Friday, April 08, 2005

Four Challenges for the Church

Today on Stand to Reason's blog Greg Koukl identifies four challenges facing the church and three of them are from within. Among them is an implicit relativism in the church due to valuing experience over truth:

This happened because there is an unhealthy hunger for an experience of personal revelation that has replaced our hunger for truth. Many Christians desperately want God to communicate with them directly. They are taught more and more from pulpits all around the country that this is what every Christian can expect to happen. This trend has seriously distracted Christians from focusing on the Word already given, the Bible.
A related problem I see is that of a faulty ecclesiology that fails to appreciate the corporate or communal nature of the church. Most of the "you's" in the New Testament are plural ("y'all"), addressing whole bodies of believers. However, we're prone to read them as though they're addressed to us as individuals in isolation from the rest of God's people . For example, Paul's admonition to not "let the sun go down on your anger" lest we give the devil an opportunity (Eph. 4:26-27) is frequently presented as a warning against the possible demonization of the Christian who nurses bitterness regardless of the fact that the whole chapter is a call to preserve the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:1-3). The thrust is corporate not individualistic. When Jesus' followers nurse bitterness against each other and refuse to pursue reconciled relationships, we give Satan an opportunity to disrupt our communion and mar our witness to the world and the principalities and powers.

In his book The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit, Craig Van Gelder claims that the current emphasis on the individual believer is in large part due to the influence of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. According to Locke's social contract theory, the only social obligations to which one is bound are those entered into voluntarily. Van Gelder quotes from Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration" in which he applies his theory to the nature of the church:
I take (it) to be a voluntary society of men joining themselves of their own accord in a church order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him....I say it is a free and voluntary society. Nobody is born a member of the church....since the joining together of several members into this absolutely free and spontaneous, it necessarily follows that the right of making its laws can belong to none but the society itself; or at least to those whom the society by common consent has authorized thereunto.
On the result of adopting this understanding of the nature of the church, Van Gelder writes:
In this view, while the divine aspects of the nature of the church may be included confessionally, the church's identity is shaped primarily by its social organization. Because of the voluntary, individualistic nature of joining this social organization, its focus tends to be on the rights and privileges associated with membership, not on a covenantal commitment to the community and its values.
Of course, the New Testament does have much to say about the ministry of the Spirit in the life of the believer. The issue is one of emphasis. Van Gelder offers the following clarification:
While the calling, saving, sealing, gifting, and empowering works of the Spirit can be developed biblically from the perspective of the individual, this is not the New Testament's primary focus in defining the relationship between the Spirit and the church. The Bible's focus is not on individual Christians but on the formation of a new type of community, a new humanity that is indwelt by the Spirit.


Sarah Flashing said...

Christianity is plagued by disconnectedness. How do we fix it? How do we refute autonomy in the church ? I think buffets contribute to our disconnected culture. Thanks for the great post, Keith!

Mike - said...

Adding to this, communication from God in the Old Testament was almost always to groups of people.

But contemporary Christians don't seem to be satisfied with that. In fact, they're taught -- implicitly, if not explicitly -- not to be satisfied with that. They're taught that the coming of the Holy Spirit changed all that and that the mark of real faith is a personal realationship with God. I'm getting very fed up with the use of that phrase, because (1) it's not Biblical, and (2) it has a track record of leading people into very un-Biblical ways of viewing the faith. (I discuss this myself on