Category Archives: ecclesiology

The Future of the Sunday Sermon (Rethinking Church #22)

The church gathers for worship, instruction, and fellowship. We spoke about worship in the previous essay. Today I want to consider instruction. Christianity’s understanding of God and our duties to God is communicated in a story that must be told and told again. No one is born knowing the religious stories, traditions, and myths of their people. This is true even of religions based on the cycles and powers of nature. It is even truer of Christianity, which incorporates the history of Israel—of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets—into the New Testament story of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles. New converts and children must taught this big story and how to live within it. No one is released from the school of Christ except by death.

Instruction is all the more important in situations where Christians are a minority and the surrounding culture is pagan and hostile. The pagan story is told in the daily activities of commerce, law, entertainment, and education. If faith is to survive we must intentionally retreat to places where the Christian story is repeated and lived. The Christian household and the church gathering are the two most important places where this takes place. And in these two places we are often encouraged to develop a routine of individual Bible reading and study.

I’ve always had a near romantic view of preaching. As an undergraduate I took courses in preaching and as a graduate student I loved my course on the history of preaching. The prophets of Israel preached judgment and mercy to the people. Preaching and the sermon have always had a place in the life of the church. Jesus taught in the fields and in the synagogues. The apostles and early missionaries preached the gospel to Jews and gentiles wherever they could gather an audience, in the synagogues of the diaspora or on the Areopagus in Athens. After Christianity became the favored religion in the Roman Empire, such bishop orators as Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine preached many times a week to large audiences of new converts eager to learn about their new faith. There were some great preachers in the Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas for example, but preaching did not return to its former glory until the Reformation.

In the Protestant Reformation, preaching became the central event of the church gathering. The people needed to be taught the story and meaning of the Bible. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others preached many times a week. The First Great Awakening in the mid Eighteenth Century, and the Second Great Awakening in the early Nineteenth Century revived and transformed preaching into its modern evangelistic form. In the view of many preaching theorists, nineteenth-century preaching reached its peak in Charles H. Spurgeon of London. Throughout all these changes, the sermon has remained the central event in Protestant church services.

At the risk of sounding like Jeremiah, allow me to express my concerns with the state of preaching and the sermon today. I am not speaking of every preacher and every sermon but of the general practice of preaching and audience expectations. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, the ideal preacher was highly educated in theology and the Bible, sermons were instructional, almost like academic essays, read word for word to the congregation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the age of Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham—things turned emotional and church music served as an emotional “warm-up” for the high energy evangelistic message. Today, if I’m not completely mistaken, the order has been reversed, with the sermon being a continuation of the music in the sense that the sermon must appeal to sentiment, begin with a clever hook, contain lots of stories, be marked by humorous moments, and be punctuated by pictures and movie clips. And of course, there a few Scripture quotations sprinkled throughout. In short, sermons need to be entertaining. Definitely not academic, complicated, and instructional.

What does this new audience expectation mean for the preacher and sermon preparation? It means that preachers spend what time they have left after doing their administrative duties searching the internet for hooks, movie clips, pictures, and stories rather than studying the Scriptures and meditating on how they apply to the people and the age. And for all that work, the modern sermon contains little instruction on the true scope and depth of the Christian faith. Nor does it really challenge the deep pagan myths that animate our post-Christian culture. Sometimes it unwittingly reinforces them.

Something has gone wrong with the church’s work of instruction. In my experience many church goers today are abysmally ignorant not only of the meaning of the Bible but even of its storyline. Hence they become easy prey for every “new” idea that hits the New York Times best seller list, the more mystical, speculative, and metaphysical the better. They unknowingly incorporate classic Gnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Native American “wisdom” into their thinking not even realizing that these ideas contradict the Christian faith at its most fundamental level. It seems to me that they embrace these ideas primarily because they are interesting, exotic, stimulate their imaginations, and resonate with the rhetoric of progressive culture—inclusion, universality, diversity, tolerance, and individual liberty. No truth, no thought, no cross, and no judgment.

Listening to a twenty minute uplifting talk on Sunday mornings will not repair a half-century of neglect. We may have to do something more radical…like beginning a serious personal study of the Scriptures or gathering with a small group of serious-minded believers to read and discuss the Scriptures. Or, reading together and discussing some great Christian writers. Or, reading astute Christian critics of modern post-Christian culture. For me, buisness as usual is not an option.

Next Time: What is fellowship?

The Church and the Clergy System (Rethinking Church #20)

I ended the previous essay by listing some advantages of the practice of hiring a staff of highly educated professional ministers to organize, lead, and teach the church. As I noted, however, this practice makes sense only in parachurch churches. In fact, they cannot function otherwise. Today I want to consider the problems with the clergy system—the system not individual ministers.

The Spiritual Life of the Clergy

I’d like to believe that most people who enter the professional ministry do so because they feel a divine call and want to serve the people of God. They have a warm personal faith and want to serve the Lord freely and happily. However, entering into an employee/employer relationship with a church introduces a new dimension. You now become dependent and responsible to a church and its leaders. You are no longer free to speak, write, and serve as you please. Your time is not your own. Your family is not your own. Every job comes with restrictions and responsibilities, but this job entangles itself with your relationship to God. Even if your employer-church never asks you to say, refrain from saying, or to do anything that violates your conscience, how do you know whether or not, without being aware of it, you are trying to please the church when you should be endeavoring pleasing the Lord? And most insidiously, after a few years ministers are tempted to think of their ministry as they would any other job, a means of livelihood. If paid ministers are not careful, the work they began freely and joyously in response to a divine call will become a heavy burden. Spiritually exhausted and embittered, they look for a way out.

The Clergy/Laity Divide

The ideas of the ordained clergy and the paid ministry are not identical, although they often overlap. The New Testament makes a distinction among various functions within the church, and some possess a kind of authority. Jesus chose the twelve apostles for a special ministry. Their central claim to spiritual authority was their unique relationship with Jesus. They were chosen by Jesus and witnessed his teaching, miracles, and death with their own eyes and ears. They also witnessed the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. The core of their unique authority, then, was their first-hand knowledge of Jesus. Paul came later and rests his authority on having been chosen and called by the risen Jesus. No one can take the apostles’ place or challenge their knowledge of Jesus.

Apostolic witness and authority functions today only through the apostolic teaching, which is contained in the New Testament. No human being living today possesses any spiritual authority to speak in God’s name or make judgments about another person’s status before God except as they are faithful to the original apostolic teaching. No person owes spiritual obedience to another human being except as they trust that their counsel articulates the apostolic teaching. In my view, the spiritual authority of a person accrues today not by a ceremony called “ordination” conducted by an authoritative church body but by a life demonstrating deep knowledge, faithfulness, sincere love, wisdom, and holiness. In short, no one claiming “clergy” status possesses spiritual authority within the church—I am not speaking about parachurch churches, which operate by parachurch rules—to demand obedience from “lay” believers. Only if their lives demonstrate those qualities mentioned above do they have any spiritual authority at all. Even that authority is rooted the persuasive power of their words and lives.

Why do I insist on breaching the wall between clergy and laity? Clergy often give airs of having special access to God and use their supposed elite status to maintain power and privilege for selfish and quite worldly reasons. Sometimes the “laity” are quite content to let clergy play their game because it gives them an excuse for spiritual laziness. Let’s get clear on this: perhaps industry and the economy work better by instituting a complete division of labor, but not the church. Every believer is called to the virtues of faith, hope, and love. The Spirit works to transform everyone into the image of Christ. All Christians have a responsibility to use their lives in service to the Lord. We’re all in our own way preachers, evangelists, missionaries, pastors, and counselors. Everyone is a theologian, for you must not allow others to think for you. No one is allowed to hand their conscience over to another human being!

Clergy and the Mission of the Church

As I pointed out early in the series, the essential mission of the church is witness to Jesus Christ in life, word, and deed. The work of the church is helping people come to deep faith and be transformed into the image of Christ. One of the greatest temptations paid minsters face is coming to view the mission and work of the church through the lens of their own self-interest. The church can do its work and pursue its mission without seeking to become large, wealthy, famous, and powerful. However, the private interest of the clergy would be better served were their church-employer to become large, wealthy, famous, and powerful. Indeed, it almost seems that the big, parachurch model of church and the clergy system are congenital twins. We cannot imagine one without the other.

When faced with decisions about the direction the church should take, can paid ministers choose options that facilitate the church’s true work and mission but go against their private interests? Even if, as individual believers, they wish to pursue only the essential work and mission of the church, the swift current of the clergy system sweeps them downstream, no matter how hard they swim for the shore. How hard it is for clergy to seek first the kingdom of God! With human strength alone it is impossible, but with God all things are possible!

The Clergy System (Rethinking Church #19)

It is time to rethink the idea of the church as an employer of ministers. We will examine this issue from the perspective of the spiritual life of the minister and from the church as the employer of ministers. We will consider the spiritual advantages and disadvantages of the paid ministry.

This is Personal

As I said in the previous post, this issue is personal for me. I served in the fulltime ministry for eight years. I received a divine call into ministry as a college student. Based on that call I changed my major from Chemistry to Bible. To better prepare myself for a life of church leadership I spent four years in graduate school working on a Master of Theology degree. Many friends in my own generation entered the ministry and served for many years. Many of my heroes are preachers and missionaries. And now that I have been teaching theology for thirty-one years in a university that grants two degrees specifically designed to prepare people for fulltime ministry—M.Div. and MS—I have scores of former students in fulltime church ministry.

I share this background because I want readers to know that I do not doubt my original call into the ministry or my decision to accept it. Nor do I wish to make any negative judgment of the fine men and women who serve in churches all over the world. Quite the opposite, I want to encourage them in their work and support them in whatever ways I am able.

The Divine Call

Throughout the history of the people of God in the Old and New Testaments and the history of the church from the First to the Twentieth Century, some men and women have felt compelled by a divine call to speak, preach, teach, and serve in the name of the Lord. Such prophets as Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the priests deriving from family of Aaron and the Levites were called into special divine service. Some of these people lived from tithe offerings from the people and some supported themselves. Jesus called twelve apostles for the special ministry of preaching the gospel to Jews and consolidating the fledgling church. Paul received a call from the resurrected Jesus to preach to the gentiles. In some cases, the apostles and other Christian missionaries, teachers, prophets, and elders received economic help from other believers (1 Cor 9:3-18).

Paul lists the central functions designed to help the church grow and keep it strong: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11-12). The church cannot thrive without these services and functions, but not everyone is gifted and called to the same role. Paul devotes a whole chapter of 1 Corinthians to the theme of unity and diversity within the body of Christ. I will quote just three verses: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (12:12-14). Some people find themselves gifted and called to teach, preach, and minister in leadership. They devote themselves to study, prayer, and practice to prepare themselves for service. Thank God for his gift of these people to the church!

But we must distinguish between God’s gifting and calling of men and women into the service of the Word and taking a job with a church as a paid minister. The two may go together but they are not bound by necessity to do so. Hence my admiration and praise for people gifted and called into ministry does not necessarily translate into admiration and praise for the clergy system as it now stands. You can accept a divine call to evangelize, teach, and preach without becoming clergy. And simply because you get a degree in ministry and a church hires you does not guarantee that you are doing the work of the Lord.

The Advantages of the Paid Ministry

The advantages of churches/parachurches hiring people to organize and lead ministries are obvious. (1) It would be nearly impossible for large churches to function as they currently do with an all-volunteer staff. People are busy, and most people don’t have the training they need to perform some of these functions. Some tasks require many hours a week to carry out. (2) I think modern urban and suburban professionals demand highly educated, professional, and skilled people to lead their churches. After all, the corporations for which they work demand such professionalism. (3) Relieving gifted and called men and women of the necessity of spending most of their time working in “secular” work, frees more time for doing the work of ministry. In the case of foreign missionaries, it is often legally impossible for them to work in the host country. Apart from financial support from their home country they could not engage in mission work. (4) The fourth advantage assumes that the modern church needs ministers with a high level of theological education. Without the prospect of a paid ministry position, a young person might not be willing to devote seven years of their lives to getting the college and seminary training needed for ministry in the modern world. In that amount of time they could have trained for a high paying secular career.

Notice, however, that these advantages for the most part relate to big parachurch churches operating in the ways such churches have for the last hundred years. Of course these churches need highly educated, skilled, professional ministers. But if you call into question the exclusive validity of the big church model, these advantages become less decisive. If you gather around a table, share a meal, remember the Lord in the Supper, read the Scriptures, and pray for each other, you don’t need a highly skilled speaker, a talented worship leader, an efficient administrator, or a meticulous bookkeeper.

Next Time: The disadvantages of the clergy system.

Megachurches Need Megabucks (Rethinking Church #18)

Today I want to talk about money as a corrupting force in the life of the church. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24). And 1 Timothy states in clear terms “The love of money [avarice or greed] is the root of all evil” (6:10). Of course, money does not force you to love it. But it’s an effective persuader! You can make money serve you, but it often turns out the other way around. Money is a means of exchange that enables the acquisition of real goods—food you can eat, clothing, shelter, beautiful things, services, etc. These things can serve human needs and produce joy, but they can also be abused and create misery. By pooling the resources of its members a church can acquire more of these things and use them for greater good. That’s the ideal anyway. But ideals are rarely realized completely.

Parachurches Need Lots of Money

Consider the churches I designated “parachurches” in the previous essay. They organize and conduct their work in ways that require a constant stream of revenue. They purchase and maintain building complexes, making it necessary to hire janitors, make periodic repairs, and pay huge utility bills. To coordinate the activities of hundreds or thousands of people and provide programs for every age and interest group, they must hire five, ten, or even twenty-five ministers. And of course the senior minister, the CEO, oversees the other ministers and the whole operation. The Sunday worship alone requires the services of a worship minister, sound and lighting techs, some singers, and several band or orchestra members. Such an operation requires support from a large secretarial and bookkeeping staff. Even a medium sized church needs an annual budget of $500,000 to $1,000,000. Megachurches need $10,000,000 to $50,000,000 annually.

And from where does this money come? It comes from donations from members. And why do they give? I speak only from my own experience. I am sure most of them give because they believe that their churches do good things with the money. They feel proud of participating in these large-scale good works, which they could not accomplish by themselves. However I think additional factors are at work.

Some churches teach explicitly and others imply that giving to a church is a Christian duty or even a quasi-sacrament. That is to say, giving is considered a meritorious work or a kind of bloodless sacrifice, a required act of worship distinct from the practical purpose for which the gift is to be used. Or, we think of our gifts as membership dues. We attend church services and enjoy the pageantry, the inspiring music, and the uplifting message as we sit comfortably in a state of the art facility. We benefit from the work of scores of staff and volunteers. And we feel guilty if we enjoy all these things without helping to pay for the them.

Pass the Collection Plate

But money exerts a corrupting force. Churches have earned a reputation for constantly soliciting donations, a reputation nearly universal among outsiders but also common among loyal members. Churches need to meet their annual budgets. The staff’s livelihood and the viability of many programs depend on it. Many churches “pass the collection plate” every Sunday. Passing the plate to the person sitting beside you without making a donation can be a bit embarrassing. You imagine that everyone notices your stingyness, especially the “deacons” who are standing at the ends of the rows to receive the plates.

The church seems to be of two minds on money versus people. The church sign says, “Everyone is welcome. Come as you are.” But do they really mean it, or will it be a “bait and switch” operation? Do churches want to grow because they want everyone to know Jesus? Or, do they wish to keep the income stream flowing? Because churches have organized themselves in ways that require lots of money, the good news of the love of Jesus and God’s forgiveness gets mixed with a less noble message.

People Got to Get Paid

I want to speak next from personal experience. I served as a paid minister for eight years as a young man. I entered the ministry because of what I believed, and still believe, was a divine call to which I could not say no. I responded in obedience to God. But when I became an employee of a church my duty to God got confused with the expectations of the church. The two are not always the same! I could no longer be sure of my motives. I learned a bitter lesson: if your service to God becomes also a means of livelihood on which your family depends—mortgage, childcare, health insurance, car payments, school loan payments, and retirement savings—the joy of ministry often departs. You begin to think about salary, benefits, and working conditions! You begin to think about who has power over you and who does not.

On the other side of the equation, later in life I served as an elder [a volunteer lay leader] in a church where a part of my duty was supervising the ministry staff. In that role my partnership with the ministers in the work of the Lord was made joyless by having to deal with their requests concerning salary, benefits, and working conditions. Money is indeed the root of all evil!

If you have been following this series you know that I favor small group churches over parachurch churches. We could go a long way toward removing the corrosive effect of money if churches met in homes, took no collections, made no budgets, owned no common property, and had no employees. I don’t think I am naïve about this. There would still be occasion for greed and envy, shame and pride, because of economic differences among individual believers. But at least the church would not be always seeking donations to run its operations.

Next Time: What about the clergy?

Rethinking Church #6: The Church is Also the People

The human dimension is an essential feature of the church. The church is a gathering of people. It is not simply a divine idea or the divine dimension by itself. The church exists only as the divine and human are united in one community. In the New Testament, the ekklesia or church is called an assembly, a people, a nation (1 Pet 2:9), and a family (Gal. 6:10), each denoting human beings in community. The church, then, becomes visible in the world in a community of living human beings.

There are many kinds of assemblies and communities. The church is a people called together by the Spirit of God to live in Christ for the praise and service of God. But the church could not exist apart from a human response to that call. The most basic response is faith. Apart from a believing embrace of the message of Christ, repentance, baptism, and other churchly activities make no sense. Faith moves us to turn away from our old lives and mark that transition by receiving baptism, which is pictured in the New Testament as a spiritual washing (Acts 22:16) or a death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:1-7).

The transition from nonbelief to belief and its symbolic enactment in baptism is at once a transition from not being a Christian to being one and from not being a member of the church (or family or people) of God to being including in this people. Becoming a member of the church is not an add-on to becoming a Christian but happens simultaneously and is co-essential. It makes no sense to think one could be “in Christ” but not part of the body of Christ, a child of God but not a member of God’s family.

What is the Church?

Until this point in the series I have used the term “church” without defining it. For until we uncover the essential features of the church—that is, those factors that determine the difference between its existence and nonexistence—we cannot define it with precision. What, then, is the church? The church consists of those people who in obedient faith and by baptism have been incorporated into Christ through the work of Holy Spirit and so have become one body, one people, one family.

Wherever these factors are present, the church in its fullness exists. Once the church exists and begins to act, other factors come into play. Some means will be chosen to organize its life and work. Language and culture, too, will place their stamp on the outward forms of church life. But it is important not allow the historical and contemporary forms the church to hide the simple essence of the church. List any factor you please—clergy, systems of organization, property, employees, legal recognition, social visibility, tax exempt status—none are essential. Sweep them all away and the church exists still. The church is simple in essence and, hence, very adaptable in form.

The Individual Christian and the Church

Since New Testament language about the church envisions a community that gathers and acts as one at least on occasion, certain questions naturally arise in our individualistic culture: (1) does the church exist in each individual? (2) Or, does the church exist only when formally and intentionally gathered “as the assembly”? (3) If you were the only Christian left alive in a nation or in the whole world, would the church still exist? (4) Lastly, assuming the church exists even when not gathered formally, must an individual Christian gather regularly with other Christians as the church?

The answers to these four questions are implicit in the definition of the church: (1) Yes, the church exists in each individual believer. Each believer is called by God, lives in Christ, and participates in the life of the Spirit. The divine and human dimensions are united even in an individual Christian. (2) No, the church does not cease to exist when not assembled as a group to act corporately. Christ and the Spirit are not divided by distance. (3) Yes. The church would exist if you were the only Christian in the world. (4) Yes. Though individual Christians can act as members of God’s special people even when not with other believers—in prayer, praise, study, and service—the love of God poured into their hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5:5) will drive them into fellowship with others who share that same compelling love. The gathering is a manifestation in the present of the unity of all things in Christ “when the times reach their fulfillment” (Eph 1:10). And it can be so beautiful!

Next Time: We have not yet addressed the church’s divinely assigned work and purpose. In these areas, too, we will distinguish between essential and accidental features. What is the essential work and purpose of the church? Hint: it, too, is very simple.

Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?

Question: What if we thought we attended church every Sunday morning when in fact we attended a meeting of a parachurch organization?

Many good Christian works are accomplished by parachurch organizations. My wife and I contribute financially to many of them, and she serves on the board of one such institution. Examples of parachurch organizations are: Christian schools, colleges and universities, mission and service organizations, community Bible study organizations, hospitals, different kinds of fellowships and support groups, campus ministries, apologetic organizations, and Christian homeless shelters. The list is endless. Much of the good work Christians do in the world is done through these organizations. And that is good.

So what is a parachurch organization? It is para to the church, which means it exists “alongside” the church. As an institution, it does not claim to be the church. But it sympathizes with and supports the church’s mission, and the people that constitute its membership are Christians and in some way participate in church itself. Its mission and many of its activities overlap with the mission and activities of the church. That’s what makes it related to the church in a “para” way.

What marks the difference between a parachurch institution and the church? The differences are marked by how parachurch organizations are constituted, what they add to the church’s organization and mission, and by what they cannot do in their own names. Parachurch institutions are created by Christians for ministries about which they are passionate. They are usually organized as legal entities with non-profit status, establishing thereby a relationship with the federal, state, and local governments. Their missions are usually narrowed to one type of good work, education, evangelism, apologetics, healthcare, homeless shelters, etc. But there are also some things parachurch organizations do not do in their own names. For example, you do not become a member of a parachurch institution by confessing Jesus as the risen Lord and submitting to baptism.

What is the church? The church is the people of God and the body of Christ. It is constituted on the divine side by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Faith is created through the preaching of the gospel and the working of the Spirit, and those who believe respond with repentance, confession, and baptism. The church’s mission is to speak, live, and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in a covenant community. It witnesses in the present age to the reality of the coming reign of God. As a people, as the body of Christ, as a covenant community it exists in the world as a visible unity of many. And from the beginning, this necessitated meeting together to participate in the spiritual realities—one God, one Lord, one Spirit—that have the power to maintain the scattered people as one. When the church gathers, it listens to the words of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles. It remembers the death and resurrection of Jesus by sharing in the Lord’s Supper. The community invokes God in prayer, and everyone is encouraged to live a life worthy of the gospel.

The church’s essence and mission are very simple, and accomplishing its mission requires few of the things we’ve come to associate with churches. It does not need money, land, or property. It does not need clergy or employees of any kind. Nor does it need scores of tired volunteers the “make things happen” on Sunday morning. It does not need accountants, bank accounts, or receptionists. It does not need a stage, a worship ministry, or microphones. It does not need to exist as a non-profit corporation. It need not have any legal entanglement with the state. Nothing in its constitution or mission requires any of these things.

But most of the “churches” we attend have all of these unnecessary things. Indeed we cannot imagine a “real” church without them. They have huge budgets, large staffs, and expensive properties, which force them to organize themselves like businesses. To fund this enterprise, church leaders need to spend lots of energy on financial matters, planning, accounting, and fund raising. Staff must be managed and paid. Because their meeting places are designed to accommodate over a hundred people—and some a thousand or more—many of these churches are staged-centered and focus on the few people running the show. This creates a celebrity atmosphere where importance and visibility are identified. There is little sense of the unity of the many or intimacy of community or accountability. In analogy to a concert or political rally or a lecture hall, the unity is created by focusing on the speaker or singer. The meeting includes people who are present for a variety of reasons. Many feel like strangers, and some suffer silently for years without anyone else knowing their struggles. And all these extras were added on the supposition that—even if not necessary—they would be helpful in carrying out the mission of the church. But hasn’t it turned out to be the opposite? Doesn’t this stuff get in the way? Hasn’t the means eclipsed the end?

Perhaps the churches we attend every Sunday are really parachurch organizations? They are devoted no doubt to good works and activities that overlap with the church’s mission. They are founded, funded, and for the most part populated by Christian people. They include some activities essential to the church, and the church is present somewhere in all the busyness. But they are not just the church, not simply the church. And because they are not simply the church, the essence of the church is obscured and its essential mission is neglected.

As I said at the beginning, many parachurch organizations serve the mission of the church in admirable ways. I do not reject the legitimacy of parachurch churches. So, I shall be attending a parachurch church this Sunday…but I do so with some uneasiness…because I long for the simple church, stripped of unnecessary baggage, devoted single-mindedly to the original mission.

Challenge: Make a list of the things your church is, has, and does that are not essential to the church Jesus founded and the mission he gave, things that if you removed them the church would still exist. Next ask yourself which ones of those things cause the essence of the church to shine forth and help it accomplish its mission and which ones obscure its essence and hinder its mission. After you’ve done that why not work in your church to reduce the number and significance of things that keep your parachurch church from being simply the church?

Ron Highfield

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The “Benedict Option” or Why the Church Must Not Serve “the Common Good”


“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

 “The Benedict Option”

In his recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel: New York, 2017), Rod Dreher draws a parallel between the cultural situation faced by Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy and our situation today in the western world. Benedict found his culture so morally corrupt and inhospitable to authentic Christian living that he withdrew from society and eventually founded the Benedictine order of monks. The social fabric of Benedict’s day was being ripped apart by barbarian tribes waging constant war to expand their domains. Our barbarians, says Dreher, don’t wear animal skins or overrun neighboring tribes. They wear designer suits and use smartphones, but they are just as dangerous to authentic Christian living as their sixth-century counterparts: “They are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human” (p. 17), and they call such work “progress.”

We live in an increasingly secular culture, and the minute we step outside the church door we are faced with enormous pressure to conform to the progressive vision of human life or at least to remain silent in our dissent. It is becoming ever more difficult for Christians to engage in professions such as public school teaching, the professorate or medicine. And ever-expanding antidiscrimination laws make engaging in businesses such as the florist trade, catering and photography risky for serious Christians. The culture war is over, declares Dreher; Christians lost, the barbarians won. The public square has officially become secular space, hostile territory.

In response to this new situation Dreher urges serious Christians to distance themselves from the dominant culture to form Christian countercultures. Leave public schools and form classical Christian schools or homeschools, don’t idolize university education, consider learning a trade, at whatever cost make your churches real communities that support authentic Christian faith and life, turn off the television, wean yourself away from social media, and “turn your home into a domestic monastery” (p. 124). It’s a radical vision, I know, and many will dismiss it as apocalyptic. However those who long for social space to live an authentic Christian life with their families and likeminded Christians may find in Dreher’s vision of the “Benedict option” inspiration to take action.

The Church as a Social Institution

In friendlier times the church was considered by the broader culture a social institution deserving recognition because of its invaluable contribution to the common good. Forming god-fearing, church-going, family-establishing citizens was considered a service to the nation. Traditional marriage, self-discipline and work were considered social goods. But we no longer live in friendly times, and the definition of “the common good” has changed dramatically. It now includes the ideologies of pluralism and multiculturalism, sexual license, expanded definitions of the family, gender fluidity and abortion. In certain influential sectors of culture the church is viewed as a powerful and stubborn preserve of superstition and reactionary morality. Through a combination of enticement, intimidation, and persuasion, mainstream culture attempts to move the church into conformity with its own moral standards and social goals. And its tactics are meeting with stunning success.

Especially after the American Civil War, many American denominations came to think of themselves as social institutions and touted their contributions to society. Some churches even made social utility their main if not sole reason to exist. Most churches relished and still relish such social privileges as tax exempt status and the right to own property. They value social approval and visibility. But the church’s unspoken agreement with society may turn out to have been a deal with the devil. For if a church presents itself to the public as a social institution valuable to society because of its contributions to the common good, can it complain when the public comes to expect it to behave like other social institutions?

But the most serious danger to the Christian identity of churches doesn’t come from outside the gates; homegrown “barbarians” are working from inside. Churches that sacrifice discipline and orthodoxy to pursue growth, popularity and social influence will find themselves mortgaged to the world. And mortgages eventually come due. Should we be surprised when church members and clergy who have marinated in progressive culture their whole lives press their churches to conform to that culture? Can the church retain its Christian identity while also clinging to its political privileges, social approval and community visibility? Pursuing something like “the Benedict option” may soon become the only way we can live an authentic Christian life in modern culture. Perhaps that time is already here.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage

Jesus Christ did not found the church to serve the society, and authentic Christianity cares little for secular definitions of the common good. It is not intrinsically wrong for the church to use what advantages a society may grant. But it should always keep clearly in mind that it does not need to own property, employ clergy and enjoy tax exempt status in order to exist in its fulness. It does not need political influence, social respectability or community visibility. It does not even need legal recognition. The church can get along quite well without these “privileges.” Indeed there may soon come a time when retaining its privileges at the cost of its Christian identity will become its greatest temptation. And it will fall unless it remembers that its one and only purpose is to serve its Lord whatever the cost.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Three Views on Women in Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders and Bishops?

Congregational Autonomy—Fact, Fiction and Myth

Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches (Stone-Campbell Movement), Baptists, Mennonites and other churches that govern themselves according to a congregational rather than a presbyterian or episcopal order often describe their model as “congregational autonomy.” These churches were born during the 16th and 17th centuries in resistance state churches and later in protest of centralized denominations that restricted the freedom of local bodies to control their internal affairs.

For this essay I will assume the basic soundness of the congregational model and deal with what I consider its abuses.  Even in episcopal-type churches local congregations and their ministers, priests or bishops are allowed some say-so in the way they administer their local congregations. But congregational churches insist on more control to the point that it can be called autonomy. What are scope and limits of local church autonomy?

Congregational autonomy cannot be unlimited. Every local church claims to be a manifestation of the universal church of Christ founded by the Lord and his apostles. A local body possesses the right to make this claim only if it binds itself to uphold the faith and essential qualities of the original and universal church. No local authority has the right to eliminate or change the essential characteristics of the universal church. Not even the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church claims this right! In fact, his main responsibility is to protect this faith. If a group makes these changes it forfeits its claim to manifest the universal Church. And other local congregations are under no sacred obligation to recognize it as a Christian church.

Most Protestant churches whether congregational, presbyterian or episcopal in organization make at least the implicit claim to adhere to the common faith held by the early post-apostolic and patristic church through at least the 5th century and embodied in the Rule of faith and Ecumenical Creeds, especially the Nicene Creed (381).  This common faith includes among others the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation and the extent and limits of the New Testament canon. No local authority—or for that matter no denominational body—has the right to change the New Testament cannon or any other ecumenical doctrine while at the same time claiming to represent the ecumenical church as defined by the Rule of faith and the ecumenical Creeds.

What about the limits of congregational autonomy within a denomination, a fellowship or a tradition, that is, some sort of collective of local bodies that claim a common identity? It should go without saying that a local body that presents itself as Baptist or Church of Christ or Menonite, implicitly binds itself to embody and teach the essential marks of those associations. If a local congregation of one of these fellowships decides to abandon those marks, it possesses the authority to do so only in the sense that there is no extra congregational legal authority to stop it. Since it has not bound itself legally to the association, the association cannot depose the local leaders or confiscate a congregation’s property. However, if a local congregation abandons the essential marks and teaching of the Baptist, Church of Christ or the Menonite fellowship, it should cease to present itself as a manifestation of those fellowships. Truthfulness demands it. Nor does a local church have the right to determine autonomously what it means to be Baptist, Church of Christ or Menonite. That question is for the whole fellowship to decide in whatever way it decides things. And other congregations of this fellowship are under no obligation to recognize a rogue congregation as one of their own simply because it claims “congregational autonomy.”

What, then, is the role of local leaders within congregationally organized churches? There are indeed internal matters that are best controlled locally, decisions about property, ministers, salaries, selection of teachers, administration of funds and others. However in matters of doctrine local leaders have the responsibility of discernment but not of legislation. They may act on doctrinal matters only in sincere consultation with the wider circles of the original and universal church as described in the New Testament, the ecumenical teaching on the central teachings about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the fellowship which they claim to represent.

Every local church should attempt to remain in communication and fellowship with the original church, the living ecumenical church and with the fellowship that gave it birth and gives it a specific identity. At every level it should endeavor to embody truly what it represents itself to be. And the local church’s “autonomy” consists in its right to give itself to these tasks.

What is the Church? Building, People, Event or What?

“The church is not the building, and the church is not an idea. The church is not merely the clergy. The church is the people!” Perhaps you have heard words to this effect. True, the church is not the building. Employing the word “church” to refer to a house of worship makes sense only because the church meets there; it’s not the primary meaning of the word. The church is not merely an idea but an actual thing. But is the church merely the people?

No, it cannot be merely the people because in that case any gathering of people would be the church. To be the church, the gathered group must at least be people of Christian faith and be gathering for the purpose for which the church meets: praying, hearing Scripture read and expounded and, most centrally, participating in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Well then, does the church exist only when Christians gather to participate in the Eucharist? No, for then the church would be merely a periodic event the people engage in rather than a reality that encompasses their whole persons all the time. Surely the church exists even when it is not gathered and visible.

How can the church be a reality even when it is not gathered and visible? And why is this important? Most references to the church in the New Testament refer to the Christians in a particular locality whether gathered or not. But the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians refer to the church as the “body” of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, 30 and Colossians 1:24). Paul speaks of how Christ “feeds and cares” for his body the church like we feed and care for our bodies (Ephesians 5:29). The relationship between Christ and the church is a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).

Paul speaks of individual Christians as having been “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:26). Christians are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; and many other places) and “have the spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). Christ is “in you” (Romans 8:10) and you are “in Christ” (Romans 8:34). Just as a physical body has many parts but is one, “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). We are “united” with Christ (Philippians 2:1-2). In the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “participate in the body and blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

What, then, is the basis of the existence and the unity of the church even when it is scattered over a city or the whole world or meets under different denominational names? Of course, the answer is Jesus Christ with and in and through the Spirit of God. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ has been united to him. And in him all are united to each other as the church. The church, then, is the people of God gathered together in Christ through the Spirit. They are always together in Christ, but they long for the visible gathering where they can express their faith in Christ and love for each other.

Though the church is always one, holy, catholic and apostolic in Christ, and it exists in full actuality in him, the spirit of Christ drives us together so that we can experience that reality with our eyes and ears and hands. Just as Christ became incarnate in a physical body in Jesus of Nazareth to help us in our weakness, he draws us together to participate in the Eucharist, in prayer and in hymns so that we can touch, taste, and hear him in our time and space. The church is his body, and in it he speaks in audible voice and comforts with physical touch.

So it does not matter how small a church you attend or in what corner of the planet you gather. Christ is there, and where he is, there is also the whole church–the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. And I too am there with you, my brothers and sisters.

The Church is Our Mother

What is the church? The New Testament calls the church by many names: “the assembly (or church) of God,” “body of Christ,” “the bride of Christ,” “the people of God,” “the family of God,” “the temple of God,” and “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Each of these designations points to a certain quality of the thing that came into being as a result of the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. None of these names captures the entire being of this thing we most often call “church.” Not even all of them together can create perfect insight into the nature, life and end of church. And simply thinking or saying the names apart from real participation and empathetic involvement in the life of the church cannot impart an adequate understanding the living reality of church.

In today’s post I want to consider another designation for the church, “the Mother of the faithful.” This name for the church is not found in the New Testament. For some, this absence alone makes the term questionable. And Protestants may shy away from a name that is used prominently by the Roman Catholic Church. But neither of these reasons can bear scrutiny. Paul calls himself “the father” of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15). And he speaks of the Galatians as his children “for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). And for those who think the term “mother” is exclusively a Roman Catholic designation for the church, listen to a theologian whose Protestant credentials are impeccable, John Calvin:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.4).

In the paragraphs that follow, Calvin enlarges and details the ways in which the church mothers her children. It is through her voice that we hear the gospel. Whether we read the words of the apostles in the New Testament or hear it in the persons of our parents, traveling evangelists or the ordinary ministry, the church gives birth to us in the faith. She evangelizes, teaches, nurtures, guides and disciplines us until, as Calvin so aptly puts it, we are “divested of mortal flesh.”

The living community of Christians, the faithful people of God, is the means by which each new generation and each person hears the gospel and sees it embodied in real life. Whether we are born to Christian parents or are converted as adults directly from the ignorance of paganism, we depend on the living community of faith, which exists in unbroken, living continuity with Jesus Christ and his apostles. And as John Calvin emphasizes, our relationship to our mother is lifelong. To quote him again, “For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars.” No one is strong enough to live as a Christian apart from the church. The passions of the flesh are too strong, the voices of the world are too alluring and the winds of teaching are too deceptive. We are too forgetful, too lazy, and too distractible. We need to hear the word preached. We need to participate in the sacraments, confess our sins, voice our faith and receive the church’s discipline. We can’t see ourselves objectively and we easily find excuses for our faults.

The 3rd century bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “Outside the Church there is no salvation” and “you cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother.” In one sense these sayings are self-evident. If the church is the people of God, the mother of the faithful, the family of God and the elect, then outside there is no salvation and no sonship. Put another way, outside the birthing, nurturing, caring, teaching, guiding and correcting embrace of our mother there is no safety and no certainty. There is only danger, abandonment and loneliness. Apart from our mother, we wander as orphaned children in a cold world.