Among Reformed evangelicals today, the most influential 19th-century Anglican is undoubtedly J. C. Ryle. And that is not without cause. Ryle's work on discipleship and Christian living has represented a remarkable service to Christ's Church.
But there is another 19th-century Anglican who I wish was a household name in American evangelicalism: Charles Bridges. My acquaintance with Bridges comes chiefly in the form of his classic work, The Christian Ministry. It is a wonderful manual for pastoral ministry that I would recommend wholeheartedly to anyone interested in shepherding Christ's flock.
Particularly helpful was a section he wrote on "Conformity to the World," and its relationship to the Christian ministry. It's no secret that many celebrity pastors in contemporary evangelicalism—and, sadly, the many non-celebrity pastors they're influencing—employ conformity to the world as the modus operandi of their ministries. With a shallow, and rather twisted, interpretation of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, these men embrace—with their actions if not with their confession—the philosophy of ministry that Christians must become like the world to win the world.
And the interesting thing is, that kind of uber-cool, hip, innovative ministry philosophy is hundreds—and even thousands—of years old. Bridges' commentary on the subject proves that this avant-guard, new-kind-of-ministry of the 21st century was alive and doing damage even in 19th century England. I encourage you to read his comments slowly, as the wisdom to be gained from them is extremely profitable for those who have ears to hear.
The Church Is to Be Distinct from the World
The importance of studying urbanity of behavior in our engagement with the world, is sometimes pleaded as an excuse for avoiding the direct offence of the cross. But let it be remembered, that God never honours a compromising spirit. The character of our profession with the world must not be merely negative. It must be marked by a wise, tender, but unflinching, exhibition of the broad line of demarcation, which, under the most favourable circumstances of mutual accommodation, still separates the world and the church from real communion with each other. – 116
That "broad line of demarcation" that separates the church from the world becomes narrower and narrower and is only blurred by ministry gurus who re-imagine the church as a place where one "belongs before he believes."
A ministry that God honors maintains the biblical distinction between the world and the church which is called out from the world.
No Servant Is Above His Master
Bridges emphasizes that truth with these words:
To have attached the world by adventitious accomplishments to ourselves, while the Master, whom we profess to venerate, is still with them a ‘despised and rejected’ Saviour, to a mind, reflecting upon Scripture principles, is a matter of far greater alarm than of self-complacency. If they could not endure the conciliating attractiveness of the son of God, even whilst devoting himself to their service at an infinite cost to himself—if they could count the great Apostle—(endued with so large a portion of his Master’s loveliness of deportment)—‘as the filth of the earth, and the offscouring of all things,’ they can only court our society upon the perception, that we approximate their own standard rather than to these heavenly models. – 117
This is simply an outstanding point. Those Christians who seek to make Christ and His Church more attractive to unbelievers by appealing to them in the natural state of their lostness—by seeking to woo them by fleshly and superficial means—implicitly regard themselves and their methodologies as more glorious than Christ Himself.
If unbelievers hate Jesus as He's presented in Scripture, and if they regard the Apostles as fools for their message, but they like us, it may be because we're more like them than like our Savior.
The High Calling to the Ministry
Sadly enough, it's pastors who are the first to adapt themselves to the tastes of this world in an effort to win the admiration of unbelievers. The result has been to lower the standard of "Ministerial character," as Bridges says, to the lowest common denominator:
Its temporary and inefficient influence therefore has been dearly purchased, by a lowering of the tone of the Ministerial character, by a yielding conformity to the taste, habits and conversation of the world, and by a virtual sanction of an erroneous standard of conduct. Would the Levitical high-priests have descended from their sacred elevation of immediate intercourse with God, to participate in the frivolities of even decorous worldliness? And why should we, under a more spiritual dispensation, be less separate, or our standard less heavenly? – 118
Jesus the Instructor, not the Conformist
"But," comes the objection, "wasn't Jesus a friend of sinners? Didn't He hang out with the lowest of the low?" Bridges answers:
It is allowed indeed, that our Divine Master occasionally associated with men decidedly adverse to his doctrine. But he could breathe a polluted atmosphere with perfect security, and therefore might venture, where common prudence would forbid those to follow, whose constitutions are predisposed to contagion. Besides, his intercourse with the world was uniformly that of an Instructor, not of a Conformist; and he accomplished his important designs, not by accommodating his conversational subjects to their taste…but by chaining down their wondering attention to ‘the gracious words, which proceeded out of his mouth.’ – 119
The Irrelevance of Relevance-Seekers
For all the influence that the conformists seek, their desire for relevance and esteem in the eyes of unbelievers renders them decidedly irrelevant. Bridges comments,
Upon the full consideration of the subject, the Writer is constrained to express his decided conviction, that a very large proportion of our inefficiency may be traced to the source of worldly conformity. – 120
When the church ceases to distinguish itself from the world, it no longer has anything to offer the world. Apart from the bare promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ alone, the church has nothing to offer unbelievers that they don't already have and pursue in what to them are more exciting, self-gratifying ways. A light that conforms to the darkness renders itself useless. Salt which loses its saltiness is good for nothing, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
The Erosion of a Godly Example
The New Testament calls Christian leaders to be exemplary in their character and conduct. We are to model Christlikeness to the flock—especially in the way we carry out our ministry. Indeed, we cannot do otherwise while simultaneously calling our people to greater sanctification and devotion to the Lord. If we fail to live up to Christ's standard, it shouldn't surprise us to find out that our people are also morally weak. Quoting William Cowper, Bridges makes this point memorably:
Cowper’s line—‘If parsons fiddle, why may’nt laymen dance?’—has at least much truth as wit in it. If we go one step into the world, our flock will take the sanction to go two; the third will still be more easy, and the atmosphere more enticing, till at last it proves, ‘as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life.’ … ‘If he walks near the brink, others will fall down the precipice.’ – 121
Rather than getting as close to the line as possible without falling over, let us rather heed James' instruction, that "pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (Jas 1:27). Let us not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world. The time for such things has already passed.
[Editor's note: This post was originally published in April 2015 and has been updated.]