On not calling people ‘nominal’ Christians

Richard Hooker, like most of his fellow reformers, upheld the classic Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible church. However, as Bradford W. Littlejohn notes in his recent book, where Hooker differed from some of his contemporaries was in his unwillingness to sharply define the boundaries of the visible church. Reacting to the tendency of the Puritans to define the visible church so narrowly as to exclude all the unregenerate, Hooker instead opted for what might be called a ‘charitable assumption’. He writes,

Who be inwardly in heart the lively members of this body, and the polished stones of this building, coupled and joined to Christ, as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones but he mutual bond of his unspeakable love towards them, and their unfeigned faith in him, thus linked and fastened each to other by a spiritual, sincere, and hearty affection of love without any manner of simulation, who be Jews within, and what their names be, none can tell, save he whose eyes do behold the secret disposition of all men’s hearts. We whose eyes are too dim to behold the inward man, must leave the secret judgement of every servant to his own Lord, accounting and using all men as brethren both near and dear unto us, supposing Christ to love them tenderly, so as they keep the profession of the Gospel and join in the outward communion of saints (Works, 5:25-26, quoted in Littlejohn, 154).

This is quite a challenge, especially to those of us from more evangelical backgrounds. It is remarkably easy to pass judgement on those who gather for worship each week, annoyed at their seemingly half-hearted participation, silently questioning their motives, wondering if anything in the liturgy or the sermon is sinking in. The word ‘nominal’ quickly begins to pass our lips when these kinds of thoughts are entertained.

It is not hard to see where this tendency comes from, however. Like the Puritans of Hooker’s day, it is often begins borne out of good will and a desire to ensure that people are not trusting in their attendance at the Sunday service for their salvation, but on the work of Christ. But these good intentions rapidly turn to judgement and condemnation, and before long a culture is cultivated in which the majority of those attending a church are considered nominal Christians, suspect of being unconverted unless they sign up to extensive doctrinal statements and outwardly demonstrate a level of piety that rivals Timothy’s grandmother and mother. This is why Hooker adamantly refused to police the boundaries of the visible church, and rightly so; as a friend once remarked to me, pinning the label ‘nominal’ on other believers comes off as elitist slander, and simply cannot be legitimised.

This has profound implications for pastoral ministry. If a minister constantly suspects their parishioners are either unregenerate or nominal believers, they will be unable to love them and to offer the spiritual care they need if they are to grow and flourish in faith. Leander Harding, the rector of an Episcopal church in New York, makes this point in a very convicting way in a lovely piece written on Ash Wednesday several years ago. Harding challenges us to look at the gathered believers entirely differently:

I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, ‘for they were like sheep without a shepherd.’

What Harding beautifully articulates here would, I suspect, resonate very deeply with Hooker. Ministers are called to treat their parishioners with love and compassion no matter where they are on the road of faith. To be sure, some will be near the starting line of that journey, seemingly unwilling to move. And some genuinely might not have faith. But that is not our business. If they profess faith and commit themselves to the ministry of the church, labelling them ‘nominal’ not only wrongfully passes judgement on them, but effectively asserts that they are beyond the transforming work of the Spirit.

If we want to establish boundaries for the visible church, we can do no better than what the apostle Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (10:9). Taking anyone who makes this confession seriously is where Hooker would have us start. A fruitful ministry of making disciples will never begin with assuming the worst about our parishioners. It must instead begin by seeking their flourishing in faith regardless of where they currently stand, walking with them in such a way that ‘the whole power of the good news can come in upon them’.

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