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From a Movement to a Church: Part 4

Monday, December 7th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the last part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Earlier installments can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #4: “We can’t go to church because we are the church”

We’ve heard this one a lot lately, but again, it’s not really new.  Many of us were raised with this idea in old-style conservative evangelicalism.  In one sense, there is much to commend this view.  The church is certainly not a building.  In fact, there is no holy place on earth except for the temple consisting of living stones built up into Christ (1 Pet 2:4-10).  However, the way it is often argued goes beyond this insight. Some who invoke this phrase today tell us that the Reformation was wrong when it defined the church by the marks of preaching, sacrament, and discipline.  This put the focus on the church as a place where certain things happen instead of a people who do certain things.  How should we respond?

First, notice where the emphasis is placed in this construction.  Whereas the marks of the church identified by the reformers focus on the church as a place where God is active in serving his people with saving benefits and then sending them out into the world as renewed neighbors, the new phrase makes the church (or at least individual Christians) the active agent.  In other words, the emphasis falls on our doing instead of receiving that which God has done and is doing for us.  Not surprisingly, this emphasis picks up a lot of collateral confusions along the way, like the call to “living the gospel” or “being the gospel.”  Have we forgotten that the gospel is the Good News about God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ?  It is for us, but it is not about us.  The gospel is concentrated entirely on Christ’s doing, dying, and rising, not on our experience, piety, or acts of service.  The gospel creates faith and obedience, but only because it the gospel itself is the announcement of Christ’s obedience, death, resurrection, ascension, and return.  Of course, the public service includes the response of the covenant partner in spoken word, prayer, and song.  Nevertheless, it’s always just that: a response to God’s act of judging and promising, through Word and sacrament.

Second, besides confusing our work with Christ’s, this formula confuses the church-as-gathered with the church-as-scattered.  The church has to be a place where God does certain things (such as judge and absolve sinners) before we can be a people who do certain things.  Our obedience is “the reasonable service” that we render “in view of God’s mercies” (Rom 12:1-2).  The church as an official institution is Christ’s embassy on earth, with his ministerial authority to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mat 16:19).

However, the church is not only made up of officers—pastors, elders, and deacons.  Gifts have been given to every member for the good of all.  Furthermore, common gifts have been given to believers and unbelievers to fulfill their creation callings.  So the church as gathered is visible in the so-called “marks” of preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline, while the church as scattered refers to individual believers engaged in their ordinary callings throughout the week as parents, friends, co-workers, employers, employees, citizens, and volunteers.  The church, then, is both a place where the Covenant Lord speaks a new creation into being and a people who spill out into the world as heirs of that new creation.

The church as an official embassy of Christ’s kingdom does not have the authority to issue public pronouncements on every conceivable topic or to order the world’s affairs.  However, Christians may work together, or alongside non-Christian neighbors, to love and serve their neighbors, to engage in political action, and to pursue particular programs for community improvement.  Again, it’s a matter of respecting the “common” without trying to make it “holy.”  The commission of the church-as-institution is limited to the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline (which includes the physical as well as spiritual care of its members).  The activity of Christians, however, is much broader as they engage in their myriad vocations in the world.  And where God has not clearly directed our steps, believers have the Christian liberty to use their own sanctified common sense in the way that they raise their kids, vote, entertain themselves, and volunteer their time and talents.

The rediscovery of the doctrines of grace, nicknamed by TIME and Christianity Today as “the New Calvinism,” promises to reinvigorate Reformed and Presbyterian churches that too often take this treasure for granted.  At the same time, having been reared in individualistic evangelicalism, I have been regularly overwhelmed with the godly wisdom in churches that have been baptizing, teaching, and caring for the flock in body and soul from womb to tomb.  That’s where evangelicalism is weak.

At Pentecost, Peter declared, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:39).  Focusing on covenant nurture across the generations, older Reformed churches help us to understand what it means to deliver God’s promise to “you and your children.”  “New Calvinists” can help us become more intentional in our mission “to those who are far off,” reaching those outside the covenant community.  Let’s do this together!  As the movement matures, my hope is that it will draw more deeply and broadly from the Reformation’s wells.  If “Reformed” simply identifies someone who believes in God’s electing grace, then Thomas Aquinas was Reformed.  However, just as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and other traditions are defined by their confessions, Reformed Christians confess their faith together through carefully considered statements.  Under the normative authority of God’s Word, the Three Forms of Unity (consisting of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms summarize this consensus.

Ecclesiology is a significant part of the churches that emerged from the Reformation.  Anglican theologian Paul Avis has observed, “Reformation theology is largely dominated by two questions: ‘How can I obtain a gracious God?’ and ‘Where can I find the true Church?’  The two questions are inseparably related…” According to the churches of the Reformation, the true church is found “wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are properly administered.”  Our challenge today is to move from a Reformed movement to Reformed churches.  We must question not only the human-centered doctrine that dominates so much of American religion but the methods and form of life that arise naturally from such doctrine.  There is a particular kind of piety and conception of mission that is generated by the doctrines of Scripture.  At least since the Second Great Awakening, the Reformation and its confessional distinctives have played a less discernable role than pietist and revivalistic emphases.  In fact, at the end of his US tour, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could summarize his observations concerning American religion generally as “Protestantism without the Reformation.”  So let’s have a new Reformation that recovers the God-exalting, Christ-centered, grace-proclaiming faith and practice that will bring renewal not only to Reformed churches but, we pray, to the wider body of Christ around the world!

-Mike Horton

From a Movement to a Church: Part 3

Monday, November 30th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the third part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Parts one and two can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #3: The outward form, structure, and methods of the church are not nailed down in Scripture

I’m a typical American.  I like to “get ‘er done,” as they say.  We’re practical, can-do folks.  Let’s not spend a lot of time thinking about what we are doing.  Let’s just do it!  Many evangelicals assume that the Bible gives us a clear message, but then leaves the methods of delivering it up to us.

However, even in the Great Commission the command to “Go into all the world” is followed by the specific components of this calling: namely, to preach the gospel, to baptize, and to teach everything he has revealed.  Acts 2 tells us that the community created at Pentecost was dedicated to “the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (v 42).  These are all communal, structured, public activities.  (In Greek, the definite article in “the prayers” suggests that early Christian worship carried on the form of the synagogue liturgy with respect to corporate prayers.)

Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles busy themselves with the elements of Christ’s commission.  In fact, the diaconate is established so that they can give themselves entirely to the ministry of Word and sacrament (Acts 6).  Then, everywhere they have a nucleus of converts, the apostles ordain ministers and elders.  “This is why I left you in Crete,” Paul reminds Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Tit 1:5).  While Paul the Apostle could invoke a direct commission from the risen Christ, he bolstered Timothy’s confidence by reminding him of the calling and gift he received “when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14).  Eventually, this ordinary ministry will replace the extraordinary ministry of the apostles.  The former will build on the foundation of the latter.  Not only are local churches to be organized with pastors, elders, and deacons; they are responsible to each other in a wider fellowship of mutual encouragement and admonition.  When the churches in Antioch brought the case of Gentile inclusion to the whole church in Acts 15, the “whole church” was represented by “the apostles and elders” from each local assembly.  The result was a written decision that was expected to be received by every local church.

Then when we get to the Epistles, specific offices and qualifications are clearly stated, especially in the pastoral letters.  Clear instructions are given for the meaning and regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10-11), for church discipline (Mat 18; 1 Cor 5-7), and for public worship (Ac 2:42-45; 1 Cor 14:6-39) and the diaconal care of the saints (Ac 6; Rom 15:14-32; Gal 6:10; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13).  We are even told why we sing.  Why does God need to tell us why we sing?  Because singing in corporate worship is not mere exuberance, entertainment, or pious expression of our own thoughts, feelings, and commitment.  Rather, the purpose of the singing is the same as the preaching, the sacraments, and the prayers: “…so that the Word of Christ may dwell in you richly…” (Col 3:16).  Christ cares so much about every aspect of his visible church because he knows how prone we are to wander and to set up idols, demanding our own forms of worship.  Not only the message of Christ, but the means of grace that he has appointed, are calculated by the Triune God for delivering Christ to sinners—including believers—throughout their pilgrimage.  The same gospel that brings those “far off” to Christ also brings to Christ those who are near to the covenant promises: “you and your children” (Ac 2:39).

A major heresy swept the ancient church in the second century, known as Gnosticism.  Trying to assimilate the gospel to Greek thought, the Gnostics drew a sharp division between spirit and matter, invisible and visible, outer and inner.  It was not the external ministry of Word and sacrament or external ministers like pastors and elders, but an inner ministry of the Spirit through spontaneous ecstasy and enlightenment, that the Gnostics extolled.  Paul’s agitators in Greek-dominated settings (such as Corinth and Colossae), whom the apostle had sarcastically dubbed “super-apostles,” were likely forerunners of this sect.  However, Jesus did not found a mystical sect of the inner light; he founded a visible church, where he has promised to deliver Christ and all of his benefits through the public ministry of Word and sacrament and to guard his sheep through loving discipline and care of body and soul.

Christ is not only our prophet and priest; he’s also our king.  As such, he has not only determined our personal piety but our corporate practices as his body.  Jesus did not redeem his sheep only to make them “self-feeders.”  The Spirit disrupts our lives and disorganizes the ordinary course of this present age, but only to re-organize and re-integrate a new society around the Son.

As I observed above, I’m as pragmatic as the next American.  However, this is not a benign character trait, especially if it keeps us from taking seriously Christ’s claims as king of his church.  American evangelicalism is deeply indebted to the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Finney.  The classic American pragmatist, Finney saw the doctrines of original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural character of the new birth as obstacles to genuine revival and society’s moral improvement.  His “new measures” (such as the “anxious bench,” a precursor to the altar call) supplemented and eventually supplanted the ordained means of grace. Revival was as normal as any other programmed event, dependent on the most effective means of persuasion that could be imagined by a clever evangelist.

Just as the Spirit’s inward call is often contrasted with outward means, evangelicalism celebrates the charismatic leader who needs no formal training or external ecclesiastical ordination to confirm a spontaneous, direct, an inner call to ministry.  Historians may debate whether the Protestant enthusiasm is more of a consequence than a cause of the distinctively American confidence in intuitive individualism over against external authorities and communal instruction, but the connection seems obvious.  In Head and Heart, Catholic historian Garry Wills observes,

The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers.  They were validated by the crowd’s response.  Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance.  The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made.  This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning.  This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished.  The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry.

Wills repeats Richard Hofstadter’s conclusion that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” Where American Transcendentalism was the version of Romanticism that attracted a wide following among Boston intellectuals, Finney’s legacy represents “an alternative Romanticism,” a popular version of self-reliance and inner experience, “taking up where Transcendentalism left off.”  Emerson had written, “The height, the deity of man is to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force”—no external God, with an external Word and sacraments or formal ministry.  And revivalism in its own way was popularizing this distinctly American religion on the frontier.

Writing against Charles Finney’s “new measures,” a contemporary Reformed pastor and theologian, John Williamson Nevin, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table.  In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.”  Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” He was certainly right and we can’t just staple the five points of Calvinism to an essentially Pelagian methodology.

-Mike Horton

From a Movement to a Church: Part 2

Monday, November 16th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the second part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Part one can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #2: “Getting saved” doesn’t mean “joining a church”

Although evangelicals are used to hearing this contrast between a personal relationship with Christ and joining a church, it has no basis in the New Testament and in fact runs counter to specific examples.  From the day of Pentecost itself, “What must I do to be saved?” is answered in the Book of Acts by the call to repent and believe the gospel and to be baptized.  “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).  Public profession of faith is essential (Romans 10:10).  We have no access to hearts and surely there are instances (like the thief on the cross) where baptism and formal church membership are impossible.  However, it is a public profession of faith, not merely a private testimony of a personal relationship with Christ, that is required.  Not all who are outwardly members of the visible church are inwardly united to Christ.  This has been true in Old and New Testaments, as Paul reminds us especially in chapters 2 and 9 of Romans.  The body of elders who examine such professions is no more competent to judge hearts than the rest of us, but a credible public profession means that we cannot exercise vigilante judgments about the state of fellow members.

The apostles addressed concrete churches in specific locales and not only their leadership but the whole fellowship of communicant members.  Paul addresses the Corinthian church as those “who are called to be saints,” and on the basis of their visible membership calls them to discipline their worship and their erring members.  Believers are called to submit themselves to the spiritual leadership of pastors and elders whom God has placed over them (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17).  This is not “Churchianity.”  It’s Christianity.

-Mike Horton

From a Movement to a Church

Monday, November 9th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[We're starting a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church."]

Introduction

In The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells observes that parachurch ministries are increasingly replacing the church itself.  The question is whether evangelicalism itself has become a threat to actual churches.  Many Christians today believe that going to a Christian concert, evangelistic event, or conference is equivalent to the corporate gathering of the covenant community each Lord’s Day.  As George Barna argues in The Revolutionaries (Tyndale, 2005), most Christians will soon (he hopes) receive their spiritual resources on-line and not even find it necessary to attend, much less join, a local church.  Stunned by the revelation that many of those most involved were the most dissatisfied with their spiritual growth, Willow Creek Community Church’s self-study, published as Reveal, concluded that believers outgrow the church.  Although the respondents actually said that they thought the weak diet was responsible for their poor spiritual health, the leadership concluded that they need to work harder to make people fend for themselves as “self-feeders” and be less dependent on the ministry of the church.

Across the board—from more traditional churches to megachurches and emerging churches, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the nature, marks, and mission of the church.  This brief article can’t address all of the issues that I treated in People and Place.  However, I’ll mention a few here.  Before I do, I should say at the outset that I don’t believe that any of the points below (which I regard as misunderstandings) are new.  They all have a long history in evangelicalism.

Misunderstanding #1: “All of life is sacred”

It was revolutionary for me to learn from Francis Schaeffer and others that God cares about the whole world and the whole person.  All of life, not just religion, falls under the judgment and grace of the God who is both Creator and Redeemer.  I learned that the Reformation recovered the New Testament emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.  It’s not just a minister preparing a sermon, but an artist at her canvas, who reflects God’s goodness and fulfills a God-given calling.  You don’t need to stamp John 3:16 on the painting to make it “Christian”; our worldly callings don’t need to be justified by their spiritual or evangelistic utility.  Nevertheless, as new creatures in Christ, we see everything with new eyes.  We don’t approach our work as a job, but as a calling, and we seek to think through the implications of Scripture for the whole range of our activities.  I wasn’t alone.  Many younger Christians were being freed from a narrow “pietism” that had created a “Christian ghetto,” with an alternative sub-culture (usually of inferior quality).

In all the excitement, however, we seem to have swung to the other extreme.  Part of the rationale for affirming this world and our secular callings is that God is the Lord of the common as well as the holy.  We don’t need to make things “sacred” in order to affirm them as noble, God-given, and God-glorifying.  In spite of their intentions, even atheists glorify God’s common grace when they produce honorable goods and services, write beautiful screen-plays, and develop cures for diseases that plague us all.

In the Garden before the fall, everything was holy.  Adam and Eve were given a sacred commission to extend God’s righteous reign through their daily work in cultivating the ground, driving out the serpent, and guarding and protecting the sanctuary.  After the fall, the couple was given the surprising Good News of a future redeemer, but their work was now to be done “east of Eden.”  The Garden was no longer holy.  At Mount Sinai, God delivered the precise terms of Israel’s constitution that would reunite the holy and the common: not only a moral law that repeated the dictates of the law written on the conscience in creation, but civil and ceremonial laws for every detail of daily life.  Then God brought Israel into his holy land.  Yet when Israel broke this covenant, God evicted the people, as he had Adam and Eve.  In their exile in Babylon, the children of Judah were to pray for the city of their captivity, to build houses and plant vineyards, and to participate in the common life of the Babylonians without compromising their faith and practice.  And they were called to “be fruitful and multiply” in exile, providing a covenant community for the eventual arrival of the Messiah. Even when the Jews did return to Palestine, they knew that they were still in exile, ruled over by Gentile oppressors.

Just as Moses received the laws for the holy nation at Mount Sinai, Jesus issues his own commands in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is not the era of driving the Gentiles out of a geo-political land by the sword, but of suffering patiently, praying for our enemies, and proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.  The kingdom of God is the announcement of the forgiveness of sins.  With Christ’s cross, Satan’s head is crushed and with Christ’s resurrection Satan’s kingdom is toppled.

By his Word and Spirit, Christ is even at this moment raiding Satan’s prisons, liberating them as captives in his train. But once again, this spiritual kingdom is distinct from the kingdoms of this age.  The former progresses through the forgiveness of sins through preaching and sacrament, while cultural activity is common.  Christians work side by side with non-Christians, loving and serving their neighbors with goods and services that promote the common welfare.  This work is not redemptive.  It is not ushering in that consummation of Christ’s reign that we will see when Christ himself returns to raise the dead in judgment and salvation, making all things new.

In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us that Jesus Christ, in his ascension, is pouring out on his church all of the gifts that he has won for his people, specifically mentioning the gifts of pastors and teachers who complete the body by building it up by the Word into its head, Jesus Christ.  The Great Commission that Jesus delivered to his church is not to go into all the world and make it safe for democracy, to redeem culture, or to discover cures for cancer.  Rather, Jesus commissions the church as an institution to preach, baptize, and teach.  Wherever instructions are given in the New Testament for the lives of believers in the world, they are pretty basic: living peaceably, working well with their hands, giving to those in need, and reflecting the fruit of the Spirit.  No less than the work of a non-Christian, a believer’s discovery of a medicinal cure is the result of the Spirit’s work in common grace.

“Secular” simply means “of this age.”  Jesus and Paul repeatedly spoke in terms of “this age” and “the age to come.”  The former refers to the present regime, under the dominion of sin and death, while the age to come is defined by the re-creation of this world with the glorified Christ as its firstfruits.

So we don’t work with only two categories: sacred and evil.  There’s a third one: common.  In this respect, the believer’s sphere of activity overlaps with that of his or her non-Christian neighbors.  They share common blessings and common woes.  Yet the holy nation that Christ is creating by his Word and Spirit is a remnant from all cultures, across all times and places.  It is holy, not common, because it is claimed by God as the cherished object of his saving grace.  Through his gospel, signified and sealed to us and to our children in baptism, the covenant community is that holy commonwealth that began with the announcement to our first parents after they had sinned.

Enjoying God’s creation is common.  In its commonness, it is a remarkable testimony to God’s goodness, power, and other invisible attributes, as Paul tells us in Romans 1 and 2.  However, hearing God’s gospel is holy and hearing and receiving it makes us holy, as Paul says in Romans 3 (and chapter 10).  A great concert may witness to God’s glory in human creativity, but God delivers his saving Word in the covenant assembly.  God is omnipresent and his creative power is evident through everything that he has made.  However, the question for sinners is where God has promised to be present in grace and mercy.

God still separates one holy day out of six common ones.  God still separates specific activities: preaching of the Word, public prayer, confession and declaration of pardon, administration of baptism and the Supper, singing the Word of Christ, and the fellowship of saints, from the common activities of work, friendships, and entertainment.  So all of life is indeed blessed and upheld by God’s common grace, but there remains a distinction between the common and the holy; common grace and saving grace; that which is honorable, God-glorifying, and helpful to our neighbors and that which is redemptive.

-Mike Horton

[next week, we'll take up the relationship between salvation and participation in the visible church]


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