The “Boundaries” of the Christian Faith (IV)
We are living in a time when modern Christians are super-saturated in confusion about the Church. This is due, in part, to their confusion about the nature and character of God. When you stop and think about it, it becomes clear that the one lies in the extension of the other. The voice that keeps speaking to us from the past is the late Dr. John Leith in his book Crisis in the Church. Dr. Leith made a theological journey from being on the “left” to being right of center. Prior to his death he reflected not only on his spiritual pilgrimage, but also on the health (or illness) of the modern Church. Crisis in the Church is a necessary read not merely for the man and woman in the pew, but also—and especially—for pastors and seminary professors.
Leith is convinced that the plight of mainline Christian, evangelical churches today is not primarily neo-paganism, barbarianism, doubt, the edicts of the Enlightenment, or the culture, but rather “the corruption of the Christian faith.” I concur wholeheartedly. Leith continues, “Only when the church is clear and faithful in its exposition of the Christian faith, is it likely to have impact upon the people of contemporary society.” With these words Leith indicts both the mega-church and Emergent Church movements. The former catered to those outside the Church that they gave the name “seekers” so that the phrase “seeker sensitive” regarding a worship service became a household name.
Few have raised their voices in objection to the phrase although thankfully some have. The phrase itself flies in the face of Scripture, especially Romans 3:10-11 where Paul, citing Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1-3 states, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God.” So if we are going to remain biblical we are forced to admit that no non-believer will ever seek God. It’s a lie; it’s a ruse for him or her to tell us that he’s seeking God and it is equally disingenuous for us to give him or her the impression that he is. Biblically speaking, we are forced to conclude that the only worship service where “seekers” are present is one directed to Christians.
For whatever reason neither the mega-church nor the Emergent tribe has every been able to understand that clear, faithful preaching of the Word of God is the most contemporary, relevant aspect of worship that is undertaken in spirit and truth. Of course, this approach brings certain “drawbacks” with it. For example, it requires the pastor to exegete the biblical text in either Hebrew or Greek and then to have the manhood to say what the text says. This approach is highly unpopular with many today because it could have a very adverse affect on the “numbers.” People might leave or be offended or both—probably both. It would mean that ethical issues such as homosexuality would have to be addressed biblically from the pulpit rather than taking the approaches of Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and other Emergent non-leader leaders who opt for lack of clarity with what Scripture teaches on this subject. Clarity and faithfulness also require saying what Scripture says about the atonement of Christ. This approach would necessitate the use of the “s” word—sin—in sermons.
This leads Leith to surmise that “It is documentable that the churches that have grown not only in recent decades, but also in the last several centuries have done so because they clearly proclaim the basic fundamental Christian commitments.” Note that Leith not only asserts that it is a recent phenomenon that he referring to, but one that has been around for centuries. Why, then, do modern church planters not understand this principle and opt for more “cutting edge” approaches instead? What drives modern churches to refuse to use the “s” word and to attempt to accommodate its audience by telling them that they are something that they are not: seekers?
Leith can affirm that “It is significant today that so many of the churches in American Christianity that are growing and showing signs of vitality are those that proclaim, clearly and without equivocation, the traditional Christian convictions about God…” Looking at the situation from an historical perspective, Leith juxtaposes John Wesley (1703-1791) and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Both of these men addressed the cultural and theological problems of their eras which included Deism, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. Wesley chose to speak clearly from the Christian tradition, while Schleiermacher accommodated his message to the “cultural despisers” and located the foundation of theology in a feeling of “absolute dependence” of the believer on God.
The comparison is an interesting one because Leith is correct that for all of the attention devoted to the cultural despisers of the Christian faith “The followers of Wesley, unlike the disciples of Schleiermacher, were powerful in gathering congregations, reviving churches, and even establishing a new denomination. The impact of Wesley’s theology was not simply on the inner life of the church but also on the influence of the church in the world.”
Two things need to be said here: First, Leith is correct, but Wesley’s theology can hardly be characterized as “traditional” Christianity in the strict sense of the word. Second, it is more accurate to say that God used men like Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards and others to gather, protect, and defend the Church of Jesus Christ, but nonetheless, Leith’s point is well taken. Again, you simply have to ask the question why it is that modern pastors cannot or will not understand this.
Humanly speaking, what was it that made the ministry of people like Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, Kuyper, and others so attractive? Was it that they used gimmicks, slogans, or sales pitches? Were they so culturally relevant and cutting edge that people were irresistibly drawn to them? According to Leith, that way that is most appealing and most commendable is “plain words for plain people.” Wesley, for example, “did his theology out of the Bible, read as God’s revelation.”
Unlike Schleiermacher, Wesley was not a speculative theologian, attempting to win applause by the cleverness and imagination of his mind. “His writings were not political tracts attempting to give his social location in the political correctness of his day.” Rather, people like Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Kuyper, Bavinck, Warfield, Machen, Van Til, and others mined the theological tradition of Scripture, their respective confessional statements, and the Church Fathers.
Even though many mega-church pastors might not mention Schleiermacher by name—or even be acquainted with his theological method!—they are teaching like Schleiermacher did. For those in the Emergent tribe, Schleiermacher looms large as one of their theological “darlings” as well. Leith concludes however, “Theology written in German universities and in the tradition that began with Schleiermacher fascinates many American theologians today. This theology has many striking qualities: generally a wide philosophical background, an intellectual cleverness, and not infrequently a pedantic quality. Yet those who are fascinated with this theology have not, to my knowledge, taken seriously the ineffectiveness of this theology in Germany itself and in Europe.” Leith is spot on with this analysis.
His bottom line for seminary professors and students therefore is: “Is the theology of the university preachable so that it can sustain congregations over a period of time.” That is to say, “…the capacity of certain theologies to gather congregations, nurture and sustain them, and to transform the social order and the weakness of other theologies in their inability either to establish strong communities or to sustain Christian congregations must be taken seriously.”
And it is precisely here that biblical doctrine, preached, taught, embraced, and revered and not despised or pushed under the ecclesiastical (or is it ecclesial?) carpet aids in the spiritual soundness of a local congregation. Leith reminds us that “From the beginning church councils have declared certain doctrines and practices sound and others heretical.” John Calvin insisted that one test of doctrine was its ability to edify. Pastors should present the whole counsel of the doctrinal truth of the Word of God without hesitation.
Although many modern pastors, seminaries, and church agencies have not yet learned this important truth, I bring it to your attention anyway: An impotent theology means an ineffective pastor who cannot build up and lead a congregation. Let me qualify that because it lends itself to misunderstanding. An “effective” pastor is not to be judged by the size of his congregation, his popularity, or Christian celebrity status. We must not think that bigger means “more successful.” An “impotent” theology is anything and everything that is unbiblical or that shies away from biblical truth. When I talk about building up and leading a congregation I’m not talking about showing up to preach. I’m referring to the day-to-day, house-to-house visitation and instruction in the Word of God and the things of God. In our next issues we’ll turn our attention to what it means to teach the Church’s faith.