Recent Reading Recs – 2017/08/09

I’ve started posting a weekly collection of blog posts, articles, podcasts, and books that I have found interesting, helpful, challenging, important, or funny. I don’t endorse everything I post, but I only post content I think is worth taking the time to consider. We all have to make choices about what content we “consume” each week, so I hope I can point you in directions that are worth your time.

Blog Posts & Online Journals

Online Newspapers & Magazines

  • WSJ, “Could Football Ever End?” – Jason Gay reports on a new study leading many to quit the sport, and he suggests that if football were ever to end, it will be from an internal collapse of the sport as parents and players move to other sports.
  • The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” – Psychology Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University suggests that the Millennial generation she calls “iGen” faces a mental health crisis due, in large part, to smart phones.
  • The Christian Science Monitor, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” – Michael Spencer’s 2009 article has proven prescient, predicting that Evangelicalism’s identification with right wing politics, its failure to pass on the orthodox faith, and its rampant consumerism will dramatically alter the religious landscape of our nation.
  • NYT, “Google’s War Over the Sexes” – Ross Douthat weighs in on the controversy at Google over James Damore’s manifesto that got him fired.

Podcast Episodes


Newbigin and the Cruciform Church

Over the last month, I have been slowly reading through Lesslie Newbigin’s famous book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. It’s a treasure, and I regret not having read this book earlier in my education and ministry.

For years now, I have been reflecting on and wrestling with the nature and mission of the church. I have been thrilled to see the emergence of a gospel-centered movement, a recapturing of the gospel for the whole of the Christian life and not just for conversion. However, as the movement has grown, I have been disappointed that this has not produced cruciform churches. In other words, gospel-centered preaching has not, in large part, changed the form or shape of ministry in the American Church. Churches that identify with the gospel-centered movement still tend to be triumphalistic churches of “glory” rather than churches in the shadow of the cross.

I thought this passage from Newbigin (chapter 9, point 7) rightly explains what the character of the church’s ministry should look like:

I have said that it is clear from the New Testament that early the Church saw itself as living in the time between the times, the time when Jesus, having exposed and disarmed the powers of darkness (Col. 2:15), is seated at the right hand of God until the time when his reign shall be unveiled in all its glory among all the nations. The character of this time is given to it by the character of the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is marked by suffering, and by the presence of signs of the kingdom. That is why the Fourth Gospel, in its portrayal of the missionary commission, says that when Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he showed them his hands and his side—the scars of his passion—and he breathed into them the Spirit who is the foretaste of the kingdom (John 20:19-23). The Church in its journey through history will therefore have this double character insofar as it is faithful to its commission. On the one hand it will be a suffering church, because the powers of darkness, though disarmed and robbed of final authority, are still powerful. As Jesus in his earthly ministry unmasked the powers and so drew their hostility on himself, so the Spirit working through the life and witness of the missionary Church will overturn the world’s most fundamental beliefs, proving the world wrong in respect of sin, of righteousness, of judgment (John 16:8). Consequently the world will hate the Church as it hated its Lord. But, on the other hand, just as the ministry of Jesus was marked by mighty works, which for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, were signs of the presence of the kingdom of God in power, so in the life of the Church there will be mighty works which have the same function. They are not—so to say—steps on the way to the kingdom, but unveilings of, glimpses of that kingdom which is already a reality, but a reality known only to those who have been converted, have been turned from false gods to the living God. These negative and positive elements in the life of the Church will be related to each other in the ministry of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:10). The cross was a public execution visible to all—believers and unbelievers alike. The resurrection was as much a fact of history as the crucifixion, but it was made known only to the chosen few who were called to be the witnesses of the hidden kingdom.

When the church fails to unmask the powers of the age overturning its most fundamental beliefs (i.e. consumerism, nationalism, etc.) and chooses instead to utilize the powers of the age in order to attract crowds of congregants, it fails to live into its own identity and actually acts in cooperation with the same powers that crucified the Lord whom the Church claims to serve and proclaim! Furthermore, when a church’s “mighty works” serve to point to the glory and importance of itself, or when the “mighty works” are thought to be steps toward transforming the world into the kingdom, she participates in the worship of false gods and shows herself not to have turned to the living God at all.

I long for a gospel-centered movement that produces gospel-shaped (cruciform) churches.

Moore Election Problems

Yesterday, the President of the Ethics and Religious Leadership Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Russell Moore, wrote a blog post in which he offered an apology of sorts for criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump:

But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.

While Moore maintained that his criticism of Trump was and is valid and right (and I agree with his criticisms), he never intended to criticize those who planned on voting for him.

This post—written as an olive branch to evangelicals and Southern Baptists who voted for Trump—gives advice on how the Christian family can get along after the heated disagreement over the past election. He clearly wrote this in response to the growing backlash against his leadership. Those who supported Trump (i.e. Jerry Fallwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress) have threatened to eliminate their giving to the Cooperative Program (the fund that effectively makes a church belong to the SBC) because they do not believe Moore represents the views of Southern Baptists. Statistics on who Southern Baptists voted for seem to suggest they are correct.

As a response to the criticism, Moore received an outpouring of support on Twitter under the hash tag #IStandWithMoore.

Since I am not a Southern Baptist and I didn’t vote for Trump (I am concerned about him and his policies), I don’t have a dog in this fight. Moore doesn’t represent me, though I do often agree with him on many things and generally appreciate his voice in the public square. Because Moore is a prominent Christian voice in the public square and because the response to Moore on both sides has clouded the real issues involved, I want to make four brief observations that I think are being overlooked.

First, Moore’s post yesterday suggests he believes voting for Donald Trump was allowable for Christians if a person’s conscience bound them to that decision while holding their nose because no other good option existed. In other words, voting for Donald Trump was morally allowable for Christians. Whether you agree or disagree, Moore seems to be changing his position. In a New York Times Op-Ed where he opposed Trump, he famously pondered “whether evangelicals will be on the right side of Jesus.” And earlier in the campaign, Moore said that evangelicals shouldn’t support Trump for president, and “to back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe,” [Update: See also this and this]. What Moore said in the past and what he is saying now seems contradictory.

Second, Moore didn’t really apologize. [UPDATE 3/20/2017: Moore has now given an actual apology here.] It’s a classic “non-apology.” He said “if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.” The blame is on those who heard him say something he now says he was not ever saying. In other words, his arguments during the campaign were always at Donald Trump and not toward his Christian supporters. His “apology” didn’t acknowledge this sort of misunderstanding to be his fault. He didn’t say, “I am sorry that I wasn’t clear. That miscommunication was on me.”

Third, while Moore has received an outpouring of support on Twitter and in the press today, one cannot help but notice his supporters come primarily and overwhelming from those outside the SBC (See Jonathan Merritt’s article today, for instance). Those within the SBC that support him are relatively small compared to the denomination as a whole. For the last 5-8 years, Southern Baptists have been wrestling with an increasing theological divide between the younger and older generations. While both sides insist they can work together and remain united despite their theological differences, Moore’s polarizing leadership of the ERLC and the backlash could be the first step toward an unraveling of that union as the old guard seeks to replace denominational leaders and seminary presidents with those who align with the views of the vast majority of Southern Baptists. While most seem to lament this possible division and insist they oppose it, I see no reason why this would necessarily be a bad thing. If done with humility and peace, the two groups could break into different associations that partner in some Great Commission ventures and not others. This would allow churches aligning with the old guard and new guard, respectively, to plant churches and fund missionaries more aligned with their convictions. However, both sides seem to reject this option, and it seems to me that the reason for this boils down to their mutual desire to control all of the resources and institutions connected to the SBC. In other words, both sides fear losing the institutional power that currently belongs to the united denomination.

Finally, despite the traditional emphasis of the importance of the individual conscience in Baptist tradition, Southern Baptists continue to show a remarkable inability to handle matters of conscience. A matter of conscience refers to a moral question where there is no clear biblical command or where one cannot be inferred by good and necessary consequence. Issues such as what movies to watch, alcohol consumption, and voting are all matters of conscience, and yet Southern Baptists have for a long time tried to lay down requirements on all Christians on these matters. Both Moore and his critics have erred here.

A few months ago, I wrote:

In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes Christians are making in this election season involves dismissing, insulting, and questioning the Christian identity of those who support the other candidate. This is especially true when we seek to signal to others our virtue by expressing how appalled and outraged we are that any Christian would vote for the other person. This is happening on the conservative right (i.e. Eric Metaxas), the #NeverTrump middle (i.e. Russell Moore), and the progressive left (i.e Rachel Held Evans). This is a mistake because there are dozens of pragmatic judgments about the political process, the political system, the culture, and the leaders themselves that one must make, few of which can be clearly demonstrated from Scripture. That doesn’t mean we cannot support a candidate and seek to persuade others, but it should mean we cannot be certain we have the corner on the true Christian vote.

Leading up to the election, Christians of all varieties were casting each other out of the kingdom left and right over the election. In doing so, we actually parrot or participate in the polarizing rhetoric and behavior of the culture around us rather than pointing to and embodying an alternative kingdom reality in how we handle our disagreements. We wrongly divide the body of Christ. That was true then, and it will continue to be true going forward. There may come a time when we must oppose a political figure as a moral imperative, but it’s not at all clear we must do that now. If we continue to speak this way, we won’t be heard if that time comes.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the spiritual lives of American teenagers. Based on a research project called the “National Study of Youth and Religion,” Smith and Denton observed a set of beliefs (doctrines, if you will) commonly held by teenagers today:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Since the publication of this book, MTD has become a familiar summarizing term that captures the general religious outlook of our youth. Many have argued that this description fits the wider population’s spirituality as well. Some even think this is a good thing! Any Christian who has been catechized in sound doctrine will recognize this (unconscious) creed conflicts with orthodox Christian faith. In MTD, there’s no need for Trinity (≠deism), incarnation (≠therapy), or redemption (≠moralism).

An Easy Target

I’ve read and heard numerous Christians lament this creed as fundamentally unchristian, and it is. But in Evangelical circles, MTD has become a bit of an easy target to attack because it so obviously diverges from orthodoxy. Everyone knows it’s wrong, and we all shake our heads at those other people who so misguidedly fail to grasp the truth.

But Smith and Denton have put their finger on something that runs much deeper than this anemic creed, something of which all of us, including my Evangelical brothers and sisters, are guilty. MTD isn’t just a bad creed. It’s a fundamentally upside-down orientation to life, and it’s an orientation that all of us, secular or not, naturally share. And that means it’s not enough to simply look at the creed and shake our heads in disagreement. In fact, Smith and Denton created this creed as a summarizing term not because people actually walk around with those doctrines in their heads but because they were trying to put their finger on this orientation.

In short, MTD is an orientation in the making since the Enlightenment that sees God in obligation to us and not the other way around. MTD describes our deeply felt convictions that God must be about our well-being and happiness (hence therapeutic). It’s not us who must be justified before God, rather, God must justify Godself to us.

Seeing Ourselves

That’s why the problem of evil is such a pressing question for Westerners whereas in Ancient times it was not the most troubling question with which people wrestled. If we are owed happiness and circumstances that please us, then God better do some explaining as to why my life isn’t going the way I want. If I cannot see any good reason why God would allow suffering in my life, then God must either not exist or be a moral monster.

The MTD orientation also explains why churches have become highly focused on relevance, being positive and encouraging, and meeting people’s perceived needs and preferences regarding corporate worship and programming. We moderns don’t come to God needing to be justified. We come demanding God work for us. I can reject the creed of MTD but still involve myself with a Christian community that “pursues God in a way that works for me.”

This insight is reason #2,567 why I am convinced we have to return to biblical and historic church practices (both in worship and community) that reorient us properly to God. The form of worship and ministry in most Evangelical churches shares rather than repels the orientation of MTD, and so while we can see the errors of the creed, we can’t see our own reflection in it.

A Response to J.D. Greear on the Fidelity of the Multi-Site Church Model

A few weeks ago, J.D. Greear, the lead pastor at The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, posted four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4) defending the multi-site church model (hereafter, MSM) against objections and concerns raised primarily by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks.

While many arguments could be levied against the MSM and against Greear’s posts (which you must read first in order to appreciate what I will say below), I want to offer two main responses arguing that the MSM is not biblically faithful. First, I want to point out the problematic unspoken assumption behind Greear’s arguments in favor of the MSM. Second, I want to critique Greear’s argument in his second post about the biblical fidelity of the MSM regarding the essence or identity of the church.

I write as a pastor who previously worked on the pastoral staff of a multi-site church here in North Carolina that looked to The Summit as a model and that invited Greear to come speak on a number of occasions to provide counsel and leadership advice. I have shared a meal with Greear and spoken to him on a few other occasions, and I always found him to be kind, intelligent, and full of charisma. While I have concerns about the model he and The Summit have adopted, I want to be clear that my criticism should not be interpreted as personal attacks but as concerns for Christians I care about and desire to see thrive. But I am concerned with the MSM and with The Summit in particular, especially in light of the recent events at Mars Hill in Seattle with Mark Driscoll (a friend and example to Greear).

A Problematic, Unspoken Assumption

Greear’s main argument in favor of the multi-site model comes in his first post regarding the evangelistic faithfulness of the model. His explicit aim in adopting the MSM is to reach more people for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have no objection to the desire to reach more people for Christ. But what Greear fails to admit in any of his posts is the belief that, in order for The Summit to do this, they must plant campuses throughout the Raleigh-Durham area instead of planting churches because of the appeal of his celebrity-pastor status. This assumption is overlooked as Greear cites statistics, the 80% seating capacity principle, and arguments about how church members won’t leave to plant churches. He doesn’t seem to see that everything needed to plant a site in the ways he describes throughout his posts contains all the ingredients needed to plant a church. This reveals that the real reason why they plant campuses as opposed to sites is because of the unspoken (perhaps correct) assumption that the church is evangelistically effective because people come to the church to hear J.D. Greear. If they plant churches, there would be no Greear appeal.

So let me briefly show why it’s the case that a church could be planted just as easily as a site according to Greear’s own arguments. Virtually everything Greear argues in his third post on pastoral care would be the same arguments which those espousing a “single service only” model would make to plant churches as a response to church growth (especially under Presbyterian governance). First, congregations of 500 or less can more effectively keep track of and care for the sheep. Second, not everyone needs to be connected to the “senior-pastor” (an office that is problematic in my estimation as well, but that is for another post) but can be shepherded by elders who worship with them in the same place, so smaller congregations are better than huge congregations regarding pastoral care. Third, we want people to stay, serve, and live where they are and be the church in their community. Fourth, we should constantly develop new leaders by providing other pastors opportunities to preach and carry out other pastoral responsibilities. If these arguments justify planting sites, aren’t they even better reasons to plant a church?

Greear explains that The Summit’s philosophy of church planting and site planting runs like this: they plant churches in areas where there are currently no Summit members commuting and sites where many Summit members commute 20+ minutes. But Greear never explains why the sites themselves cannot simply be planted as churches. He cannot bring himself to acknowledge that they do so because they believe their “brand” and the appeal of Greear himself prevents them from giving sites autonomy. Despite the claim that Greear desires to send people rather than build an empire, that is exactly what he is doing by planting sites rather than campuses. The MSM model tells people to stay where they live and be the church there, but it allows them to hold on to hearing from Greear each Sunday.

The only time Greear appears to be aware of the model’s dependence upon a celebrity-pastor comes in his third post, but he quickly dismisses this concern by arguing that the problem was worse when The Summit did not yet have any sites. Besides, he says, the problem isn’t unique to multi-site churches. But this response hardly addresses the concern. Just because something is a problem in many churches doesn’t mean that it cannot be held against the MSM. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that his celebrity-pastor appeal was more prominent when The Summit gathered as 500 people in one location than when they gather near 10,000 in 9 locations. If that was true, then what advantage is there to planting sites instead of churches? The real reason for the MSM is that people come to The Summit to hear J.D. Greear, and The Summit is leveraging that reality to “reach more people for Christ.”

Now Greear can deny this, and if you listen to other multi-site lead pastors, they will deny it too. But the events of this past few week over at Mars Hill in Seattle regarding Mark Driscoll ought to help us see through the denials. Driscoll’s resignation and the decision by the elders there to dismantle the multi-site model in favor of particularization demonstrate that the whole corporate conglomeration depended upon the leadership and appeal of the top leader. If there is one thing the events at Mars Hill ought to make clear, it’s that, despite all the objections to the contrary, the multi-site model is all about the celebrity pastor. If the celebrity pastor goes down in shame or leaves, there is no reason to keep all the sites together under one central hierarchy anymore (unless an equally appealing celebrity-pastor can replace the former).

Those espousing the multi-site model need to acknowledge the real reasons why they have adopted the model. It isn’t because they cannot train up elders/pastors fast enough. Greear says that each campus has local elders that shepherd the people there. It isn’t because of finances. These sites usually start with enough congregants/members to operate, or they can receive support from the planting church. Churches like The Summit adopt the multi-site model because they want to leverage their “brand” and famous preacher to attract more people in the hopes of reaching more people.[1]

Building a church model on a personality, a brand, or a mother church’s DNA is a serious mistake. It runs counter to Paul’s arguments in the beginning of 1 Corinthians about the danger of appealing to people on the basis of anything other than the preaching of Christ crucified. Paul goes to great lengths to denounce adopting ministry practices or models that utilize the draw of a personality or the flashy methods of the world. The model stands and falls with the one pastor. As Mars Hill and plenty of other mega-church collapses demonstrate, when you build a church on a man other than Christ, that church will decline (usually rapidly) and the witness of the church is damaged when the man leaves or fails in any dramatic and public way.

The Biblical Fidelity of the Model

My larger concern with the model rests on biblical arguments regarding the essence or identity of the church. Simply put, Greear is guilty of reductionism. He argues that the essence of the church is covenant not assembly. He says that assembly is a function of the covenant community but that there is no biblical support for the idea that churches must gather in one place at the same time each week. Before I discuss the reductionism of this argument, I need to briefly comment on the last part of that assertion.

Greear is correct about how, where, and when a church is to gather only if he only has to demonstrate that no passage explicitly commands gathering all together at the same time weekly in those terms. But interpreting Scripture requires a much broader theological approach than that. Only until very very recently, the church has universally believed that local churches should gather together on the Lord’s Day because of the fourth commandment and the pattern of the New Testament church.

The case many make attempting to defend the MSM by appealing to the supposed prevalence of “house church networks in one city” in the first century is weak at best. Appealing to the initial formation of the church in Jerusalem to justify a church model is to appeal to the context before the Apostles began organizing the church into what would emerge as the healthy and universal gathering pattern and governing structure. Just because a church in one city is referred to as one entity, much like the way we would talk about the church in any geographic area (e.g. “the church in the United States”), does not mean that the church had adopted a MSM. I would argue that the early church had something more akin to what we would call a Presbyterian system. But even if one disputes that, those who seem to root the MSM model in the New Testament ignore the case made time and time again that the early church looked to the synagogue as its model. Synagogues were led by a council of men from several families that lived in the community where they gathered weekly to hear the Law read and to pray.

The more substantial concern I have with Greear’s biblical case is the reductionism of his ecclesiology. If the church is essentially a covenant community, then all we need is a covenant in order to have a church. Everything else that marks the church can be done to the degree that we find them practical, effective, or convenient. If Greear considered all the church models that could follow from this argument, he might take pause.

Now, he acknowledges that churches must gather together, but he essentially accuses Leeman of being too uptight about that since there is not explicit command as to how often, where, and when. The Summit finds it most effective to gather all together once a year. But this line of reasoning is about as ridiculous as saying that a family is essentially a covenant community (entered into through marriage, birth, or adoption), and so a family need not live, eat, work, play, worship, or serve together since being together is not the essence of a family. Certainly, we can grant that families still exists when being together is not possible. But wouldn’t we all agree that a rich, healthy, and ideal family life is one where members share in life together in these ways? Wouldn’t we agree that the formation of children demands a rich shared life where parents can instruct, model, and work along side of the children? And when a child grows older and marries, leaving his family to hold fast to his wife and form family of his own, wouldn’t we consider this to be a new family with its own government and life even if the two families come together often to share in fellowship and mission? Given the language of the New Testament describing the church as the family of God, and given that the pattern of governance throughout the New Testament sees mature heads of households as the leaders of the local church, shouldn’t we conclude that a local church should look a lot like a collection of families who share life together? By reducing the church’s essence to covenant, Greear relegates other church identities to relative unimportance and thereby undercuts the force of what it means to be a covenant community in the first place. Rather than reducing the church to one defining feature and then coming up with arrangements we deem to be effective, we should pursue a church structure and pattern of gathered worship that best conforms to all that the New Testament teaches about what it means to be the people of God.

At the heart of my concern with the MSM is the observation that multi-site churches have adopted a corporate structure and abandoned the family identity described and commanded in the New Testament. And we are fools to think that this doesn’t impact the formation of disciples. Greear claims that his church is highly effective evangelistically. I am just not so sure. Drawing crowds of people and baptizing huge numbers does not convince me that many real disciples are being formed. The Great Commission is as concerned with the maturation of disciples learning to obey all that Jesus has commanded as it is with the initial response of faith and baptism. If we take any cues from Jesus’ suspicion of the crowds in his own ministry due to their desire to see miraculous things and be a part of something significant given the tumultuous cultural situation of Roman occupation, we will be suspicious of large crowds that gather in contexts where spectacle and celebrity appeal is high and commitment is low. If we win people by appealing to their desire for a low commitment experience of inspiring teaching and powerful musical worship, then we shouldn’t be surprised that they are hesitant to engage in high commitment endeavors like planting new churches.

The corporate structure of The Summit and other MSM churches is marked by a corporate hierarchy aimed at efficiency (something unsurprisingly absent from the concerns driving Jesus’ ministry). Despite The Summit’s attempt to ground their governance in biblical arguments, anyone thinking carefully will quickly see that their practice doesn’t conform to the very arguments they make about church officers/leaders. If the NT uses the terms elder, pastor, and overseer interchangeably (as they argue and with which I agree), then why aren’t all the pastors and elders “directional” elders (the ones who actually rule the church)? The answer is that there would be too many elders to make decisions efficiently. But in order to be able to say that each campus is led by elders, people who do not have any ruling authority are given the title of pastor/elder. So instead of localizing the elders and planting churches, The Summit adopts a corporate board (the directional elders) subject to the votes of the shareholders (the members), executed by the CEO (J.D. Greear), and carried out by the CEO’s staff (pastors excluded from participation in the directional elder board). It’s plainly misguided to argue that one is adopting a biblical model of church governance under these conditions.

The corporate structure of The Summit and other MSM churches depends upon the DNA or brand first established by the original campus. Because of its “success,” The Summit has chosen to plant sites that can carry The Summit’s DNA into other parts of the city. I don’t have space here to develop an argument as to why this is problematic, but it rests in the conviction that churches should contextualize the gospel to the particular context in which it gathers and scatters. Churches should seek to live incarnationally with the actual people, problems, social injustices, groups, institutions, and challenges each geographic area presents. The incarnational philosophy will push against all attempts to replicate the DNA, brand, or culture of a congregation in a different place.

The church is a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the MSM fails to faithfully embody this identity. The shape or form of a local church must conform to the gospel message. In other words, if the gospel is true (which it is), it will produce a people who take on a certain life together that exposes the idols of the culture in which it lives. The church itself, its fellowship, worship, and message, will be a taste of what God’s kingdom will be like when Christ returns. Rather than being a taste of the kingdom, the MSM is a form adopted from our consumeristic culture. The very reason Greear has to defend himself against the critique of consumerism is because the MSM is based on consumerism. He is right that other churches fail to witness against consumerism. Even churches that adopt a faithful model and structure will be tempted by consumerism. It is the water in which we live and breathe in the U.S. But this is exactly why we must maintain a church form and hold fast to a gospel message that resists approaching all of life as consumers. We cannot form disciples who are learning to die to self while at the same time attracting them to our church with a celebrity.

What to make of it all?

No one doubts that multi-site churches can boast tremendous growth numbers. I don’t intend to dispute the large number of churches that have been planted by multi-site churches (almost always in different cities). I also don’t mean to suggest that nothing good has come from these endeavors. But we simply cannot accept the argument that because multi-site churches can boast such huge growth numbers, they must be considered faithful to God’s biblical vision for the church. On the contrary, humility demands that we be all the more diligent to watch ourselves and listen to others. The more “successful” and exalted these celebrity-pastors become, the more danger exists that the pastors themselves and those who share in their importance and impact will be foolishly blinded in pride. Many voices have been raising concerns about the MSM, and recent events at Mars Hill once again demand reconsideration of a dangerous church model. The fidelity of the church’s witness is at stake.

[1] I recognize that a minority of multi-site churches do not broadcast or drive the lead pastor to preach at every site but have campus pastors preach each week. In these cases, the mother church is leveraging its brand and prominence rather than the senior pastor.

Why Evangelicals Are Having a Hard Time Forming Disciples

I recently read James K.A. Smith’s book Imagining the Kingdom and was struck by a section of his chapter on restor(y)ing the world. The chapter argues that Christian worship forms us for mission, and therefore we ought to be formed (sanctified) by the story of Scripture as a counter narrative to the way the world forms us. One of the key pieces of this argument is in his discussion on how specific practices enact the Christian story and shape our imagination and intuition.  In the section that really stood out to me, Smith tackles the age old form/content distinction that Christians have wrestled with since at least the Reformation. He writes:

Here we need to raise a critical, and perhaps uncomfortable, point: form matters—not because of any traditionalism or conservative preservation of the status quo, but precisely because…there is a logic to a practice that is unarticulated but nonetheless has a coherent “sense” about it. Form matters because it is the form of worship that tells the Story (or better, enacts the Story).

Wide swaths of contemporary Christianity have bought into a specious form/content distinction: we have assumed that Christianity is primarily a “message” and is thus defined by a “content” that is distillable from historical forms. Along with this distinction comes the assumption that forms are basically just neutral containers for the message, selected on the basis of taste, preference, or cultural relevance. With that distinction in place (perhaps unwittingly), we then treat the historical, received forms of Christian worship as a kind of disposable husk that can be shucked (and chucked!) as long as we keep the kernel of the gospel “message.” When this distinction and attitude are wedded to our late modern penchant for novelty, we begin to approach Christian worship as an event for disseminating the message and thus look for forms that will be fresh, attractive, relevant, accessible, and so on. In fact, since on this account it is the content/“message” that matters, and since forms are neutral “containers” for the message, we might actually adopt forms that are more familiar and less strange for contemporary “audiences.” For example, we might distill the “message” of the gospel and then place it in a “mall” container, or a “coffee shop” container, or a “rock concert” container, or a “rave” container, or what have you. In doing so we believe that we have in a sense sanctified these forms—taken them up in service of the gospel, all with “missional” intent.

[This distinction and approach] fails to appreciate that we are liturgical animals shaped by practices that work on our cognitive unconscious. And so they also fail to appreciate that these forms are not neutral; the forms of the mall or coffee shop are not just benign containers that can carry any content. These forms are already “aimed and loaded”: they carry their own teleological orientation and come loaded with a complex of rituals and practices that carry a vision of the good life. So while we might think that reconfiguring worship to feel like the mall is a way of making Jesus relevant and accessible, in fact we are unwittingly teaching worshipers and seekers to treat Jesus like any other commodity they encounter in the mall, because the very form of the mall’s (“secular”) liturgy unconsciously trains us to relate to the world as consumers.[1]

I think this argument speaks for itself when it comes to Christian worship. But I think the argument holds true for church fellowship structure and church governance/leadership as well.

If form and content go together in the ways Smith has outlined above, then the way we structure church fellowship says something about the message we are able to proclaim as well. If we divide up families into segmented age groups, if we separate Christians in the church by life stages, and if we create various ministries based on interest groups, then the message the church proclaims cannot be consistent with the gospel. The gospel is the message of the kingdom. In Christ, God reconciles a people for himself. That message transcends class, sex, ethnicity, and status, and it creates a community that runs counter to the normal dividing lines of the world. But this is not the case when we organize the church around consumer interests.

Furthermore, if form and content go together, then the way we lead and govern the church says something about the message we are able to proclaim as well. If a church adopts a corporation structure with a CEO and a board of directors, it doesn’t matter what titles they are given (senior pastor, deacons, elders, etc.). In contrast to this structure and without exception, the New Testament paints a picture of churches modeled after the synagogues where a plurality of elders (heads of households) together lead the church through their teaching. Corporate leadership is imbedded with the values of efficiency, production, image, skill, boasting, control, and power. In contrast, the portrait of leadership given by Paul in both letters to the Corinthians is colored by humility, simplicity, weakness, suffering, and patience. The corporate church growth plan includes adding services (franchises) in multiple locations, utilizing the church brand, and continuing to promote the personality (product) that garnered the growth. In contrast, there is a consistent move toward church planting, raising up new leaders, and contextualizing the ministry to the location where that body meets.

Because so many Evangelical churches have separated form and content, we have unwittingly adopted a secular story. Rather than being shaped by the story of Scripture with its climax in the message of the cross of Jesus Christ, we have adopted the materialistic consumer narrative of our time. This was not our intent. Many were trying to be faithful. But you just cannot take Jesus and his church and throw out the forms he has given us to be faithful. Rather than adopting the narrative of discipleship that calls us to follow Jesus on the road to suffering before glory, we have added Jesus onto our search for glory. It is time that we recover proper ecclesiology so that the rediscovery of the gospel that is taking place in the gospel-centered movement can bear full fruit. Otherwise we will be preaching one thing and embodying another. And that will only make confused and unformed disciples.

[1] James K.A. Smith. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 168-169.

4 Tiers of Doctrinal Importance (Repost 10.10.2011)

It is vital to the health of any church that its leaders and congregation are able to discern the relative importance of various doctrines.  In other words, if leaders and congregants don’t know which is more dangerous to the local church, a disagreement about alcohol and tattoos or a disagreement about the doctrine of sin, then they are likely to draw lines where they don’t need to be drawn and fail to draw lines when eternal life and death are on the line.  No two Christians believe the exact same thing about every theological and doctrinal issue.  How then can any church remain unified?

In order to have the proper type of unity in the local church, we must 1) acknowledge that there are different levels of doctrinal importance, and 2) know which doctrines fall into the various levels of importance.  Before exploring the various levels of importance, let me explain what I mean when I say that we are to have ‘the proper type of unity’.

Many churches today strive for an ungodly, unbiblical, dangerous, and sinful type of unity.  Those who emphasize conformity to the ethic of the community and tolerance for doctrinal differences in matters central to the faith have a perverted idea of unity.  This error is common among liberals and conservatives.  On the left, liberals emphasize unity around social action and tolerance for those with different beliefs while denying the uniqueness and exclusivity of Christ.  On the right, conservatives emphasize conformity to conservative morality while failing to rigorously hold the line on the doctrine of sin.  This conservative error almost always leads to a legalism that makes sub-cultural norms a standard of faithfulness and spirituality rather than gospel fidelity.

The opposite error of this improper type of unity is dividing at the wrong time over the wrong issues.  This error occurs not because people focus on doctrine too much but because they place too much emphasis on the wrong doctrines.  To avoid this error, we must understand the relative importance of different doctrines.

But how do we know which doctrines are most important?  Does Scripture teach these distinctions?  I believe that I Corinthians 15.1-11 teaches us that we are to see some doctrines as ‘doctrines of first importance’.

I Corinthians 15.1-11:

In this chapter, Paul seeks to correct the Corinthians in their errant doctrine and increasingly licentious living.  His concern is that the Corinthians, although they originally appeared to believe the Gospel he preached to them when he planted the church, do not have saving faith.  Allow me to make some observations in three stages:

First, Paul sought to remind them of the Gospel as a warning that they must hold fast to it if there is to be any benefit to their initial response.

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,  2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain.

Paul notes that believing the Gospel has two effects.  Those who believe the Gospel stand in salvation and are in the process of being saved.  I think this is shorthand for justification and sanctification.  Through faith in the Gospel, we are declared righteous before God and stand before him innocent and righteous because of Christ.  Through faith in the Gospel, we are in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.

But, Paul makes clear that these conditions are only true of those who hold fast to the Gospel.  Those who do not hold fast to the Gospel believe in vain.  In other words, there is a type of believing and response to the preaching of the Gospel that does not bear ongoing fruit and thus withers and dies.  I think this is similar to what Jesus talked about in Mark 4 in the parable of the sower and the soils.

Now note that at this point, it is not entirely clear what Paul means by ‘hold fast to the word I preached to you’.  We have to keep reading to be sure we know what he means.  This is where this text begins to address the topic of this post.

Second, Paul argued that the Gospel and the doctrines essential to it are of first importance in the Christian life.

1 Corinthians 15:3a 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…

Paul explained that he had and was passing on to the Corinthians that which is of primary importance in the Christian faith.  The apostles passed on the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13-14), “sound doctrine” (I Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:9), and “sound instruction” (I Tim. 6:3).  In I Cor. 15.3-8, Paul passes down a set of teachings that has a formulaic ring to it.  It is clearly a set of historical claims tied to a theological message that was held to and delivered to all the churches.  This is the tradition of the apostles: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church argues that there were two bodies of teaching in the early church: tradition and Scripture.  They argue that Scripture has been handed down to us containing many important teachings.  But, they assert additionally that the Roman Catholic Church consists of a succession of leaders who have passed on oral teachings (traditions) that are not covered in Scripture that are equal in authority to Scripture.  Protestants argue (rightly I believe) that the tradition/oral teaching of the apostles was eventually written down in Scripture such that there is now only one authoritative source of instruction.  My last post addressed this issue in more detail.

The key thing that I want to point out here though is that Paul himself thought that there were matters of first importance and matters that ranked below this.  After passing on the Gospel to them in verses 3-11, Paul argues in the rest of the chapter for the proper doctrine of the resurrection.  He fervently argued for the bodily resurrection of Christ and of believers on the last day because he feared that the Corinthians were denying it and thus in danger of ‘believing in vain’.  I will say more on this below.

Third, Paul delivers the plain and simple Gospel.

1 Corinthians 15:3b-11 that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,  4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,  5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Several important things could be mentioned here, but for our sake, one thing stands out:  The Gospel is the message of what Christ did.  The Gospel is not my response to Jesus.  The Gospel is not the effects of believing in Jesus.  The Gospel is the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Notice the key verbs: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.  So, what’s the point of all of this in relation to the original issue I raised?

The 4 Tiers of Doctrinal Importance:

This passage clearly shows us that the Gospel message and the doctrines essential to it are matters of first importance.  This is why Paul writes with such urgency on the issue of the resurrection.  This is why he warns them that they may not be saved if they don’t persevere in sound doctrine.  This is why he suggests to them later (15.33) that they should kick out those in the church who are denying the bodily resurrection.  It is a serious matter worth dividing the church over!

So, what are the 4 tiers?

  1. Matters of first importance, of heresy versus orthodoxy: The Gospel stands at the center.  Taking the formula that Paul gave, we can see that the doctrine of the Trinity, the person of Christ, the work of Christ (including the atonement and resurrection), and sin are matters of first importance.  These are matters worth defending.  It is appropriate to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine in these areas.  It is right to remove those who deny these doctrines from fellowship.  It is necessary to leave the fellowship of those who embrace error in these areas.
  2. Matters that determine local church practice and ministry:  After the first tier, we have to begin looking at other passages to sort out the rest, but I think the rest are fairly clear.  The second level of doctrinal importance contains many doctrines that are worth arguing about but should not call us to question the salvation of those that disagree with us.  The doctrines concerning church governance, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Table, Scripture, the role of women in leadership, ministry philosophy, conversion, and evangelism are doctrines which a local church needs to have general agreement on in order to minister effectively.  For example, it is impossible for a local church to get anything done if there is disagreement over the truthfulness of Scripture or if no one can agree who has leadership responsibility and final authority.  So, while differences in these areas should not lead us to question one another’s salvation, we might have to agree to exist as different churches.
  3. Matters that we can disagree on while still working together in a local church:  Once we have seen which matters divide Christians from non-Christians and matters which divide Christians necessarily into different churches and denominations, we find that there are many issues that we can disagree on in the local church.  I doubt I can name them all, so I will name a few.  The doctrines dealing with the end times (rapture, tribulation, and millennium) should never be matters of first importance.  We should not make a specific theology of the end times a requirement for membership in a local church.  Similarly, one’s stance on the continuance of the supernatural or miraculous spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy should not determine whether or not one is included in fellowship in the local church.
  4. Matters of conscience, where Scripture does not bind all but some may need to live a certain way while others live differently:  The last category deals with matters similar to the ones that Paul deals with in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-11.  When Scripture does not give us a command and we must use wisdom, there must be great charity and we must refuse to lay our convictions upon others in any way.  Issues that fall into this category include the consumption of alcohol, tattoos, what movies one is allowed to watch, what language one should use, and who Christians should vote for.

While this post has certainly not answered every question about which doctrines fall into what area, I hope that it has given us some easy guidelines and examples that will help Christians think about when and over what to divide.  Furthermore, the levels I have laid out here (and I am certainly not the first to highlight these distinctions) certainly expose some obvious problems that are prevalent today, namely turning these tiers upside down by attempting to impose our conscience on others and elevating eschatology to first importance while ignoring the central doctrines of the faith.