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