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Popes, Populism, or Presbyteries? Evaluating the Multi-Site Church

With the rise of multi-site church planting even among the more discerning evangelical ministries, raising an objection at this point is a little like giving away Cinnabons at a health convention. A real party killer.

So I for one am really glad that Thabiti Anyabwile, a wise and godly pastor-and Council member of The Gospel Coalition-has expressed so clearly what many of us have been thinking for a while now. And hats off to The Gospel Coalition for providing a forum for this healthy conversation. (See Thabiti Anywabwile, “Multi-Site Churches are From the Devil”). It’s well worth the read, regardless of where you stand on the question.

Many are calling multi-site churches a revolution-not so surprising for a movement that prefers revolutions to reformations. As the authors of The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Zondervan, 2006) define it, “A multi-site church is one church meeting in multiple locations…A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board” (p. 18). Sounds hierarchical, no? In fact, the book’s subtitle is One Church in Many Locations. It would be ridiculous to compare radical Protestantism to the Roman Catholic Church. However, at this point, there is at least a theoretical agreement. According to the latter, there is one supreme pastor and thus, one church, headquartered in Rome, with branch offices, as it were, throughout the world. This polity is explicitly and dogmatically committed to a hierarchical ministry, with a charismatically-gifted head who is accountable only to the Spirit who endows him with at least the potential for infallible interpretations of God’s Word.

One of the many things I appreciate about Pastor Anyabwile is that he is actually a Baptist-a Calvinistic Baptist, to be sure, but a Baptist. He is convinced that Scripture teaches congregational church government (i.e., the independence of local churches) as well as a “gathered church” model of membership that doesn’t admit covenant children through baptism. Personally, I wish he were not a Baptist or a congregationalist, but you know where he stands-it’s not within a movement but within a concrete ecclesiastical tradition. He didn’t invent these ideas, but is persuaded that they’re biblical. Furthermore, despite the age-old debates of significance between us, he and I would agree more with each other than either of us probably would with those in our own traditions who wanted to “go multi-site.”

I’m not at all saying that defenders of the multi-site model do not appeal to Scripture. For example, Gregg Allison notes that “the house-churches in that city [like Corinth] would come together as the ‘church in Corinth’ to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.” ["Theological Defense of Multi-Site," IX Marks Ejournal (May-June 2009), 11.] Similarly, J.D. Greear points out that the church in Jerusalem was one church meeting in multiple locations. ["A Pastor Defends His Multi-Site Church," IX Marks Ejournal (May-June, 2009), 21.] In fact, I agree with these specific interpretations.

So I share Thabiti Anyabwile’s concerns about the multi-site model. I especially concur with his statement that you can’t have elders in a particular church without a pastor (and deacons). If you do, it’s basically (though imprecisely a “papal” model), where the local church’s main under-shepherd is not the local pastor (or teaching elder) but a minister who is known and loved by the congregation only as an exalted icon. He is not the servant of Christ who feeds you regularly with the Word and sacraments and leads you in corporate worship; who visits your home, catechizes your teenagers, and drops by the hospital to see how you’re coming along after surgery. If not papal, the multi-site ecclesiology is at least quasi-episcopal, with the cathedral (seat of the bishop) and its satellite churches (diocese). One way to know whether your church is following the New Testament pattern is to ask yourself the practical question: If I were struggling, could I call the pastor? Does he actually look after his local flock, beyond public appearances to preach and teach? That’s a good question to ask whether you’re in a multi-site situation with live video feeds or in a traditional church with a pastor who says, “I don’t do visitations.”

Yet I also agree with the model’s proponents that the apostolic church was organized as a constellation of local congregations in larger cities or regions. They were not planted by a single megachurch with a single pastor, but by the presbyters (pastors and elders). Once “particularized” (i.e., properly organized as local churches), these congregations had equal rank with every other church, as well as equal responsibilities and accountability. This covenantal connectionalism spread out in concentric circles from the local church (with its three offices) to the presbytery (representative ministers and elders from all the local churches) to broader synods and assemblies.

The main outlines of a presbyterian polity can be seen in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, where a local church dispute was taken to the broader assembly of the church. It is striking that several times the report refers to “the apostles and the elders” as the decision-making body. Commissioners (including Paul and Barnabus) were sent from the local church in Antioch to the wider assembly, convened at Jerusalem. In fact, it was James rather than Peter who said, for his part, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…” (v 19). Still, the final verdict awaited the assent of the full assembly. “Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabus,” to relate the written decision to that local church (vv 22-29). Clearly, “the whole church” wasn’t present exhaustively in terms of every believer, but it was present representatively (covenantally) through the pastors (in this case, the apostles) and elders who were sent from various churches.

At the Jerusalem Council, the unity that the Spirit had established at Pentecost was preserved visibly not by the sacrifice of the one to the many or the many to the one, but by the consent of the many as one. The covenant community functioned covenantally in its outward and interpersonal government, in mutual submission rather than hierarchical unity or independent plurality. Already in the following chapter we see the salutary practical effects of this Council in the mission to the Gentiles, when Timothy joined Paul and Silas. “As they went from city to city, they delivered to them for observance the decisions [dogmata] that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily” (Ac 16:4-5). Not merely godly advice that churches could either accept or reject, these emissaries were delivering decisions to be observed by the whole body. At the same time, they were not imposed hierarchically, but arrived at ecumenically by representatives of the broader church. The whole visible church was present federally (covenantally) at the Jerusalem Council.

Interestingly, even Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas and Pope Benedict XVI concur that presbyterian polity was the earliest. [1] Similar to the third-century Eastern father Cyprian, the Western father Jerome explained less than a century later, “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders,” and Jerome goes so far as to suggest that the introduction of bishops as a separate order above the elders and ministers was “more from custom than from the truth of an arrangement by the Lord.” [2] The significance of Peter in the apostolic college was never denied by the evangelical confessions, yet it was pointed out that Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to all of the apostles equally, and it pertained to the confession of Christ as the Son of God (Mt 16:19 with 18:18-20).

Christ gave the keys to the church, to be administered by lawfully called and ordained servants, for the express purpose of both preserving the corporate body and its individual members against the ravaging effects of false teaching and practice, as well as false accusations. Members and officers must have access to due process in church courts. The point of a presbyterian polity is to spread the ministerial authority of the church out to the many, at the local level and with recourse to broader assemblies, rather than to place it in the hands of one pastor or circle of power. The ordinary ministers do not receive their gift and commission directly from God alone, but through “the laying on of the hands of the eldership [presbuteriou]” (1 Tim 4:14).

If Reformed ecclesiology is designated “Church as Covenant,” it is not surprising that the form of its outward organization is connectional. This is to say that “the church” refers not only to particular (local) churches, nor to the clerical hierarchy, but to local congregations, broader assemblies (regional and ecumenical), and to the whole communion of professing believers and their children in all times and places. The unity of the Spirit that were are called to preserve is not merely that of the invisible church, but of the visible church. It’s not coalitions, alliances, and other parachurch associations that bind us together, but the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline spelled out in the New Testament. It’s churches, not movements, that are ordained by Christ to make disciples and exhibit this unity in the Word and Spirit.

The New Testament refers to the church as wider than a local congregation (Ac 9:31; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:4-16) and the churches addressed in the epistles (though in the singular) consisted of more than one local congregation (Ac 20:20; Rom 16:5; Philem 2). On one hand, I think it’s over-stretching to say that this connectional polity is essential to the very being of the church; on the other hand, we cannot say that we are planting and nurturing churches on the basis of our constitution if we don’t even wrestle with the clear principles spelled out in the New Testament itself.

A covenantal ecclesiology suggests a concrete praxis, which is neither hierarchical nor democratic. “Presbyterian” comes from the word presbyteros (elder), with the New Testament term for a broader assembly of elders as a presbyteriou (presbytery). So it’s always ironic to me when pioneers of evangelical revolutions appeal to Moses as the model (since, after all, he was Moses-and even he led together with the elders of Israel). Or when they act, at least implicitly, as if they were apostles instead of ordinary ministers who receive the apostolic Word. Or when ministries led by a super-preacher characterize presbyterian polity as “hierarchical.” Actually, presbyterian government is neither hierarchical nor democratic, but representative.

A covenantal conception of apostolicity-seems to me at least to imply a connectional yet non-hierarchical polity: something like a presbyterian polity. Elders are to be “worthy of double honor,” although for this reason, “Do not ordain anyone hastily…” (1 Tim 5:17, 22). Qualifications for ministers and elders are clearly laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, distinct from the office of deacon (vv 8-13). It is not because of his charisma, personality, communicative skills, or any other characteristics of his person, but in virtue of his office that Timothy is told by Paul, “Command and teach these things,” in spite of his youth. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:11, 13-14). So Paul can also remind Titus that he left him “behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you,” again listing the qualifications (Tit 1:5-9). Although there is a distinction in office, this in no way implies a distinction in standing or quality before God.

Even Peter can identify himself as an apostle in his salutation and yet immediately add, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours in the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). In his first letter, Peter says,

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it-not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Pet 5:1-4).

Because the majority of the elders are not ministers of Word and sacrament, the distinction between those who exercise spiritual oversight and those who are served is not the same as that between clergy and laity in the usual sense. Just as the Jerusalem Council consisted of “the apostles and the elders,” broader and local assemblies are composed of ministers (teaching elders) and ruling elders together. [3]

As is evident in Peter’s example, all ministers are elders but not all elders are ministers. Together, they are “overseers” (episkopois), which is often translated “bishops.” This is evident from Acts 20, where the Ephesian elders are called episkopous (v 28), as also in Philippians 1:1. In calling Titus to “appoint elders in every town,” Paul uses presbyterous and episkopous interchangeably (Tit 1:5-7). Significantly, it is Peter who says that Christ is “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25). Together with other elders, the apostles oversaw the flock under Christ as its only Chief Shepherd, but they gradually widened this pastoral ministry to the ordinary ministers who were trained and ordained for the specific office of preaching, prayer and teaching (Eph 4:7-16).

Whereas a hierarchical model directs the focus of unity and catholicity upward and inward from the lower rungs of the ecclesiastical ladder to a single earthly head or to a college of bishops, a presbyterian model directs the focus downward and outward from the Ascended Christ to the church and the ends of the earth. At the same time, individual believers and local churches are not left to themselves, nor merely open to other Christians and churches, but are gathered together as one flock under one shepherd, mutually encouraging and correcting each other, and bringing all of their resources to bear on evangelism, mission, and service. The church’s unity, catholicity, holiness, and apostolicity are expressed in the diversity of gifts bestowed on the church as an irreducible plurality, and yet within a connectional polity. Hence, Paul can move back and forth between the unity of the one body and its irreducible plurality. “For in fact the body is not one member but many” (1 Cor 12:14).

If this interpretation is correct, the New Testament knows nothing of multi-site congregations, but only of congregations in the fullest sense (led by pastors, elders, and deacons). These congregations are not independent, but they are also not hierarchically governed even by one pastor on-site, but by pastors and elders together. And each of these local churches is accountable not hierarchically to the pastor-bishop of another church, but mutually and covenantally to each other.

There are many other important issues that Thabiti Anyabwile and others raise with respect to technology. As analysis of media culture remind us, the technologies we use also use us and we dare not be naïve about how they change who we are, individually and corporately. According to marketing analyst Michael Sack, younger generations no longer trust video images, given their association with relentless marketing, sound-bites, and spin. They only trust news that is personally delivered, he says.

More basically, Martin Luther said “The church is not a pen-house, but a mouth-house,” because, as Paul reminds us in Romans 10, “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ.” Slick video feeds create excitement and interest, but the personal proclamation of the Word by ordained ambassadors is the means Christ has ordained for delivering himself and all of his benefits. “How shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they are sent?”, Paul asks. The Westminster Larger Catechism adds that the Spirit blesses especially the preaching of the Word because it is by this means that he “draws us out of ourselves” to cling to Christ-and to embrace each other. From the pulpit, the baptismal font, and the Lord’s Table-in every local church-Christ himself is present to give himself to sinners. It’s not about the ministers, but about the ministry. Christ is our Prophet, Priest, and King.


1 Interestingly, Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledges that presbyter and episcopoi are used interchangeably in the New Testament.. See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 122-123 Back

2 Second Helvetic Confession in The Book of Confessions (Louisville: PCUSA General Assembly, 1991), Chapter 18 (5.160-162) Back

3 Differing largely in nothing more than terminology, Presbyterian churches refer to the local session, a regional presbytery, and a national General Assembly while for Reformed churches these bodies are referred to as consistory, classis, and synod, respectively. Back

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Three New Books Just Released

Look what came in the mail today! The newly revised and updated edition of Putting Amazing Back Into Grace and For Calvinism (along with Roger Olson’s companion book, Against Calvinism). We’ll be making Putting Amazing Back Into Grace available in the White Horse Inn store later this week. You can get your first copy of For Calvinism (or Against Calvinism) on October 15th at Biola University in La Mirada, California, when Mike Horton and Roger Olson sit down for their first public conversation about the issues at stake.

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“Why Can’t I Own Canadians?” Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

On her radio show, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, an Orthodox Jew, said that homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, which was posted on the Internet. It creates a great opportunity to talk about how we interpret the Bible (especially the Old Testament). We need to have good answers—better than Dr. Laura would have—to the frequent criticism that if we’re going to follow Leviticus on one thing (like the vileness of homosexuality), we have to take the rest (such as stoning homosexuals and rebellious children—not to mention, the ban on pork, etc., and holy war in defense of a holy nation).

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination …. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

  • 1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
  • 2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
  • 3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Lev15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
  • 4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
  • 5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
  • 6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
  • 7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
  • 8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
  • 9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
  • 10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan
(It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian)

Although the responses aren’t usually this clever, the “Do you really want to go to Leviticus?” argument packs a punch in contemporary debates. Often, the critic assumes that every biblical command is a timeless and universal law. They really can’t bear the blame by themselves for this misunderstanding, since it’s common to a lot of Christian preaching through the ages. Medieval popes invoked these “holy war” passages for the crusades and appealed to Leviticus for prohibiting the charging of interest on loans to Christians.

In fact, John Calvin took aim at medieval canon law on just these very points, explaining that while the moral law is indeed universally binding for all time and places, the civil and ceremonial laws attached to it in the Old Testament covenant code were given uniquely to the only nation that has ever been chosen and separated as holy to the Lord. Anticipated by John the Baptist’s fiery announcement of a judgment in God’s house, Jesus pronounced his covenant curses on the religious leaders and in word and deed replaced the Temple. The only holy land after Jesus’ resurrection is his body, those who are united to him through faith, “from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9). Already in Hebrews 8:13, the old covenant could be called “obsolete.”

The commands in the old covenant law (viz., Leviticus and Deuteronomy) are specific to that remarkable geo-political theocracy that foreshadowed the universal kingdom of Christ. The deliverance of Israel in the exodus anticipates a far greater exodus through the waters of death and hell in Christ. The holy wars pale in comparison with the judgment of the nations that Christ will execute at the end of the age. Even if Israel had been faithful to this covenant, Canaan would have only been a type or small-scale model of the extensiveness and intensiveness of God’s reign at the end of the age. Moses could not give God’s people rest in the land of everlasting Sabbath. As the prophets proclaim, this would only come when one greater than Moses would rescue his people and lead them victoriously into the perfect peace, love, and joy that he would win for his co-heirs.

Sure, we learn from Leviticus 18:22 that God considers homosexuality an abomination. Yet our critics (at least the clever ones) will point out that the same code threatens excommunication for eating any meat with blood in it (Lev 17:10) and eating animals that chew the cud or part the hoof (like pigs) is strictly forbidden as “unclean” (Lev 11). The responder above points to many other examples.

Few of these commands can be explained in terms of general wisdom for hygiene, sanitation, and gastronomic health. They focus attention on God’s act of separating Israel (“clean”) from the unclean nations. Each set of prohibitions is a facet in the diamond of an old covenant system that sparkled with anticipation of the coming Messiah. It takes a good knowledge of the covenantal context and import of these commands for Israel to recognize their unique significance in this history of redemption. It also requires that we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, allowing the fulfillment to guide our understanding of the typological promise.

A good place to start in digging deeper is M. G. Kline’s Kingdom Prologue, especially where he talks about “Intrusion Ethics”: that is, the suspension of ordinary providence in favor of miracle, ordinary wisdom in favor of God’s direct word through the prophets, just war among common nations in favor of holy war on behalf of God’s holy land and nation. Homosexuality is still a violation of God’s moral law for all times and places, but the sanction for it under the old covenant (death by stoning) was theocracy-specific.

Living in an era that foreshadowed the last judgment, the Psalmist properly offered imprecatory prayers calling for God’s judgment on the ungodly. Nevertheless, in Jesus’ ministry this identification of heaven with a geo-political nation was declared no longer in effect. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes some of these passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “You have heard it said, ‘…..’ But I say,….” These old covenant commands were not wrong; they had their place in the theocratic government that God exercised directly over his people. However, Jesus rebukes James and John when they seek to call fire down on the Samaritan village that rejected the gospel. I offer a summary of this argument in The Christian Faith (chapter 29).

In the moral law that runs not only through the whole Bible but throughout the codes of so many civilizations across the ages, God reveals his righteous character. In the specific legislation that God attaches to this moral law for Israel alone, however, God’s moral will is in service to his saving will in Jesus Christ. These Israel-specific laws are not intended to regulate the constitutions of common nations, but ultimately to play their part in a theocratic system that leads us ultimately to Christ and his everlasting kingdom. So you can’t invoke the old covenant passages for common nations in this era in which Christ’s kingdom is not identified with any geo-political nation. It’s an era of forgiveness, a stay of execution before the dreadful day of judgment. In this in-between time, the kingdom of Christ (regardless of what the secular kingdoms of this age determine) announces God’s righteous judgment and gracious salvation. It calls all people everywhere—gay, straight, gossips, and the pious grandmother who trusts in her own righteousness—to repent and embrace God’s only Son.

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Mike Horton Invites You to Our Conference at Sea

We’re so excited to host our very first Conversation for a Modern Reformation! Already people from five countries and twenty-two states have registered to join Mike, Rod, Ken, and Kim at our Conference at Sea. The cruise will be a working vacation, an opportunity for you to sit down with other Reformation-minded people from around the world and spend some dedicated time thinking about the future of the church.

Here’s the schedule of events:

January 28th: White Horse Inn Presents: For and Against Calvinism–A Conversation Between Mike Horton and Roger Olson. Mike Horton (a convinced Calvinist) and Roger Olson (a convinced Arminian) will sit down to discuss their differences in this public conversation. Hear them talk about their new books (For Calvinism and Against Calvinism, published by Zondervan); observe their conversation about the issues at stake; and pose your own questions to these two seasoned theologians. This event will require registration, is open to the public, and will be at the hotel our cruise participants will be staying at in Miami. We’ll have more details (exact place and time) in the next few weeks.

January 29th: morning worship at Glendale Missionary Baptist Church and a special live taping of the White Horse Inn. Mike Horton will be preaching at Ken’s church in Miami. Then, all the hosts will participate in a special live taping of the White Horse Inn on Sunday night back at the hotel. This event is free and open to the public. Pull up a stool and join us at the Inn!

January 30th thru February 4th: the conversation begins!  We’ll start things off with a welcome reception and introduction the night of the 30th. We’ll get right to work the next day crafting 95 new theses for a modern Reformation. We’ll intersperse our group work with White Horse Inn tapings and special lectures from each host. In the coming weeks, we’ll post audio excerpts of each of the hosts describing their presentation. There will also be plenty of time to grab a meal or a pint with one of the hosts and the new friends that will join you on board.

February 4th thru…: it’s your turn! After we return to Miami, the real work of reformation begins as we return to our homes, our churches, our friends and family. How will we put the insights that we’ve wrestled with to work in our own circles of influence?

We’re eager to keep up with you, both before and after the cruise: how are you preparing for the important conversations we’ll be having? How are you implementing what you’ve learned? Join our Conversations for a Modern Reformation facebook page and share your insights with folks who will be on the cruise or will be participating in other events all leading up to the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church.

Be sure to listen to Mike Horton’s recent interview about the cruise that was broadcast on the White Horse Inn on September 4th. You’ll hear what motivated us to start this conversation, how the different elements of discussion, teaching, and conversation will be woven together, and why we think it’s important to spend time together wrestling through these important issues.

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We hope to see you in Miami at all of the different conversations we’ll be hosting. You can register for the cruise here. Other events will be updated in the coming weeks.

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Have Denominations Had Their Day?

We hear increasingly that we’re entering a post-denominational world.

Recently LifeWay researcher Ed Stetzer wrote an interesting post on the value of denominations. Known for his theologically-informed insight as well as research analysis, Stetzer offers some interesting statistics and evaluation on this question. (See Do Denominations Matter? by Ed Stetzer)

From my perspective, though, an important emphasis is missing from Stetzer’s argument. He affirms denominations primarily as a way of pooling our resources for a common vision. Denominations gather people who have similar convictions to work together toward common goals. True enough. However, what then distinguishes denominations from for-profit corporations, for example?

Scripture’s focus is on what God is doing rather than on what we are doing. The Triune God is saving sinners through preaching and sacrament. There is “one holy catholic and apostolic church” not because individual believers realized that they could more effectively reach the world and accomplish their goals in tandem. Rather, this church exists because of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel. We are recipients of a kingdom; the Father is the builder, by his Son and Spirit, through the Word.

Therefore, there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it. Same thing with the holiness of the church: holy in Christ, it is nevertheless “simultaneously justified and sinful.”

Even the apostolic church was rife with sectarianism, strife, and false teaching. Eventually, the equality of pastors gave way to bishops and the bishop of Rome raised himself above all other bishops. The church of Rome unilaterally amended the Nicene Creed and excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople for not bowing the knee to his office. Then Rome excommunicated the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and divisions among the Reformers themselves appeared. Today, Protestantism is an incubator of new denominations and sects, while deep divisions within Rome are overcome merely by the single dogma of obedience to the pope.

There’s no going back to a pristine era in which the apostles, ministers, and elders of the first century led a reasonably united church. However, I would argue that denominations matter because Christ said he would build his church, not just churches. One local congregation cannot be the whole church, although it is an expression of the whole church insofar as it shares in the true ministry of the whole church. I understand the New Testament to teach a covenantal order of church government, where local churches are connected to each other in narrower and wider assemblies. This, I believe, is the Lord’s express will for his visible church.

In a fallen world—and church—denominations come and go. They cannot presume to be “the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” but they can at least be fragile expressions of that covenantal koinonia that Christ wills between people in local congregations and between local congregations.

Whatever we think about denominations, the crucial question is not pragmatic: What do they help us do. Rather, it is theological: What is God doing in the world through them? And how can denominations, for all of their faults, express more fully the unity and catholicity of Christ’s body than independent churches? Once that question is addressed, the pooling of resources becomes a natural by-product rather than the reason itself.


May.June 2003 MR

The May/June 2003 issue of Modern Reformation contains helpful resources concerning denominations.

In the Church: Finding Common Ground Across Denominations
By Ann Henderson Hart

Historical Chart of Denominations
(30kB PDF)

From the Sept/Oct 2005 issue, W. Robert Godfrey has
A Reformed Dream

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Mike on Issues, Etc. Discussing Barna

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Mike was on Issues, Etc. on September 15 to discuss the research revealed by religious pollster and interpreter George Barna.

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Salvation Technology

Participating recently in a gathering of Anglican bishops in Africa, a friend related the astonishing scene of episcopal celebrants texting each other during the sermon and the celebration of the Supper. Some churches in North America encourage texting in church, as a way of making the service more “interactive.” The assumption, of course, is that technology is benign—neither good nor evil. Since texting in services is neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, it’s a matter of Christian liberty. However, increasingly, Christian liberty has come to mean a neutral sphere where there are no better or worse answers. Like legalism, antinomianism only knows two settings: “Don’t” or “Do”; “Wrong” or “Right.” The missing middle term is “wisdom.” It may not be wrong to text during church, but is it wise? Is there any difference between texting on the train ride to work versus texting in church? What is the long-term implication of such an act when the church service is specifically designed by the Triune God to make us recipients? If “faith comes by hearing…the word of Christ,” then are we quenching the Spirit’s work through the means of grace by never being able to be quiet, sit, and receive God’s judgment and justification? Is there no place for receiving? Must we always be active: mastering, critiquing, commenting, pontificating?

Ironically, those who decry “worldliness” are often the most likely to embrace unreflectively aspects of modern (and postmodern) culture whose costs on truth, goodness, and beauty are remarkably high. Christian wisdom provokes us neither to reject any good gift of God’s providence and common grace nor to turn these gifts into idols. Avoiding these perilous extremes is always the tough business of discipleship. One glaring example today is technology.

Technology hasn’t just given us a staggering array of tools to use; the tools have shaped us, as all tools do. History is even divided by technological turning points: for example, the three successive stages of stone, bronze, and iron. New tools changed the way we inhabit the world, organize our societies, and imagine our identity, purpose, and the meaning of history. We don’t just make tools; the tools also make us. This is as true of the nomadic and agricultural eras as it is of the industrial revolution and the information economy. Our tools shape the way we think, live, work, relate, and even envision our identity.

Especially since the industrial revolution, the impression is that our chief end is to manage life in such a way as to maximize happiness and minimize pain. We imagine that we’re still in charge of our tools, but we can’t deny that we are managed (often tyrannically) by the very technology that we trust will make our lives freer, easier, and more productive. Especially in our era, technology becomes more than a means to a more ultimate end; it becomes the end. Which means that even loved ones—indeed, even God—easily becomes a tool for us to use in our effort to master unpredictable and often chaotic nature.

In his 1964 classic, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse observed that “…science and technology rendered possible the translation of values into technical tasks…From the quantification of secondary qualities, science would proceed to the quantification of values…” In other words, questions like, “Is this true, good, and beautiful?” were banished to the realm of private, subjective opinions. Public truth—the really important questions—were technical: “How to…” Efficiency became not only a criterion of industry and home and in the workplace, but pushed out ultimate questions of truth, goodness, or beauty from our social lives. In religion today, the question of whether a particular teaching is true, but whether it works—as William James put it, “its cash-value in experiential terms.”

It’s not just that our ability to measure, quantify, and manipulate things in time and space grew exponentially, but that we began to think that this was the only way of thinking and that things that could be known (i.e., used) in this way were alone worthy of our time and energy. Marcuse quotes Gilbert Simondon: “Through a raising and enlarging of the technical sphere, [society] must treat as technical problems, questions of finality considered wrongly as ethical and sometimes religious. The incompleteness of technics makes a fetish of problems of finality and enslaves man to ends which he thinks of as absolutes.” Values are translated into needs, leading to a “pacified existence,” a “technological Eros.”

There is a kind of secularized Gnosticism underneath all of this. In a biblical worldview, the Triune Creator alone is Lord and Master of nature—and we human beings belong to nature and stewards of it. In the modern worldview, we are masters, manipulating nature to bend to our calculative reason and unrestricted will. It’s a war between rational humans and the natural world—which means also an inner war between our reason and our bodies. We can’t just be who we are (by nature), but must constantly choose new identities, new lifestyles, new visions of a fulfilling life. Eventually, history (guided by rational technology) will overcome nature. “What is only natural is overcome and recreated by the power of Reason” in an otherwise “helpless and heartless universe,” explains Marcuse. This industrialized logic “also spreads a repressive productivity and ‘false needs.’” Here again, we think we’re in charge. We’re just using tools to fulfill needs that reason identifies, when in actual fact the matrix of the technology we inhabit creates “felt needs” that it alone can meet. Marcuse is worth quoting at length on this point: “It is repressive precisely to the degree to which it promotes the satisfaction of needs which require continuing the rat race of catching up with one’s peers and with planned obsolescence, enjoying freedom from using the brain, working with and for the means of destruction.”

What complicates things, Marcuse notes, is that this sort of productivity generates obvious comforts, efficiency, and wealth. But at what cost? Under these conditions, modernity is willing even to grant freedoms to strenghten the repression. “The degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace wherever there still is peace and silence, to be ugly and to uglify things, to ooze familiarity, to offend against good form is frightening. It is frightening because it expresses the lawful and even organized effort to reject the Other in his own right….In the overdeveloped countries, an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a totalitarian regime but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights and smells.”

We now live in an era described by Francis Fukayama as “the global cliché culture”—presaged by Marx’s line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with serenity their real living conditions and their relationship with their peers.” This points up the fact that Marx and his heirs weren’t the real innovators. Like Nietzsche, they were building their own vision of an atheistic utopia on the rubble of a decadent Christendom.

In our time, even salvation has been cast—for quite a while, actually—in terms of spiritual technology. It’s obvious in the average Christian bookstore, with the best-selling titles devoted to the “How To” genre. However, it’s not just how to be a better parent or partner, or godly diet plans and seven steps to having your best life now. Even salvation—the most sacred concern—is profaned. It’s no longer a question of how we relate to the Triune God, but how we can be born again, go to heaven, and manage our personal growth. Even to affirm the new birth, heaven, and sanctification in this scheme is a hollow victory, since the map is no longer really soteriological (about salvation) but technical (about how to manage our lives).

Way back at the turn of the twentieth century, Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield’s Perfectionism explored the prominence of mechanical and technological metaphors in the mystical writings of radical pietism, Methodism, and especially the Higher (Victorious) Life movement. Consistent with synergistic assumptions (i.e., divine-human cooperation), the emphasis is on finding the right steps, tools, techniques for climbing the ladder of grace. The “Higher Life” teachers speak of engaging the Holy Spirit, says Warfield, much as one might engage an electrician. We “plug into” the Holy Spirit, “connect,” “link up,” and so forth. More like a power plant than a person, “the Spirit” becomes something else that we can use (or not use) to gain mastery. There is one set of conditions for “getting saved” and another set of conditions for upgrading from coach to first class (baptism in the Spirit, the victorious life, etc.)

So it’s not surprising that evangelical leaders like George Barna now encourage Christians to find their “spiritual resources” on-line rather than in local churches. Once we swallow the idea that we can ascend the hill of the Lord through our technological efforts, it hardly seems necessary to gather bodily with other sinners, confessing our sins and our common faith, interceding for Martha’s cancer or Bill’s lay-off, giving tangible offerings symbolic of our whole life belonging to the Lord in body as well as in soul. And if water baptism has nothing to do with real (spiritual) baptism, and if the Supper is merely about our active remembering rather than our receiving Christ’s gift of himself—his own body and blood, then we can do all of that spiritual legwork on the net. We can go around all of the troublesome physical stuff. We can go around Christ’s personal body as well as the bodies of the ecclesial body of Christ to “connect” directly with Christ one-on-one, or perhaps in that quintessential oxymoron: virtual communities.

Again, what we need is neither legalism (forbidding technology) nor license (embracing technology), but of thinking wisely as Christians—in the light of the whole biblical teaching relevant to these questions. However, when salvation itself is reduced to spiritual technology, the old words no longer mean the same thing. If we begin to understand salvation as God’s descent to us, through ordinary earthly means—the incarnate flesh of Christ, the creaturely means of grace, and the real community that shapes our discipleship over a lifetime, then we will at least have the most crucial coordinates for wise decision-making about our use of technology. More than that, we will understand the gospel not as good advice, steps, techniques, or procedures for life-management but as the good news that in Christ “salvation is of the LORD” (Jon 2:9).


The July / August 2010 issue of Modern Reformation touched on some of these issues as well. Check out these two articles:

Face-to-Face Discipleship in a Facebook World
By John Bombaro

Coming of Age in the Facebook Age
By Alex Chediak


The January / February issue of Modern Reformation was titled “Grace Over Race.” Included in that issue were articles dealing with God’s grace and its trumping every human-built barrior. Enjoy these articles as well:

Grace, Race, and Catholicity
By Mike Horton

Corporate Christian Mergers
By Thabiti Anyabwile

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David Brooks Interacts with Christian Smith’s Findings

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks interacts with Christian Smith’s latest book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. According to Brooks, most of the young people interviewed by Smith and his colleagues “could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunk driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. ‘I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,’ is how one interviewee put it.’” Christian Smith has been a frequent WHI guest over the years to discuss his work for the National Study of Youth and Religion.  According to Smith, most of what passes for Christianity today, regardless of the denomination, is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  You can read Brooks’ NYT piece here.

Program Note:  Michael Horton recently interviewed Christian Smith about Lost in Transition, along with another book of his which unpacks his reasons for leaving Evangelicalism in favor of Roman Catholicism. That interview will air later next month. In the meantime, however, you can listen to the following conversation between Horton and Smith recorded last year on the campus of Notre Dame:  WHI-1029 

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Prayer at Ground Zero

This coming weekend the US will pause to remember those whose lives were lost so tragically in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Adding fuel to the growing fires of public debate over the role of religion in public life, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his decision not to include prayers for the official event.

Theory is tested in specific cases, and this is one more opportunity to wrestle with a larger question. It’s one thing when a political leader has to choose a clerical representative out of an array of Christian denominations. Today, however, representing the religious diversity of the Republic in public ceremonies is more complicated.

On one hand, this is a constitutional issue. Especially given the history of civil religion in America, it’s implausible to imagine that the nation’s founders ever intended anything like the separation of religion and public life that the mantra “separation of church and state” has come to embody. On the other hand, it is a theological issue. In other words, even if Mayor Bloomberg has no constitutional reason to avoid the liturgical interjections in public commemorations that were included by his predecessor, the debate returns us to a recurring question of decisive importance to Christians. It’s not a question of whether prayer at public occasions of this kind is sanctioned by our Constitution, but, for Christians at least, whether we can participate (much less encourage) such acts of “non-sectarian” worship.

In a recent USA Today opinion piece, Jay Sekulow, a Christian activist and chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, reproved Mayor Bloomberg for his decision (see the piece here). Recounting the history of national days of prayer, including the inter-religious “Prayer for America” event at Yankee Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11, Mr. Sekulow’s call betrays assumptions about prayer that, in my view, can only trivialize this sacred act in the long run.

Nowhere in Mr. Sekulow’s article is prayer defined in its vertical relation, as an act of worship directed to a particular deity-much less, through a particular mediator. Rather, the therapeutic idiom takes over. At least in the public argument, the idea is that prayer’s value lies in its subjective effect. The references are to “the many Americans who find solace and healing in prayer,” helping victims and their families “cope with the lost of loved ones.”

Beyond individual solace, such civil demonstrations of piety serve a therapeutic function for the nation as a whole, echoing the romantic nineteenth-century idea of a “national soul.” “In the days following 9/11, prayer was an integral part of the grieving process. Thousands attended the ‘Prayer for America’ event at Yankee Stadium, where representatives of many faiths offered prayers. It was an event that united, not divided, Americans.”

As the matter was put by another critic of the mayor’s decision, “Prayer is not always about religion, it is instead often about relief and repose.”

But all of this presses the question: Is the purpose of prayer mainly therapeutic: personal and national catharsis? Is it basically horizontal-human-centered (whether in individual or national images)? Or is it a solemn act of “calling on the name of the LORD” (i.e., Yahweh, the Father of Jesus Christ)? Does such an act have a personal object? Is that personal object the God who is revealed in Scripture as the Holy Trinity? Is the prayer directed to the Father, through the mediation of the incarnate Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit by whom we confess “Jesus as Lord”?

Imagine Elijah calling for a revival by trying to negotiate a public prayer or perhaps series of public prayers led by the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Yahweh. Israel, after all, has always been a religious nation. Isn’t it more important for the nation to acknowledge its piety than to become too obsessed with the theological specifics? The nation was divided, after all, and the point is to bring the people together through prayer, to bring them consolation in the face of national disaster. Of course, this isn’t how the story plays out at Mount Carmel, as the God of Israel proved that he alone is God and Baal is a helpless idol.

We don’t live under the old covenant, driving the prophets of Baal through with the sword. Rather, we have the privilege of religious freedom for true and false worship in this country. Nevertheless, we do not expect the state to create opportunities for the advance of Christ’s kingdom through his means of grace.

It is in churches where we confess our sins and our faith in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel. Here, we gather as a communion of saints gathered “from every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Rev 5:9), not as a modern nation-state. We call upon the name of the LORD, which is none other than Jesus Christ, not merely for therapeutic consolation in our troubles (though this aspect is included), but for salvation from the guilt and tyranny of sin and the death penalty that it imposes. Here, with our brothers and sisters and before the face of the Triune God, our prayers acknowledge God’s justice in our condemnation and joy in God’s grace to us in his Son. With Christ as our Mediator, we are free to enter the Father’s presence with boldness, interceding for ourselves and for others, for needs pertaining to body and soul.

Prayer is also an act of witness. What are we testifying to when we seek state acts of generic devotion to the Unknown God? To what-or whom-are we witnessing when we give the impression that people can find consolation from any “God” apart from the Father who is known only in his Son and is otherwise a judge who will not let sinners go unpunished? True prayer arises as a Spirit-given response to the Word that proclaims God’s righteous judgment and gracious forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Doubtless, such an approach will offend on all sides. Secularists will level the charge of bigotry at those who deny everlasting consolation to victims of horrific tragedies apart from Christ. Those who seek to hold on to the last vestiges of civil religion will scold fellow Christians who insist on the scandalous particularity of the gospel-in effect, surrendering the public square to secularists.

However, Christianity at its best is always an odd sect in a world of idolatry and superstition. The power lies not in its ability to negotiate general piety for a national soul, but in its most particular and offensive message: the gospel of Christ. We don’t evacuate the public square that we share with our neighbors-even the “prophets of Baal.” Rather, we testify there that Christ alone is Lord, that he alone has conquered death and hell, that our greatest terror and consolation have to do with headlines much more serious and all-encompassing than the genuine tragedy of 9/11. We don’t need Mayor Bloomberg to help us with that. In fact, in the very act of doing so, we have to surrender the most important things we are called to say.

It is precisely because God is more important than we are, sin is much greater than something that others do to us, redemption is far greater than therapeutic consolation, and love for our neighbors encourages us to proclaim the everlasting consolation of the gospel, that we dare not trivialize that dangerous, wonderful and absolutely effective act of calling on the name of the Lord in life and in death.


For further reading from our friends:

Carl Trueman reminds the SBC why they should be pleased they aren’t invited to the “National Cathedral” on 9/11:
A Lesson from Marx for the SBC

Bill Cwirla reflects on religion and 9/11:
No Clergy at Ground Zero

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Where in the world (wide web) is Mike Horton?

We’ve recently fielded several inquiries from folks wondering if Mike Horton is on Twitter or Facebook. He is not. A few people who have appreciated his work have set up various accounts or fan pages and we’ve encouraged them to clearly identify that they are not the “official” or personal Mike Horton outlets on Twitter or Facebook.

At this time, the only official Twitter outlets are through the @ModRef and @WhiteHorseInn accounts. We also have Facebook pages for both Modern Reformation and White Horse Inn. Mike also regularly writes for our blog, and sometimes even comments!

Mike doesn’t handle much personal correspondence: he’s got at least two or three books in the hopper, plus his White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation duties, plus his seminary teaching responsibilities, plus his pastoral responsibilities, plus his family obligations. White Horse Inn is set up to handle as many of your questions as we can; we’ll often direct you to previous broadcasts or issues to help think through the question you have. We also regularly point you back to your local church and pastor.

Our contact numbers are:
Office: 760.739.9001 (open M-W, 8:00 am to 4:30 pm/pacific time)
Email: info@whitehorseinn.org
Mail: 1725 Bear Valley Pkwy., Escondido CA 92027

We regularly pass along reader and listener letters and emails to Mike and the rest of the hosts on the White Horse Inn. They’ve been broadcasting for twenty years and it encourages them to know that people are listening and being changed by their work.

We also may be coming to a city near you sometime soon (how’s that for over-qualification). Be sure to keep an eye on our calendar page to see where Mike and the other hosts will be speaking. If you haven’t yet registered, our January 2012 conference at sea will be a great opportunity to get up close and personal with each of the guys. You’ll also be able to meet folks from around the world who are being encouraged by the same broadcasts and magazine articles that you are listening to and reading.

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