Keeping the Church Front and Center

In this issue of Equip to Disciple, the focus in this lead article is the church. To develop this theme we will refer to two main writings by two familiar names to us: one is a chapter by J.I. Packer and the other a forthcoming book by John R.W. Stott. As we expound this theme, our intent is not only to make some general observations but also some specific ones which we hope will encourage readers to take the time to read Stott’s latest book, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor.

The subject of the church has been on our hearts lately for several reasons. It appears that for some, the church is not viewed as the bride of Christ and given the place it deserves within the Christian faith. The famous saying of John Calvin, “He who has God for his father, will have the church for his mother,” is not taken very seriously nor is the strategic place of the church in God’s design. This is especially true today. We are seeing and hearing more and more negatives regarding the church. Things such as the church is an institution vs. a movement, or the church rep resents a paradigm that doesn’t apply to today’s concept of Christianity, or the church lacks authenticity and integrity. George Gallup Jr. and George Barna are serious when they warn that the church may be only one generation from extinction. Of course, they are referring to the organized church as we know it.

Bruce Hindmarsh states in the opening chapter of Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (John G. Stackhouse editor), “When one thinks about the evangelicals and what they hold dear, one would be forgiven for not thinking immediately of the church. Indeed one might even suggest, given the history of schism among evangelicals, the ‘evangelical ecclesiology’ is an oxymoron.” Therefore, he suggests that maybe the church is a non-ecclesial form of religion and evangelicalism is merely a sociological movement. I have been particularly aware of evangelicalism’s attempt to be transdenominational and international- to be inclusive but at the same time not seeing the role and place of the church in that area.

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J. I. Packer in the book Ancient & Postmodern Christianity wrote a chapter entitled “A Stunted Ecclesiology.” He writes, “I am making a case for genuine churchliness of today’s evangelical church, a churchliness that is directly in line with that of the churches that separated from Rome at the time of the Reformation. It is a case, I believe, that urgently needs to be made, both because this recovered churchliness is a significant fact that is often overlooked and because much of evangelicalism is in a state of cognitive dissonance about it, affirming churchliness yet retaining an ethos and mindset that seems to observers to deny it.” After stating five reasons why evangelicals have a stunted ecclesiology, he concluded, “My hope is that in this new century the churchliness of evangelicalism will become evident. As my analysis shows, the difficulty here is more practical than theoretical. Evangelical ecclesiology is not stunted, but evangelical churchliness as a mindset and an ethos is, and without rethinking and adjustment this will continue, so that the credibility of the evangelical claim to mainstream status as church will remain suspect and perhaps be forfeited….We wait and see.”

For space reasons, I will mention three of the five reasons for his conclusion regarding the church’s stuntedness.
1. The church is too centered on salvation. While Packer states the extreme importance of fully grasping the gospel, the focus of the church has been so much directed in that area that it has led to a human centered theologizing which sets human needs center stage and makes the Trinity’s role simply one of saving individuals. He says “church life is thought out and set forth in terms of furthering people’s salvation rather than of worshiping and glorifying God.”

2. The parachurch-centeredness is virtually an evangelical trademark. While maintaining that parachurch ministries are needed for the kingdom, they tend to take away from or divert resources and people from the church to the parachurch direction. He writes, “Sadly, by the same narrowing process that was described above, these agencies of God’s kingdom draw interest, prayer, enthusiasm, and money away from the wider-ranging, slower-moving, less glamorous realities of congregational life, so that the parachurch body comes to have pride of place in supporters’ affections and in effect to be their church.”

3. The independent church syndrome. Packer says this matches the above but goes further than the parachurch centeredness. While we thank God for the churches, Packer says, “A problem lurks here. Independent congregations are such through declining connectional bonds with other congregations- such bonds, I mean, as synods, councils, superintendent ministers, bishops, and court systems provide.” (Packer is an Anglican by church affiliation).

Our experience would concur with the above characteristics listed by Packer, and we are not encouraged because such characteristics are proliferating. As we highlight some of John Stott’s thoughts and comments on the church in his latest book, we are reminded of his statements in other articles that the churches of the West are tired and in need of a rest. Of course, the implication is that the church cannot afford to be tired and in need of a rest. I believe there is a clear correlation between a low view of the church and a lack of understanding of the Kingdom of God and how the church fits into and relates to the broader kingdom, although there are so many ways we could go with this if space allowed. Much of evangelical Christianity has not appreciated nor gotten that relationship straight in the past, and much of today’s broad emerging church paradigm doesn’t have a clear biblical theological model for the church and its place within the kingdom. Hence, the church is not taken with the seriousness that I believe one should take with the bride of Christ or His body.

While I have made it a point over the years to read everything I can by Stott, this little book on the church is outstanding. Even though I could have wished for the reader’s sake that he would have dealt more with the kingdom in connection with the church, this is an excellent book. I was privileged to read the galley proofs before going to press. I could not put it down. Here is a churchman in his late 80’s, actually 86 years of age, writing about his observations and challenges regarding the church. The opening statement of the pre face regarding the Church of England equally applies to the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, especially to the Presbyterian Church in America. Quoting the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, Stott writes, “If the current evangelical renewal in the Church of England is to have a lasting impact, then there must be more explicit attention given to the doctrine of the church.” Stott mentions the increased number of books focusing on the theme that the church is “out of tune with contemporary culture and that unless it comes to terms with change, it faces extinction. “Of course he said the church will prevail. When the paradigm in western culture began to shift from modernism to post modernism, the shift had a definite impact on the church.

Stott is right to suggest that how the shift plays out requires much discernment, especially for those identified with the church. He wisely counsels, “It seems to me that the traditional and emerging churches need to listen to one another, with a view to learning from one another. “The traditional church is a reference to the church as we have generally known it over the years. The emerging church is a general statement referring to those who are attempting to develop new paradigms for the church following much of postmodern philosophy.

He further reminds us to remember that while culture goes through constant change, Scripture is unchangeable. Then he states that the purpose of this book “is to bring together a number of characteristics of what I will call an authentic or living church, whether it calls itself ’emerging’ or not.”

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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