The immediate roots of Reformed worship clearly are anchored in Europe, even Northern Europe. Does this mean that Reformed worship is “Eurocentric” in some kind of limiting way?

Some critics argue that Reformed worship is what it is because of culturally relative distinctions that can be discarded in favor of other culturally relative distinctions of non-European cultures. They seem to have in mind a more emotionally expressive preaching and praying, a more physically and vocally active participation, and a more musically dominated approach. They tend to describe Reformed worship as overly intellectual, word-dominant, and rationalistic. These characteristics are attributed to the culture of Europe rather than to biblical or theological conviction.

Is this argument correct? Americans at this particular point in our history are obsessed with ethnicity and race. Nearly everything—religion, employment, politics, music, language—is reduced to race. Yet as Christians, our concern ultimately is not with race, but with truth. (This is not to say that there are not important racial issues past and present and future that must be dealt with, but rather that everything should not be viewed through the lens of race.) Although its immediate roots are in Europe, what are the distant roots of Reformed worship? Does it have foundational roots in the patristic church that are non-European? The answer is yes. To be Reformed is to be profoundly catholic.[1]

Christianity: Not a European Import

Consider first that Christianity itself is not Eurocentric. Jesus and his disciples were Middle-Easterners. They were Semitic. The earliest churches were in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Ethiopia, and North Africa. Not until Acts 16 does the gospel cross over into Macedonia and Europe. Thomas Oden, who is general editor of the landmark multi-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, argues that the flow of ideas and influence that have given shape to historic Christianity was not north to south, as has been often assumed, from Europe to Africa, but south to north, from Africa to Europe.[2] The intellectual centers of early Christianity in the earliest days were in the Middle East, in Alexandria, Egypt, and especially in North Africa. Classic ecumenical Christianity “was largely defined in Africa,” Oden writes. It is not a European import. “The Christian leaders in Africa figured out how best to read the law and prophets meaningfully, to think philosophically, and to teach the ecumenical rule of triune faith cohesively, long before these patterns became normative elsewhere.”[3]

For example, Tertullian (c. 160–220), reared in Carthage in North Africa (present day Tunisia) created much of Latin Christianity’s orthodox theological terminology (e.g., substantia as in “one substance,” personae as in “three persons,” and trinitas, “Trinity”) and developed the early Christological formulations. Origen (c. 185–c. 254), born in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the first Christians to develop a systematic statement of faith. He was an energetic Bible commentator and an effective apologist. Cyprian (d. 258), also of Carthage, has been called “one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Christian church.” Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt (c. 296–373), nicknamed the “Black dwarf,” by the way, was the great champion of orthodoxy against Arianism and famously stood for the doctrine of the Trinity contra mundum, against the world. His treatise, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, is a theological classic. Augustine of Hippo, born in present day Algeria (354–430), North Africa, is, of course, the single most important theologian in the history of the Christian church, writing with decisive insight on the subjects of the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, original sin, free will, grace, predestination, and the church and sacraments. The Cappadocian fathers, natives of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), were the decisive influence leading to the final defeat of Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Anyone who wishes to identify Christianity as “Western” or “European” or “white” must not only ignore the Middle Eastern origins of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets, of Jesus and the apostles, but also the development of the defining doctrines of the Christian religion in the first four centuries. Historic orthodoxy and catholic doctrines of the creeds and counsels primarily are products of African and Middle Eastern church fathers.

When Christianity invaded Northern Europe, the missionary preachers did not encounter the Dutch Masters hanging in townhomes or Bach fugues being played in assembly halls. They encountered crude barbarism. The European culture that developed was the fruit of the interaction between Christianity and the native genius of the various people groups. Christianity is not European, but European culture owes much to Christianity.

Distant Roots of Reformed Worship

Doxology is but the expression of theology. Given that the theological roots of Reformed orthodoxy primarily are non-European (and especially Augustinian), we may expect that the liturgical elements of Reformed worship will have these same non-European, patristic roots. An examination of those core elements—lectio-continua reading and preaching, psalm-singing, covenantal sacraments, and prayer—will confirm our hunch.

Lectio-continua reading and preaching

Verse-by-verse preaching has been a hallmark of Reformed Protestantism from the very beginning. Why? Because of what can be known from the Bible and church history. The apostle Paul exhorts his successor, Timothy, and all subsequent successors, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). The text literally reads, “the reading.” It could be called the reading because it was a known entity, inherited from the synagogues, of reading sequentially through books of the Bible (see Luke 4:16–17; Acts 13:15; 15:21). The lectio continua was characteristic of the Bible readings and preaching in the early church. Of this, liturgical scholars agree.

We also see this clearly in the work of the church fathers. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–205) provides one of the earliest extant Christian sermons, a verse-by-verse exposition of Mark 10:17–31, preached with historical-grammatical awareness in which he allows Scripture to interpret Scripture.[4] Origen may be considered the father of biblical exposition. He wrote commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible, and his homilies are among the oldest examples of biblical preaching. While ministering in Caesarea (northern Palestine) he preached through the whole Bible. John Chrysostom (c. 344/354–407), Syrian by birth, preached through most of the books of the New Testament. His sermons on Matthew influenced Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, leading to his decision to preach verse by verse through Matthew beginning the first Sunday in January 1519, at Zurich’s Great Minster church. This has been called “the first liturgical reform of Protestantism.” Augustine of Hippo (354–430) is regarded by Hughes Old as not only “a master of classical oratory,” but also “a great expository preacher.” As a former professor of rhetoric, Augustine could have used a more artistic, more embellished, more rhetorically sophisticated and popularly esteemed form of preaching. But he clearly chose not to do so, “sticking instead with the form of the expository sermon as it was developed in the synagogue in the early Christian church.”[5]

These early non-European Christians gave to us the formative examples of straight-forward, text-driven expository preaching. The decision to preach text-driven, lectio continua, verse-by-verse sermons is not a decision to preach like Europeans, but a decision to preach after the model of the best of the Christian tradition.


The Reformation revived congregational singing of psalms and biblical hymns. The psalter itself, a book of songs in the center of the Bible, was argument enough for the church to undertake psalm-singing as a regular part of its worship. The apostles commend it (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13), and so the Reformers embraced it. They also learned of the importance of congregational psalm-singing from the church fathers. For example, Tertullian, in the second century, testified that psalm-singing was not only an essential feature of the worship of his day, but also had become an important part of the daily life of the people. Athanasius says it was the custom of his day to sing psalms, which he calls “a mirror of the soul.” Eusebius (c. 260–c. 340), Bishop of Caesarea, left this vivid picture of the psalm-singing of his day: “The command to sing Psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place: for the command to sing is in force in all churches which exist among nations, not only the Greeks but also throughout the whole world, and in towns, villages and in the fields.”[6]

Covenantal sacraments

Jesus said of the Lord’s Supper, “This … is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25). By invoking the covenant on an occasion of participation in a covenantal meal, Passover, Jesus was signaling the fundamental meaning of the eucharist. It is a covenant meal which is both a sign and seal of that covenant. Likewise, circumcision is identified by the apostle Paul as “sign” and “seal” of justification in Romans 4:11. Circumcision is identified with baptism in Colossians 2:11–12, Paul even calling it “the circumcision of Christ.” Baptism is the covenant rite of admission.

The Reformers spoke of the sacraments as “visible words” and as “outward signs of inward graces.” Where did they get this language? From the Bible. The apostle Paul says that by administering the Lord’s Supper we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord’s Supper is a form of words. He also speaks of “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:3, 4), as well as “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:6; compare with Rom. 6:3–11), that is, of external signs of inward graces.

Yet the Reformers also learned this language from the African and Middle Eastern church fathers. The Africans Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine all gave prominence to a covenantal understanding of sacraments as oaths by which covenants are ratified or confirmed. Augustine defined the sacrament as “visible words” and as external signs of inward graces, both classic definitions. This covenantal understanding had a profound influence on the church’s understanding of the meaning and manner of administration of the sacraments, and especially influenced the Reformers and subsequent Protestantism. The eucharistic reforms of the sixteenth century are rooted in Scripture and largely non-European patristic testimony.


Reformed Protestants have insisted on biblical prayer—and by “biblical,” they meant prayer in the language of the Bible. The Bible gives us terminology to use in prayer, as each generation must ask, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). It also gives us the categories: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). The Reformers identified six basic prayer genres in Scripture: praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, benediction. Further, they identified five categories into which intercessions might be divided: sanctification of saints; church and its ministry; sick and suffering; civil authorities; Christian mission. They found support for this also in the writings of the fathers: Syrian and Egyptian liturgies, Augustine, Tertullian, Ambrose, etc.[7] By restoring the prayers of praise, intercessions, illumination, and benediction, the Reformers launched a veritable “revolution in prayer.”[8]


Reformed worship is simple. Reformed Protestants merely urge that Christian assemblies do that which Scripture directs. The resulting services are simple and plain: the Word is read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen. Unauthorized ceremonies, rituals, gestures, symbols, and postures are eliminated so as not to distract attention from the ordinary means of grace, the Word, sacraments, and prayer. Worship must be “according to Scripture,” regulated by Scripture, and therefore limited to what God has authorized. This means that worship will be simple. It will be focused. This too was emphasized by the early Christians, especially the Africans. They took seriously the prophetic tradition which warned of external ostentation at the expense of internal or heart service (e.g., Amos 5:21–24; Isa. 1:10–15; Jer. 7:1–11). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215), Tertullian, and Lactantius (c. 250–325), another North African theologian, came to their understanding of Christian worship before it had been influenced by what Hughes Old calls, “the trappings of the imperial court.”[9]

We recognize that many questions are left unresolved by our review of the roots of Reformed worship. Yet those of us wishing to see the growth of Reformed and Presbyterian Protestantism can’t but rejoice to discover so many of our “patristic roots” in Africa and non-European sources. Calvin was reviving the ministry and worship of the ancient church when he published his “Form of Church Prayers according to the custom of the Ancient Church.” Not only did the Reformers look to Scripture for the patterns, but also to the best of the early churches. When we bring Reformed Protestantism to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the African diaspora around the world, we bring not a European import, but that which is scriptural and indigenous to the African, the Middle Eastern, and non-European peoples.


[1] Hughes O. Old’s Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Theologischer, 1970) evaluates and in the end substantiates Calvin’s claim that his “Form of Church Prayers” expressed more the convictions of the church Fathers than the culture of the Reformers.

[2] Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, volumes 1–30 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

[3] Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 29–30.

[4] See Hughes O. Old, The Reading & Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1–7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998–2010); 1:294–305.

[5] Ibid., 2:381. See also 4:46 and 2:324

[6] J. G. Davies, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 451.

[7] See Old, Patristic Roots, 219–250; Worship, 91–107.

[8] Old, Class Lectures, Erskine Theological Seminary, May 11, 2004.

[9] Hughes O. Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 98.


The author, a PCA minister, is senior pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. New Horizons, May 2019.



Christianity on the Defense

With each passing generation, wherever Christianity flourishes, so too do distortion, misrepresentation, overemphasis, and outright malicious deceit. The church’s opponents will continue to accuse her of doing evil (this is assumed in 1 Peter 3:16), and so the Christian apologist assumes a defensive posture in order to repel false accusations whenever they come.

The Apologist’s Task: Proof and Persuasion

Apologetics, however, does not just entail defense. It also involves offense, the positive task of constructing a case for Christianity that shows itself to be applicable to every culture, as well as being the only (and therefore the best) alternative to the world’s philosophical and theological systems of thought. In other words, apologetics can be used to show that Christianity is true and that all non-Christian worldviews are false. The best way to go about constructing a case for the Christian faith is [part of it]. Not all Christians agree on where to start this task. But we do all agree on this: non-Christian thinking, according to Scripture, is “folly” (Ps. 14:1; 1 Cor. 1:18–2:16; 3:18-23).

The skeptic at this point might respond, “Prove it,” which is a good thing, because proof is actually another facet of the apologetic task. Sadly, in our day many Christians argue that we ought not to be engaged in attempts to “prove” the truth claims of Christianity, that faith and proof are incompatible. While it is true that Reformed theologians generally believe that human nature is radically corrupt (which is a scriptural viewpoint: see 1 Kings 8:46; Rom. 3:9-23; 7:18; 1 John 1:8-10; cf. John 6:44; Rom. 8:7-8), they wrongly assume that, since in our corrupt nature we are unable to respond positively to the gospel, this spiritual inability renders the apologetic task useless. If objective proof cannot persuade a person to respond to Christ without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, then why bother trying to give sound arguments for Christianity?

Before we answer this objection, let us remember Peter’s words, “Yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:16). The apostle clearly expects that one outcome of apologetics is that the enemies of Christ are put to shame. This is reminiscent of the great Genevan reformer John Calvin (1509–1564), who wrote in his Institutes regarding the proof of the authenticity of biblical prophecies, “If godly men take these things to heart, they will be abundantly equipped to restrain the barking of ungodly men; for this is proof too clear to be open to any subtle objections.”1

If anyone believed that the total inability of man required the Holy Spirit to convert a soul, it was Calvin. Likewise, if anyone believed in the total inability of apologetics to convert a soul, it was Calvin. He, of course, did not abandon the apologetic task but still used evidence and argument to prove matters of faith—not to convert the hearts of the ungodly, but to “stop their obstreperous mouths.”2 This is a large part of the task of the Christian apologist: to prove the Christian worldview, and to rely on God to cause the acquiescence of the unbelieving heart to the soundness of biblical doctrine. The church is up against not mere ignorance but biased enmity (Rom. 8:7). Only the Spirit can overcome this enmity, but the Spirit never asks people to believe what is absurd or irrational. Calvin noted the distinction between proof and persuasion.Proof is objective and persuasion is subjective. People who are hostile to certain ideas may have those ideas proven to them, but in their bias they refuse to be persuaded—even by the soundest of arguments.

Defending Your Faith

Defending Your Faith

R. C. Sproul

R. C. Sproul surveys the history and fundamentals of apologetics to show that reason and scientific inquiry can be strong allies in defending the existence of God and the authority of the Bible.

Winning Souls, Not Arguments

Apologetics, for this reason, is not merely about winning an argument. It is about winning souls. The old aphorism rings true: “People convinced against their will hold the same opinions still.” That is why, for example, if a Christian were to “win” an intellectual debate with a non-Christian, the victory celebration may never take place. The non-Christian might concede defeat, though usually not until his head hits his pillow at the end of the day. This may never translate into conversion, but there is some value to this aspect of “winning” an argument. On the one hand, as Calvin said, the unbridled barking of the ungodly may be restrained; and on the other, the intellectual victory provides assurance and protection to the young Christian who is not yet able to repel the bombardment of criticism from scholars and skeptics. It serves as a confirmation of the Christian’s faith.

The Christian bothers to engage in apologetics because, quite simply, how will the nonbeliever hear the truth of Christ Jesus “without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14c). Not everyone could accomplish what Justin Martyr or Athenagoras did, but they gave credibility as well as confidence to the whole Christian community of the second century, and by extension the Christian church throughout history has benefited from the fruits of their labor.

1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 20 of The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I.8.8 (88).
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. Henry Beveridge, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1962), I.7.4 (71).


Mom Guilt Is Real

One year at Christmas I accidentally threw away the gingerbread cookie that my daughter had painstakingly decorated. She was so upset with me that I heard about the gingerbread incident until well past New Year’s. I suppose that at the same time I fumbled the cookie into the trash, I threw away my nomination for Mother of the Year as well.

Of course there is not a real “Mother of the Year” award, but we talk about it as we would a lighthearted joke. The reality, though, is that every mother fails to image God perfectly in her mothering. What doesn’t seem so lighthearted is the feeling of guilt we experience when we honestly consider our inadequacies.

And the Nominees Are Not . . .

What mother isn’t plagued by her feelings of inadequacy and guilt over her mistakes? A friend of mine told me that she has made it a rule to avoid gatherings of mothers because she feels overwhelmed by all of the “perfection” she sees. One can sympathize with her feelings. Imagining a room full of people whose presentation of their lives draws out your feelings of insecurity and guilt would make even the most confident person feel self-conscious.

Even those of us who rarely have thoughts of self-consciousness naturally sense our inadequacy to measure up to God’s holiness. And rightly so. The Lord graciously created us with a conscience that bears witness to this very idea—not one of us is “good” by God’s standards.

Even if we haven’t committed any gross infractions that we’re aware of, we don’t have to look very far into our heart to uncover our sinfulness. We use our children to bloat our egos and make us look good. We criticize other mothers to alleviate our feelings of insecurity. We fail to love our children with selfless, sacrificial love. We neglect our children in the name of ministry. We break fellowship with our Christian sisters over petty matters of parenting preferences. We set bad examples and train our children to value the world’s opinion over God’s. And these are just a few of the ways we fail to live righteously.

There are also the other impossible standards that we invent and hold ourselves to. We feel shame over projects we start and don’t finish. We feel guilty that our children aren’t “turning out” as we had planned. We stumble into the snare of “the fear of man” and live for the approval of other mothers. We get angry over dreams of mothering perfection that could have been. We are our own harshest critics, meting out punishment for crimes against our fragile egos. In looking over this list, I realize that it wasn’t too hard to come up with; I’m well acquainted with these issues. When I look back at my mothering track record, there are more flukes and failures than fantastic feats of faith.

Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full

Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full

Gloria Furman

Motherhood is a gift from God, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. Reorienting exhausted moms to the soul-satisfying grace of God, Gloria Furman helps readers learn to treasure Christ in the mundane moments of life.

There Is Hope

What hope does a flawed mom have?

Against the backdrop of this bleak outlook, the gospel shines brighter and gives a more durable hope than the empty promises of self-actualization and the short-lived encouragement from glass-half-full optimism. The gospel changes how we view our failures, and we see how God redeems our flaws for his own glory. God has delivered the Christian mother from the domain of darkness and transferred her to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom she has redemption and the forgiveness of sin (Col. 1:13). In the gospel we hear about how we have grace for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

The gospel of grace says that God accepts you in Christ, and then he gives you his Son’s righteous standing as a gift by faith. We don’t first make ourselves holy so that God will then accept us. Our position in Christ lets loose a whole host of joys that transform our mothering.


This article is adapted from Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full: Gospel Meditations for Busy Moms by Gloria Furman.


Paul warned the elders of the church in Ephesus about the critical need for them to be vigilant: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28–31). This apostolic warning was not just for the Ephesian church; it is a warning that is necessary for every church in every age.

Paul’s warning was taken very seriously by many churches and ministers in the controversy between fundamentalists and liberals in the 1920s. Fundamentalists seeing their churches and schools deserting historic Christianity viewed liberals as devious, deceptive, even demonic. Dr. J. Gresham Machen, in the most valuable and enduring critique of liberalism written in the 1920s, Christianity and Liberalism, concluded that Christianity was one religion and liberalism was quite another.

While Dr. Machen’s analysis was accurate and presented in a temperate manner, many in the churches of his day did not accept it. Why was that, and what can we learn in our day about being vigilant in defending and promoting biblical Christianity?

The Mind of Liberalism
In the first place, we should try to understand how the liberals saw themselves and how they communicated their convictions to others. Liberals insisted that they were evangelical Christians. They believed that they did hold to the essentials of the Christian faith. They insisted, affirming the language of the Auburn Affirmation of 1924, that they held to basic Christian doctrines and only rejected some of the theories that fundamentalists used to elaborate those doctrines. For instance, they believed that Jesus was God with them, but not in the virgin birth. The liberals sincerely believed that they alone would save Christianity in the modern world by making it more relevant. As such, they were active missionaries for their cause.

Dr. Machen was right when he stated of the liberals: “By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith.” But the liberals denied such charges, and by using ambiguous language, they persuaded many that they were not as bad as their critics claimed.

The controversy between liberals and fundamentalists was not only about truth for Dr. Machen, it was about ethics. The liberals were not straightforward or honorable in making their beliefs clear. He wrote that “honesty is being relinquished in wholesale fashion by the liberal party in many ecclesiastical bodies today.” They had promised in their ordination vows to uphold doctrines that they did not believe.

The Conservative Mind
Dr. Machen believed that the majority of church members in his day were basically conservative. They did not want extensive changes in the doctrine or life of their churches. They were somewhat anxious about where the liberals wanted to take the church. However, they tended to be optimistic about the future and were concerned about criticism of liberalism that seemed too negative or strident.

The leadership of the conservative wing of the church did not present a united front. While the staunch conservatives like Dr. Machen were very alarmed and critical of the liberals, other moderate conservatives argued that too much negativity and divisiveness would undermine the mission of the church. Conservative church members often did not know whom to believe or follow.

The division of opinion among conservative leaders and the optimism of many conservatives disposed them to shy away from a fight. As early as 1915, Dr. Machen saw the potential danger of this situation: “The mass of the Church here is still conservative — but conservative in an ignorant, non-polemic, sweetness-and-light kind of way which is just meat for the wolves. I do not mean to use harsh phrases in a harsh way, and my language must be understood to be biblical.” As Paul had warned the Ephesian elders about wolves attacking the sheep of the church, so Dr. Machen worried that the sheep of the church in his day were very vulnerable to liberal wolves.

The Confessionalist Mind
While Dr. Machen was often seen as the greatest intellectual leader of the fundamentalist movement, he was not entirely comfortable with the fundamentalist movement. He did not believe that it was enough to defend just five fundamentals of the faith. He believed that fundamentalism was too individualistic, too reductionistic, and too unconcerned with history. For Machen, true Christianity was an historic community with a full and coherent theology. True Christianity, as Dr. Machen knew it in the Reformed tradition, came to doctrinal expression in a full confession of faith, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Dr. Machen believed a confession expressed the mind of the church and showed church members what the church confessed as the great and necessary teachings of the Bible. The confession should serve as an antidote to doctrinal ignorance in the church as the church diligently teaches its confession to its members. The confession should show the church what doctrines it must fight to uphold. It should strengthen the church as the bulwark of the truth.

Today, evangelical churches face doctrinal challenges every bit as serious as those of the 1920s. Some evangelicals reject the inerrancy of the Bible. Some reject the historic doctrine of God for what they call “open theism.” Some reject the biblical doctrine of justification that was recovered by the Reformation for some form of moralism.

Evangelical churches today, however, are far less troubled by the serious doctrinal errors that divide them than they were in the 1920s. They are less vigilant than they were then. The church generally has not learned the lesson of confessionalism. Doctrinal knowledge, biblical understanding, and disciplined Christian living seem to have declined rather than advanced since the 1920s.

Paul’s call to thoughtful vigilance is needed more today than ever. Ministers, elders, and church members today must be renewed in the truth by a full and careful knowledge of doctrine contained for us in the great confessions of the churches. Then we will know where and when to fight, as well as the truth for which we fight. As Paul wrote to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).



In a previous article, I claimed that the biggest issue confronting evangelicalism today is not whether to accept homosexuality and same-sex marriage, but whether to accept the diversity of views as compatible with Christian orthodoxy. In other words, can we agree to disagree on the nature and goal of human sexuality and still see our opponents’ position as compatible with the rest of Scriptural teaching?

Evangelicals and the Future of Marriage

Young evangelicals like myself have an acute sense of the tension of debates over sexuality. We know we are in the minority when it comes to our society’s views of sexuality. Furthermore, surveys show that many young people who self-identify as evangelical are increasingly inclined to adopt the revisionist perspective on marriage. And so whenever younger Christians discuss these matters, I always try to listen in.

Matthew Lee Anderson and Isaac Sharp have written a series of essays in which they take opposing sides on the future of evangelicalism and perspective of sexuality. I commend all of their conversation to you (see the links at the bottom of this post), but I want to put before you a few of Matt’s comments about marriage as an “architectural doctrine.”

Is Division On Marriage Outside the Bounds of Orthodoxy?

First, listen to Matt sum up why the debate is not over sexuality and marriage (primarily), but over whether or not this division constitutes the kind of break that must necessitate labels of heterodoxy or heresy:

“It is not enough to simply look at the bitter divisions of the past as instructive on this score. Some of those divisions have been compatible with seeing each other as Christians. Others have clearly not: heresies are a real feature of the Church’s life, and while they have served an important role in invigorating and furthering orthodoxy, that instrumental purpose has never sanctioned one’s knowing participation in one.

Nor is it enough to assert that the ‘legitimate possibilities of the gender of one’s spouse’ do not put us near the boundaries of the tradition. It is on this question where the disagreement lies, and it is this question to which we would need to devote all our time and energy to understand and resolve.”

Matt’s point is that we cannot simply assert that same-sex marriage is far removed from the foundational, creedal affirmations of the Christian faith. That assertion must be proven, not merely stated.

Marriage as an “Architectural Doctrine”

Next, Matt introduces the concept of an “architectural doctrine:”

“The gender-binary at the heart of marriage is an ‘architectural doctrine’ of the Christian faith: it permeates the whole of Scripture, stands beneath the traditional naming of God as Father, is necessary for explaining Christ’s relationship to the Church, and generates an indispensable role for Mary in salvation history. Excising the doctrine would be nearer to a theological heart transplant than cosmetic surgery.”

What is an “architectural doctrine?”

Matt does not define the term here, but he does indicate what he means:

  • It permeates all of Scripture.
  • It undergirds other traditional teachings.
  • It touches on soteriology.

I think the illustration we should use for this is a “load-bearing wall.” There are certain walls in a house or a building that can be removed without doing any damage to the overarching structure. But other walls are “load-bearing.” You move them at your own risk. The structure depends on these walls for support. This is what Matt is getting at when he speaks of marriage as an “architectural doctrine.”

How Many Steps is Marriage from God?

At another point in this conversation, Matt gives reframes this concept in the form of a question:

“One way to frame the question is, ‘how many steps from the doctrine of God is the doctrine of marriage?’”

According to Matt’s reflection, the steps are few, leading him to wonder:

“If gender does not matter theologically for *our* marriages, then why does the gender of the Incarnate Lord matter? And if Christ’s maleness is fungible, able to be replaced without loss by any other gender, then why should we view his instruction to pray ‘Our Father’ as in any way binding on us? Surely, that too can be dismissed as an accident of history, an archaic relic of a patriarchal culture that had assumed a gender binary where there need not be on.”

If gender is indeed a good gift from God, and if marriage reinforces and establishes the beauty of God bringing together the two halves of humanity in order to fill the world with more of His image-bearers, then we cannot cut out gender from marriage without it affecting how we view God as our Father and Creator. Matt writes:

“To put the point differently, it may be that the grammar inherent in the gender asymmetry of Genesis 1-3 is assumed throughout the entire revelation, and that it is not annihilated in Christ but is redeemed and restored. If so, then denying that grammar its central, organizing role through embodying forms of life that run against it, invariably will impinge upon our knowledge and understanding of who God is.”

Marriage and the Domino Effect

Here, Matt is briefly teasing out the logical implications of a revisionist view of marriage in order to show how quickly they impact other doctrines about God and humanity.

Right now, the “revisionist evangelical” approach is to take the relatively few number of references to homosexuality in Scripture, offer innovative interpretations that have never been accepted (or even imagined) by Christians throughout history, and then claim on the basis of those scant references that this is not a big deal, and only conservative fundamentalist literalist readers of the Bible make it so.

But this way of reading the Bible is painfully reductionistic, failing to understand the Scriptural storyline, or the purpose of God’s creativity in giving us gender in the first place.

Matt continues:

“However, it is—I think—the heart of the disagreement over whether or not affirming gay marriage is compatible with traditional orthodoxy. While feminine pronouns and imagery have been deployed often on the edges of the tradition, they have never been given a central programatic position in the church’s inner life of worship, as contemporary advocates wish to see done. The question of the nature of the tradition, and the boundaries of what counts as ‘traditional’ is near the heart of whether it is possible for churches to become inclusive and remain orthodox.”

That is a vitally important question. Can one change just their understanding of marriage and leave all of the other historic doctrines of the Christian faith intact?

I call this the “domino” effect that the schismatic view of marriage has on other doctrines. You cannot knock over the domino of marriage or try to replace it with something else and hope to keep all the other dominoes standing.

We’re early on in witnessing such an experiment, but where it has been tried, the initial results don’t look very promising. We can start with the other elements of Christianity’s sexual ethic. Do Christians who reject the historic position on homosexuality and marriage maintain all the other aspects of Christian teaching (no sex before marriage, outside of marriage, marriage between two people, etc.)? Some try to do so, but many do not.

David Gushee, a proponent of same-sex marriage, sees “moral chaos” within many Christian circles. He writes:

Increasingly I am in contexts where I have to call people back from drifting too far “left,” as with polyamory. I think I can make a strong case rooted in Jesus, the Bible and Christian best practices for the version of Protestant ethics that I teach. But I realize I am competing with a whole lot of other voices.

Gushee’s column suggests that the progressive wing of the church that has embraced homosexuality and same-sex marriage is veering off into the territory of accepting other sexual practices the Bible forbids. Those who, with Gushee, take their “bold step forward” on marriage suddenly find themselves on a rapidly descending escalator.

But let’s shift this question back to doctrine, the “load-bearing wall” that Matt described. Have mainline denominations been able to hold revisionist views of sexuality and maintain their orthodox beliefs in other matters? No. In the mainline denominations, we have seen major doctrines of the faith redefined or set aside, including the traditional understandings of atonement, the reality of hell, and the inspiration of Scripture.

The evangelical observer might say, Those denominations had all those problems before the question of marriage came up! We can show a different way, how to have a high view of Scripture and a new definition of marriage at the same time. And so, there are self-identifying evangelicals who have joined the schismatics on issues of marriage and sexuality and yet who want to remain thoroughly orthodox in all other matters. I do not question the sincerity with which they try to hold that perspective. But with Matt, I have to ask the question of coherence:

“The question, however, is whether such “theologically traditional” organizations are internally coherent, and whether gay marriage itself has any substantive bearing on how the Church speaks of and understands God, such that to affirm gay marriage implicitly—even if the advocates do not themselves recognize it immediately—commits one to doctrinal positions that depart from traditionally orthodox formulations of God’s identity.”

Evangelicals who believe they can remain robustly orthodox on all other matters, while changing their view of marriage, should ask this question: Why is it that only the mainline denominations (which had already jettisoned so many traditional Christian doctrines) have so eagerly embraced a new definition of marriage?

For Further Reading

The book I mentioned last week is a game-changer. Unchanging Witness deserves a spot on every thoughtful Christian’s shelf. I know of no other resource that so effectively and exhaustively connects biblical exegesis to the teaching of the church throughout history. Innovative arguments for reinterpreting the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality sound thin and shrill when compared to the richness and authority of Scripture and tradition’s unified voice.


One of the biggest debates facing evangelicalism today is not the nature of marriage and sexuality, but whether or not different views of marriage and sexuality constitute an issue on which orthodox Christians can simply “agree to disagree.”

In other words, how close is our understanding of marriage and human sexuality to the core of the Christian faith?

Does orthodoxy require a certain stance?

The Silence of the Creeds

Some church leaders say this question is resolved by the creeds. The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed (and perhaps the other “ecumenical creeds”) constitute the proper definition of orthodoxy. Unaddressed matters of disagreement become peripheral by default. So, it’s said, we should unite around the creeds, and since there is no definition of marriage in the creeds, we must acknowledge a multiplicity of views regarding sexuality. There is no “orthodox” position.

Furthermore, to claim one’s view of marriage and sexuality as the “orthodox” one is to smuggle in a new standard—to lean on “orthodox” terminology as a power play so that one group can decide who is line with “true” Christianity. The better way forward, it’s said, is to wave away notions of there being a “standard” view of sexuality and marriage and to instead embrace the reality of diversity among sincere Christians who affirm the creeds. We can agree to disagree, just as we have done on a number of other secondary issues, such as speaking in tongues, or the nature of baptism, or the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. The ecumenical creeds define orthodoxy. Because sexuality doesn’t play a role there, it’s up for debate.

Creeds and Moral Orthodoxy

The problem with this view is that it treats the creeds as if they were catechisms—comprehensive statements that cover a whole host of vital doctrines and ethics. The absence of an ethical stance in the creedal affirmations of the early church doesn’t mean there is no such thing as moral orthodoxy or an ecumenical ethical consensus.

Take infanticide as an example. Christians over the centuries have defended the intrinsic worth and dignity of newborn babies, standing apart from ancient society when they refused to abandon their infants to the elements and rescued the abandoned infants of others. This doctrine of human dignity and the corresponding ethic that prohibited infanticide is a good example of an orthodox ethic that, even though not explicitly spelled out in the creeds, follows as a good and necessary consequence of doctrines about God’s fatherhood, the nature of creation, and the broader theological vision assumed by the creedal tradition.

The same is true of sexuality. The early Christian witness was both doctrinal and ethical. Among early Christians, we find a strong emphasis on both beliefs and behaviors.

The First Sexual Revolution

In From Shame to Sin, historian Kyle Harper describes the potency of early Christianity on sexuality and the nature of its challenge to pagan views:

“Christianity gave a name to the array of sensual opportunities beyond the marriage bed: porneia, fornication… The coordinated assault on the extramarital sexual economy marks one of the more consequential revolutions in the history of sex” (3).

Harper notes just how revolutionary and out-of-step this new sexual ideology was:

“The central Christian prohibition on porneia collided with deeply entrenched patterns of sexual permissiveness” (11)

“Porneia, fornication, went from being a cipher for sexual sin in general to a sign for all sex beyond the marriage bed, and it came to mark the great divide between Christians and the world. Same-sex love, regardless of age, status, or role, was forbidden without qualification and without remorse. Unexpectedly, sexual behavior came to occupy the foreground in the landscape of human morality…” (85)

The early church stood out from the rest of society not merely because of what they claimed to be true of God, but also because of the distinctive set of behaviors they adopted in regards to sexuality. “Nowhere did the moral expectations of the Jesus movement stand in such stark contrast to the world in which its adherents moved,” Harper writes (87).

A New Moral Cosmology

Contrary to what some would say today, these behaviors were not unconnected from the creedal affirmations of the early Christians; instead, they expressed the foundational worldview shift that took place upon conversion to Christianity.

“In its underlying logic, Christian sexual morality did not rely on the assumptions that informed Roman attitudes and practices, but instead was grounded in an entirely different set of premises,” writes Steven Smith in Pagans and Christians in the City (122). Marriage is, in this sense, an “architectural doctrine” of the Christian faith, as suggested by Matthew Lee Anderson.

Kyle Harper attributes the connection between Christian doctrine and the church’s sexual ethic to the embrace of a new moral cosmology.

“The chill severity of Christian sexuality was born not out of a pathological hatred of the body, nor out of a broad public anxiety about the material world. It emerged in an existentially serious culture, propelled to startling conclusions by the remorseless logic of a new moral cosmology.” (86)

Orthodoxy and Today’s Debates Over Sexuality

Many denominations in the West have been rocked by controversy over sexuality these days, not because Christians are obsessed with others’ sexual activities, but because so many Christians around the world recognize, instinctively, that the push to change the definition of marriage means much more to the faith than a simple “expansion” of marital blessing. It constitutes a reversion back to long-discarded pagan assumptions about the nature of the body and the purpose of sex. It is the exchange of one moral cosmology for another.

Even an historian like Harper, who sees in a neutral or negative light certain aspects of early Christianity’s vision of sexuality, has no trouble, when describing early Christian views, in turning to phrases like “highly distinctive sexual gospel” (79), or “radical new orthodoxy of sexual propriety” (84), or claiming it was “the development of orthodox Christian sexuality as a moral ideology that set Christians apart from the world” (102).

Harper is not the only one to have noticed how “sexual morality came to mark the great divide between Christians and the world” (85); Larry Hurtado in Destroyer of the Gods points out just how vital these early Christian views of sexuality were for the identity of the church.

“Early Christianity was unusual in its emphasis on social and behavioral practices as central in the religious commitment required of adherents, in some of the specifics of what was required of adherents, and in the seriousness with which this emphasis was pursued in what must be judged a noteworthy social project” (143).

… moral behavior, specifically in this case proper sexual behavior, an integral part of being a member of the church. Believers are expected to live by certain standards, and the church collectively is to be involved in disciplining believers who violate those standards” (161).

“Early Christianity represented a distinctive kind of social effort to reshape behavior” (172).

In the history of the church, and in the development of doctrines regarding sexuality and the body, we can find wrong turns, over-emphases, and ascetic extremes—many of which were extra-biblical and culturally driven. My point is not to say that our forebears got everything right in every case, but only that the modern idea that we should simply appeal to the creeds as representative of all that orthodoxy constitutes is widely out of step with how the earliest Christians, and how most Christians around the world today, would view the relationship between sexuality and “orthodoxy.” Considering the impact and seriousness of the early church’s witness regarding sexuality, it is hard to imagine any scenario in which the nature of marriage and sexuality would be considered an “agree to disagree” issue for the earliest Christians.

Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams are right:

“One of the primary things handed down in the Christian church over the centuries is a consistent set of ethical instructions, including specific directives about sexual behavior. The church of every generation from the time of the apostles has condemned sexual sin as unbecoming a disciple of Jesus. At no point have any orthodox Christian teachers ever suggested that one’s sexual practices may deviate from biblical standards.” (27)