. The face-to-face plodding of ministry matured me. While I am still persuaded by much of presuppositional thought, I realized how futile it was to keep repeating, “By what standard?” in a debate or asking ordinary people for epistemological justifications. 

In the same way that I had to grow past my sophomoric naivety, my beloved Evangelical brothers must do the same. Particularly, there are three places that need attention: Recovering our tradition, Reading the battlefield, and Building institutions.

Many Evangelicals wear labels of which they know little. Whether Reformed or Baptist or Anglican or Lutheran, most have only the barest notion of what the title means. Most are clueless about the history of the tradition. As a result, they end up with a truncated view of their own faith which leaves room for serious theological error and an impotent cultural engagement.

The recent uproar over Stephen Wolfe’s The Case For Christian Nationalism illustrated this perfectly. Whether one agrees with him or not, Wolfe is working squarely within the Reformed heritage. His interlocutors, conversely, were operating with something closer to postwar liberal assumptions that do not exist within their own tradition. Unless the Evangelical church rediscovers its glorious inheritance, most will continue mouthing enlightenment platitudes about freedom, democracy, and equality with a Jesus blanket thrown on top.  

One reason Christians today are losing the cultural battle is that they are fighting on yesterday’s front. Athanasius was fighting for Christology. Luther fought for soteriology. The fight today is over anthropology. Yes, all truth everywhere matters, but the battle today rages over what is a human. This issue has implications for sexuality, natural law, education, medicine, and more. The world does not know what a woman is, because it does not know what a human is or what a human is for.

Many Evangelicals are also tempted toward the proliferation of niche debates about ever more obscure doctrines. Discussing the church calendar, head coverings, the Nephilim, demons, cessationism, Bible translations, approaches to apologetics, etc. are all fine. These issues are important, but they are not the frontlines today. The ROI on topics such as recovering godly masculinity and femininity, political theology and cultural engagement, and catechism and education of our children is far greater than most. Plus, success in these areas leaves a hole in the secular juggernaut the Evangelical church is up against.

The final place where this lack of maturity manifests is in the loss of institution building. Engaging on social media, having an online presence, and speaking in the public square are all key features of influence. However lasting influence and cultural change do not occur through individual popularity. Unless one is building organizations and institutions with visions that go well beyond the current leadership, the influence will be fleeting. Planting churches, starting schools, organizing publishing houses, and building community businesses will solidify our influence in ways that social media never will. Building this way is slower and less glamorous, but the effect of this type of building will be far more glorious.

The need of the day for Evangelicals is maturity. May we heed the admonition of Saint Peter, “Long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2).

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BJ Newman

BJ Newman is an Air Force Chaplain and an ordained Presbyterian Minister. He was a local church Pastor for several years and is presently involved in the work of church planting. Prior to ministry, BJ worked as an intelligence analyst and translator for the Air Force, and a high school English teacher. He lives in Xenia, Ohio with his wife and four children where he enjoys hunting, fishing, coaching baseball, and reading old books.

5 thoughts on “Evangelical Maturity

  1. I had John Frame as a professor and had a couple of personal conversations with Van Til. And though Bahnsen agreed with them in apologetics, at least Frame, I am not sure about Van Til, has disagreed with him regarding theonomy. In fact, if memory serves, most, if not the whole, faculty at WTS disagreed with Bahnsen on theonomy. Note the following quote from Frame where he is comparing different Christian views of the state (see https://frame-poythress.org/toward-a-theology-of-the-state/ for the source) :

    –‘However, I believe that theonomists sometimes underestimate the complexity of the continuities and discontinuities between Old and New Testaments and thus often jump to wrong conclusions about the present-day applications of Old Testament laws. Also, I find their actual view of the state inadequate, for reasons I shall mention later.’–

    The issue at hand in terms of a Christian state then is the continuity and discontinuity between the Mosaic law and now.

    Frame allows for the presence of a Christian state. He makes a distinction between the Christian state punishing crime and not sins. My guess is that that distinction is an attempt to avoid the prohibition against Christians lording it over others.

    Frame is very concerned about God’s Word as always being seen as authoritative and thus relevant. But if there are parts of the Old Testament which played only a small, temporary role in the history of redemption, then they are valuable and are thus applicable, just not in the same way many would think. Those parts of the Old Testament are relevant forever in the sense that they have contributed to the history of redemption.

    Where I struggle with Frame’s allowance of a Christian state is because of how the spreading of the Gospel to the Gentiles references the Mosaic law. For what we see with the Gentiles believing the Gospel, such as in Acts 10 and 15 and the epistles is a relaxing of the Law of Moses on the lives of the Gentile believers. Even some of the teachings of Jesus have been relaxed such as in Ephesians when Paul addresses those who steal and Corinthians when Paul addresses Christians bringing lawsuits against each other. This relaxing of the Law of Moses for the Gentile believers and what that could tell us about the continuity and discontinuity between the Law of Moses and now in discussing the Christian state.

    Here, we should observe the following about when Frame’s compares the different positions on the state in the article cited above. He assumes no personal deficiencies in those on the different sides of the nature of the state. Frame’s example here perhaps exemplifies a level of maturity that the Church should aspire to reach especially when we discuss the pertinent issues of today such as those listed in the above article.

    Such a maturity was absent in the Puritans. Their expelling of fellow believers, their punishing of Quakers and martyring of 4 of them, and their relationships with unbelievers such as their executions of witches and their violent taking of land from Native Americans show sin, intolerance, and immaturity. And so we need to be careful of what we learn from the Puritans.

  2. I haven’t read Wolfe’s book but I went to check his Twitter feed. I’m blocked. I can’t view it.

    I have never messaged him, responded to him, or said anything relating to Christian nationalism on Twitter. I almost never tweet – less than 10 replies or tweets in 2 years and none of them have anything to do with CN.

    This means Wolfe blocked me for liking someone else’s tweet in response to him.

    Want to talk more about maturity?

    I don’t understand your point anyway – tradition is stupid. Right is right and wrong is wrong. Wolfe is right or wrong based on the merits of his opinions in today’s world. The history of my faith or tradition may be interesting and have limited use in theological debates but it is purely academic. It isn’t relevant in the slightest.

    1. David,
      I think we have to pick a middle road regarding Christian traditions. Our traditions come from fellow believers for whom Christ died. Our traditions come from fellow believers who were gifted. So the traditions are important but not so important that we either automatically believe what they say or are hostile to those who disagree. In addition, it is important to consider the context of when our traditions were written.

      Some traditions are essential such as creeds like the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and such. Some traditions include essential and non-essential material. And therefore not only should we be careful in what we choose from the non-essential material, we must be careful in how we react to disagreement in the non-essential material. Of course we need to always be careful in how we react to disagreement.

      When we see fellow believers put their pet traditions on too high a pedestal, it can strike us odd. And when we put our pet traditions on too high a pedestal it can cause us to overreact to disagreement.

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