Archive for April, 2011

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 5 – Doctrinal Thoroughness

April 29, 2011

Google ‘Gospel-centred’ and you will find thousands of churches and Christians who have adopted this nick as descriptive of themselves. No one wants to be law-centred, I assume, or gospel-peripheral, and so we find that gospel-centred has become something of a new Shibboleth in evangelical circles.

In previous posts, I’ve already expressed solidarity with the truth of the gospel’s relevance for Christian living. While a renewed emphasis on the importance of the gospel is something to applaud, we must beware lest this virtue becomes a vice. There is sometimes an unhealthy under-current in what some mean by gospel-centred. For some, it is an abbreviation for doctrinal minimalism. That is, such people believe that the Christian faith is equivalent to the gospel, making all teaching not essential to the gospel extraneous. They want Christians to be less concerned with such doctrinal matters as angelology, eschatology, polity, or cessationism, if such do not touch directly on the gospel. For many, the gospel alone should become the measuring instrument for doctrinal importance.

To a certain degree, I agree that the gospel is a very reliable guide for determining doctrinal weight. However, I disagree that the gospel is the center of Christian doctrine from which all else radiates.

Rather, the gospel is the boundary which allows one into the Christian faith. The center of the Christian faith is where Jesus said it was: to love God ultimately and supremely (Mk 12:28-29). Therefore, we must beware lest our love for the gospel become a too-vicious pruning tool on Christian doctrine. There is much more to Christianity than the gospel.

Christianity is concerned with more than the question of how to become a Christian. It is concerned with the question of what it is to be a Christian. Since all Scripture is given to that end (2 Tim 3:17), Christianity worth conserving will conserve and pass on all that Scripture teaches. This is the second mark of a conservative Christian church: it will understand, defend and teach biblical, systematic, historical and practical Christian theology as comprehensively and cohesively as possible.

By contrast, much in modern Christianity tends to be eclectic and faddish in its approach to Christian teaching. Rare is the shepherd who is not pulled by the tide of clerical opinion in his time, who is not swept up by trends, fashions, and double-barreled buzz words. Scarce are the pastors not influenced by the personality and celebrity cults in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Uncommon is the kind of independence needed in a faddish age. This causes many a church leader to fall short of the goal of a comprehensive and consistent articulation of Christian doctrine. Too often he’s pulled by man-pleasing forces more than the desire to properly harmonize his system of faith. A bit chosen from the hot new book, a bit from Coalesced for the Gospel 2016, a copy-’n-paste from GoodBlog, a deferring reference to Pastor Bigname, and a resulting quilt-work of theology that is consistent only in the mind of the pastor (if there).

Now, this is not to say that we must accept our theology in non-negotiable package-deals, or that we are not responsible to test and examine the theological tradition we are in. This we must do. However, our goal is to understand and teach Christian doctrine as cohesively and comprehensively as we can. A conservative Christian Methodist must teach his Methodism uniformly and thoroughly. A conservative Christian Presbyterian must set out a Presbyterian understanding of biblical, systematic, historical and practical theology. A covenant theologian must apply and teach his system of faith as consistently as he is able. Such is the integrity of Christian character; such should be our respect for the Word of God.

In fact, it is this kind of attention to doctrinal detail that will actually promote Christian unity. When differences are properly articulated, conservative Christians will quickly be able to see where fellowship is possible and where it is not. It is when differences are blurred through garbled articulations of doctrine that real tensions may later arise. Feigned unity built upon doctrinal agnosticism will inevitably crumble, or else be held together with the Scotch tape of good intentions.

Conservative Christians want the whole Christian faith, not just the door. Conservative Christianity wants all inspired Scripture taught and explained for life and godliness. In the next post, I would like to suggest several practical ways to grow this comprehensive approach to Christian doctrine within the local church.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 4 – Defending the Gospel

April 22, 2011

Churches that wish to conserve and propagate the gospel must be willing to defend it. The gospel is attacked in several ways, and therefore its defenders must be aware of where the conflict will be.

A battle exists over the meaning and intention of the gospel. The enemies of the gospel are forever seeking to re-define what is essential to the gospel, or what it aims to do. Again, this is a call to thorough and continuous teaching on the meaning of the gospel, the doctrines fundamental to the gospel, and the meaning of conversion. Teachings that deny, undermine or distort the gospel must be challenged, and challenged publicly.

The gospel is also attacked when non-Christians are recognized as Christians. This happens in two ways. First, when Christian fellowship within the local church is extended to people who profess an orthodox gospel but live lives which consistently and fundamentally deny the meaning of the gospel. This comes back to the matter of church discipline, discussed in the last article. A second way the gospel is attacked is when people who deny one of the fundamental teachings of the gospel are recognized as professing Christians.

To give the right hand of fellowship to someone who denies an essential teaching in the gospel is a kind of unauthorized diplomacy on the part of a Christian. It is like an ambassador extending full and open relations with a hostile nation, simply because the enemy ambassador said ‘we ought to get along’. A professor is not authorized to change the passing grade on an exam simply to ingratiate himself with a student. A police officer is not authorized to change the traffic laws to appear ‘loving’ to an offender. And a Christian is not authorised to change the terms of eternal life to appear tolerant, ecumenical and open-minded.

When this is done, the gospel is demeaned. Its prominence as boundary line between believers and non-believers is eroded, and one must look elsewhere to define Christian.

This idea of being devoted to the fundamentals by refusing Christian recognition of those who deny them is the genius of 20th-century fundamentalism, but it is not unique to that movement. Several separatist movements have existed through history, demonstrating, in part, that a defence of the gospel through separatism has been a part of robust, historic Christianity. Separatism is not the be-all and end-all of preserving the gospel. Nevertheless, separatism is an inevitable and indispensable part of conservative Christianity.

Practically, this limits whom a church would recognize as Christian, and which groups they would be willing to partner with. Since fellowship is not an all-or-nothing deal, the purposes for, and consequences of cooperation should decide whether fellowship or partnership takes place, and at what level of collaboration.

We must remember that it is possible to undermine the gospel indirectly. It is possible to weaken the defence of the gospel by whom we cooperate with. For this reason, we must give careful thought  to whom we will extend Christian fellowship.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches -3 – Committed to the Gospel

April 15, 2011

As important as understanding the gospel is, it is not sufficient. Churches must be committed to the gospel. That is, churches must be devoted to the application of the gospel throughout church life.

We have already spoken of how the meaning of the gospel must be taught, and reiterated. Beyond this, the believer’s position in Christ, and Christ’s position in the believer must become a constant refrain in our churches. The human heart is not only naturally idolatrous, it is also naturally legalistic. Even to those who teach the gospel of grace, the message of the gospel for Christian sanctification must be kept central. The secret of abiding – ongoing communion with God – is that Christ is in us and we are in Him (John 15:4). As a church disciples its own, it must teach the principle that the gospel’s effects continue throughout a Christian’s life (Col 2:6).

A church also displays commitment to the gospel when it pursues clearly defined membership. Far from being a mere administrative detail, membership provides a physical boundary of professing Christians within a local church. It is an incarnation of the idea of a regenerate church membership: those who profess Christ and have publicly followed Him in believer’s baptism are included within a local assembly as those the church can give an account for.

Apart from teaching on the nature of the church, fairly detailed membership classes can help people understand that the church is comprised of professing, baptized believers only. Our church reads the prospective member a summary of the church covenant, and observes as he or she makes a covenant with the church publicly. In an era of trucebreakers, this helps us appreciate the enormous significance of being included in a church – the fellowship of the regenerate.

The flip side of this is a wise use of church discipline. Church discipline is Christ’s method for loosing from the church (Mt 18:18) those whose profession of faith has been denied by their lives (Tis 1:6). The initial aims of the actions preceding church discipline are all restorative; the final action is one of changing the nature of the relationship between church and member. At some point, a church is authorized to say that an individual’s life clearly compromises the meaning of the gospel, and can no longer be recognized as a gospel-professor. In changing the nature of the relationship between gospel-professors and one whose life denies the gospel, the gospel’s meaning and effects are both taught and protected.

A church is committed to the gospel when it is committed to ‘gospelising’, that is, evangelism. If the message is as exclusive as it says it is, if the command to evangelise is as clear as any other command, and if our Savior is as excellent as we say He is, we must spread the gospel. We must spread it by preaching, and we must spread it without a word. We must spread it at home, and spread it abroad. We must reason with people, and we must appeal to their consciences. We must show the rational basis for Christianity, and we must show the guilt of sin. We must give people books, and meet them for coffee, and host Bible studies, and pray, and live winsome lives. Different contexts call for different approaches, but for Christians, the command is, as you are going, make disciples. Evangelism is one citizenry encountering another, and the ambassadors of Christ rightly declaring God’s promises and living like citizens of another culture.

My goal is not to provide techniques for evangelism; Scripture is strangely silent on that. Again, if church members are saturated with the meaning of the gospel, and filled with compassion for their neighbours, some kind of evangelism is inevitable.

One more practical aspect remains regarding a church’s relationship to the gospel: its defense of it.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches -2 – Understanding the Gospel

April 8, 2011

Since the gospel is the basis and boundary of Christianity, anyone interested in conserving Christianity ought to be interested in conserving the gospel. A cursory glance at church history shows that the gospel has at times gone into near-eclipse, and this while official Christendom remained prominent. Such historical phenomena show that self-identifying with Christianity does not always mean we will consequently do the work of conserving the gospel. Conservative Christian churches must be deliberate in their efforts to understand, defend and propagate the gospel.

The first and primary way to achieve this in a local church is to continually clarify the meaning of the gospel. I have for some time felt that personal evangelism programs and techniques would probably be redundant if church members were thoroughly drilled in the meaning of the gospel. After all, if you are immersed in an understanding of the gospel, you will find natural ways to work it into conversations. People who know what they’re talking about typically like to talk about what they know.

Pastors can produce that kind of atmosphere with sermons which, in natural and appropriate ways, often summarise or re-state the essentials of the gospel. It needn’t only be in the final words of application. Our sermons can have an evangelistic heart, amidst material meant for Christian discipleship. At the same time, sermon series on the gospel are important. Enough nominal Christian debris exists in the minds of most churchgoers that a fairly regular consideration of the meaning of the gospel can be useful. Here one can take the time to unpack the key texts, consider which doctrines are essential to the gospel, and spend time exclusively tackling the topic of the gospel.

I am also in favor of devoting an entire service to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. With the attention riveted on the Lord’s atonement, there can hardly be a better opportunity to clarify and explain the meaning of the gospel. Well-chosen hymns and songs can preach and explain the gospel in arresting ways. Often one line in a hymn grips the imagination and teaches the essence of the gospel better than many discursive paragraphs could.

Though some may balk at the use of creeds in church, creeds like the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed helpfully state the doctrines essential to the gospel. Whether you read them in a corporate service, or make a study of them in a Bible study, these help the church to understand what constitutes the gospel. (And not merely a parochial 21st-century take on the gospel, but the historic, universal gospel.)  The church’s own statement of faith can also become a useful teaching tool.

Along with teaching on the gospel, some teaching on the nature and effects of conversion is equally important. Here a book like 1 John becomes so vital, with its insistence that eternal life has a very present-tense dimension. Teaching through this book will certainly challenge people’s understanding of what the gospel is, and what it does.

A final practical way of encouraging a clear understanding of the gospel within the local church is to require that prospective members or baptismal candidates be able to explain the gospel. When we require a testimony of salvation, we must beware lest we allow the subjective account of personal conversion to drown out the person’s objective profession of the gospel itself. Both are necessary; I fear we who speak often of “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” have perhaps erred on the subjective side.

Understanding the gospel is crucial, but conserving it requires more than that. Churches must also be committed to it in deed, and prepared to defend it. It’s to that we turn next.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches -1

April 1, 2011

A few weeks ago, I posted my opinion that the form of Christianity which omits certain distinctives is a truncated and emaciated Christianity. Conservative Christianity, as much as it is accused of adding non-essentials, is simply trying to preserve a healthy, full-orbed Christianity that can weather the era it is in, and be passed on to others.

If the Christianity that is not conservative is truncated, what are the marks of a robust, full-orbed Christianity? With a hat-tip to Dever, and a nod to Bauder, I’d suggest these might be the “8 Marks of a Conservative Christian Church”:

  1. A full understanding of, commitment to, and defence of the gospel.

  2. Understanding, teaching, and defending biblical, systematic and practical Christian theology.

  3. Understanding, practising, and defending biblically-regulated worship.

  4. Understanding, teaching, and encouraging individual piety.

  5. Understanding the Christian life as a life of love, therefore being committed to understanding rightly ordered loves and corresponding affections.

  6. Understanding and teaching the means of furnishing the inner life with those ideas and images that encourage these loves and affections.

  7. Committing to understanding the meaning of the world, so as to rightly parse worship, affections, and the correct application of biblical principles.

  8. Loving the Christian church past and present, therefore rightly viewing and using the Christian tradition. Reconciling  permanence and change.

I use the term “8 Marks of a Conservative Christian Church” not merely to play on Dever’s title, but because I strongly agree with Dever that reform must take place at the local church level. Restoring or reclaiming Christianity from its current abbreviated revivalist incarnation will require pastors steadily pruning what is foreign to Christianity, and including what has been omitted in the last two centuries. Let me be clear, I don’t think this is something which can be ‘fixed’ with a list. I think the kind of reform we need may take more than one generation to achieve. However, we must build with what we have, encouraging what is needed, removing with is unhealthy, and keeping some things alive for future Christians, who may be better prepared to love, honour and use them.

In the coming weeks, I would like to examine each of the eight points, with an eye towards how these things may be encouraged in the local church context. My aim is to encourage members in general and pastors in particular to consider practical methods to recover a more full-orbed Christianity in the context of a local church.