Friday, December 15, 2006

The church, "pillar and foundation of the truth"

A lot of the issues being discussed lately in Southern Baptist life (as well as in Evangelical life at large) revolve around our understanding of the “church” (or the “Church”). It seems to me that various participants in the discussion are coming from widely different perspectives.

At one time, the majority of Southern Baptists appear to have embraced a very narrow view of church, encapsuled in the Landmarkist movment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The main points of this movement, according to the Wikipedia article on Landmarkism (of which our brother and fellow blogger, Bart Barber, confesses to being a primary contributor), are: 1) The exclusive validity of Baptist churches; and 2) The invalidity of non-Baptist churchly acts. Although the influence of Landmarkism has waned a good bit since that time, many believe it is making a comeback in Southern Baptist life in recent years.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, a group of people, affiliated in great part with the Emerging Church movement, have adopted a much more loosely defined understanding of church. At a recent conference entitled “You say you want a Revolution!,” researcher and author, George Barna, gave nine reasons why he “left the conventional church for a house church.” In his book, Revolution, Barna makes it quite clear that he no longer believes that it is necessary for Christians to be members of and participate in a “local church.” When I first heard about Barna’s book, I thought some people might be over-reacting. Surely it was just a question of semantics. But, upon reading the book, I was confronted with quotes such as the following:


“Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrevelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God). What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.” (p.29)

“If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.” (p. 36)

“There is nothing inherently wrong with being involved in a local church. But realize that being part of a group that calls itself a ‘church’ does not make you saved, holy, righteous, or godly any more than being in Yankee Stadium makes you a professional baseball player.” (p. 36)

“Ultimately, we expect to see believers choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.” (p. 66).

“The major concern about the Revolution is that millions of its adherents are not affiliated with a local church. As described in earlier chapters, Revolutionaries’ distancing themselves from formal congregations does not reflect a willingness to ignore God as much as a passion to deepen their connection to Him. In my experience, Revolutionaries do not try to draw other people away from the local church. Theirs is a personal choice based on a genuine desire to be holy and obedient, but finding that need better served outside the framework of congregational structures.” (pp. 112-13)

“In fact, there is no verse in Scripture that links the concepts of worshipping God and a ‘church meeting.’” (p. 114)

“It seems that God really doesn’t care how we honor and serve Him, as long as He is number one in our lives and our practices are consistent with His parameters. If a local church facilitates that kind of life, then it is good. And if a person is able to live a godly life outside of a congregation-based faith, then that, too, is good.” (p. 116)

“I am not called to attend or join a church. I am called to be the Church.” (p. 129)
From what I understand, Barna, and many others espousing similar views, are well-motivated. They really are interested in glorifying God, advancing His Kingdom, and honoring His Word. I consider him to be a brother in Christ, as well as a treasured co-laborer in the work of the gospel. I myself have been greatly blessed and helped by Barna’s book The Power of Vision. But, on this particular issue, I believe He is wrong. If he were just anybody, what he is saying might not merit that much attention. But, according to the publicity for the Revolution conference, Barna is "the most quoted person in the Church today."

From what I can make out, there is indeed something called the “local church” that is commended to us in the Bible as an important part of God’s plan for this age. It is not enough to say that we are all a part of the “Universal Church,” and that all that really matters is that, in one way or another, we are fulfilling the functions we are meant to fulfill as believers in Christ.

Paul, in 1 Timothy 3.15, tells us that the “church” is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” Some, such as Roman Catholics, have taken this verse, and inferred that the authority of the Roman hierarchy takes precedence even over that of the Bible. I do not at all agree with this interpretation. But, I do see, that in the context in which this verse is placed (right between vv. 1-13, that talk about qualifications of elders, deacons, and either wives or women in ministry, according to the translation you prefer; and v. 16, that talks about the essence of the gospel) seems to indicate a significant role for the local church, with local church offices, and accountability structures, as a key part of His plan to bring the gospel message to the world.

On Jan. 25, 2005, the IMB issued the following statement:


The definition of a local church is given in the 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message:

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scriptures.

GUIDELINES

We believe that every local church is autonomous under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His inerrant word. This is as true overseas as it is in the United States. Some churches to which we relate overseas may make decisions in doctrine and practice which we would not choose. Nevertheless, we are accountable to God and to Southern Baptists for the foundation that we lay when we plant churches, for the teaching that we give when we train church leaders, and for the criteria that we use when we count churches. In our church planting and teaching ministries, we will seek to lay a foundation of beliefs and practices that are consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, although local churches overseas may express those beliefs and practices in different ways according to the needs of their cultural settings. Flowing from the definition of a church given above and from the Scriptures from which this definition is derived, we will observe the following guidelines in church planting, leadership training and statistical reporting.

1. A church is intentional about being a church. Members think of themselves as a church. They are committed to one another and to God (associated by covenant) in pursuing all that Scripture requires of a church.

2. A church has an identifiable membership of baptized believers in Jesus Christ.

3. A church practices the baptism of believers only by immersing them in water.

4. A church observes the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.

5. Under the authority of the local church and its leadership, members may be assigned to carry out the ordinances.

6. A church submits to the inerrant word of God as the ultimate authority for all that it believes and does.

7. A church meets regularly for worship, prayer, the study of God’s word, and fellowship. Members of the church minister to one another’s needs, hold each other accountable, and exercise church discipline as needed. Members encourage one another and build each other up in holiness, maturity in Christ, and love.

8. A church embraces its responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission, both locally and globally, from the beginning of its existence as a church.

9. A church is autonomous and self-governing under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His Word.

10. A church has identifiable leaders, who are scrutinized and set apart according to the qualifications set forth in Scripture. A church recognizes two Biblical offices of church leadership: pastors/elders/overseers and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
I am in essential agreement with this statement. My only possible caveat would be, if, someone, on the basis of this statement, were to try to argue (a la the Landmarkists) that “non-Baptist” churches were not authentic churches. I am also happy to use these guidelines as an IMB worker as we are specifically involved in “church planting” work.

It is true that many of the cultural expressions of church may vary from context to context. For instance, in many contexts around the world, IMB missionaries are finding that several different types of “house church” or “cell church” models seem to be helpful in penetrating their local culture with the gospel. I see no inherent incompatibility with this and the guidelines given above.

I do, however, see some potential incompatibility with what I read from people like Barna and these guidelines. And, when faced with such a dilemma, I am inclined to side with the IMB guidelines (not just out of a sense of duty or organizational loyalty, but out of scriptural interpretation and conviction). I would hope that IMB colleagues, as well as other fellow workers in the Lord’s vineyard (whether in SBC circles or otherwise), would use some serious discernment when reading things well-intentioned people like Barna are writing about “the church.” If, as Paul says to Timothy, the church really is “the pillar and ground of the truth,” we do need to be careful with how we deal with it.


*Other thoughtful perspectives on related issues to this topic (all somewhere in between the extremes of the Landmarkist position on the "right", and Barna's position on the "left"), can be found from:

Bart Barber (expressing a view somewhat to the "right" of my own), at Praisegod Barebones, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and other assorted posts.

Alan Knox (expressing a view somewhat to the "left" of my own), on various assorted posts at The Assembling of the Church.

John Reisinger (expressing a view somewhat closer to my own), here. here, here, here, here and here.


28 comments:

Alan Knox said...

David,

I have never been called "left" before... But, thank you for mentioning me. You are correct that I don't hold to a strong position on the "local church".

I hope to post soon about an alternative to the "local church" language.

Thank you for this great post!

-Alan

Alycelee said...

David, many home churches, see themselves and operate as "local churches."

I was saved as a result of a "home church" ministry. About 8 couples meet regularly in a home after being ask to leave our local Baptist church (we had not been ask but the others had been). They were ask to leave because they begin to have Saturday night Bible studies and invited people to come and share with them that were not from "that particular" church and not necessarily from the denomination. No tongues, nothing really controversial, just not something the pastor could control. So, A new "home church" was built.

I went to the Sat night study, heard a young man speak on prayer in April 1972, came home and received Christ. I guess I'm a little biased about home church. I met Jesus there. Agape

David Rogers said...

Alycelee,

I hope I was clear enough in what I wrote that I by no means consider "home churches" or "house churches" to necessarily be defective in their ecclesiology. The problem, as I see it, is when, under the name "house churches," the biblical directives regarding church, are lost by the wayside, in favor of a less restrictive structure, which basically amounts to no accountability, and no recognized leadership, membership, or discipline.

David Rogers said...

Alan,

I certainly don't mean to call you a "liberal," or even a "moderate" for that matter. Just a bit "left" of me, on this particular issue. And, I am learning a lot as well as enjoying the fruitful dialogue we are having regarding these issues over at your "place."

Blessings,

David

Alycelee said...

David, in no way to I mean to be argumentative with you. I have a great deal of respect for you and look for you to write here everyday. I would like to discuss this with you since I do have practical experience with a home church.

AccountabilibyMy "home/house church" certainly did have accountability. We were accountable to one another. In fact I believe the accountability was greater in that structure than in any church I've every been a member of. If however, you mean "accountable" as in the Missouri church being ask to leave the association because they have a female associate pastor, well, I take issue with that kind of accountability anyway, since for me that would require some sort of "apostolic" oversight and I don't believe associations and conventions have that.
LeadersIn our home church we did have leaders. We had two pasters and in the growth of that church it grew to 4 elders. The leadership grew from within the church as the church grew. From my perspective a more scriptural way than hiring a pastor from without.
membershipI'm not sure what you mean here. Baptized into the body? We practiced new testiment baptism.
discipline There is never a better way to exercise discipline that in intimate relationships. I've never seen this practiced in a real way in a larger church format. In small "cell group or home group" life, it is accepted and welcomed out of love relationship.
I warned you David I'm biased.
However all the people I was involved in this home church with, I still maintain relationships with today-35 years later.

Alan Knox said...

David,

I understood what you meant, but thank you for the clarification. I sometimes walk in circles that consider the word "left" a dirty word. I don't, because I have learned that the term is relative.

I have also enjoyed interacting with you. As I have mentioned on several blogs, "missionaries" seem to be thinking about the church more than us home folk. Hopefully, that will change.

-Alan

mr. t said...

David,

Thanks for this excellent treatment on church. I have read the book you mention and agree with you. Barna takes it a bit too far. He seems to be favoring the individualistic approach over a personal faith in the context of community. I think that is very dangerous to follow that line of thinking as it inevitably leads to doing "what seems right in our own eyes". We desparately need other believers to follow the Lord, as much as we need individual faith, His Spirit and the Word in our lives.

Also, Barna seems to devalue the local church. Just because we see poor examples of how to be and do church all around us, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. I am all for the concept of function over form (as long as it follows biblical function) but I am not in favor of innovation just for innovation's sake. We must follow biblical patterns for church above whatever new concept an individual entrepeneur may invent to become more relevant to our culture. Let's be open to new forms of church so that we can be relevant to our culture and continue to effectively evangelize. But let's make sure we stay close to the biblical pattern for church, or we may end up building and expanding the wrong kingdom.

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, David,

Obviously, Barna's book gives me the heebie-jeebies (yes, I did look up how to spell that).

David Rogers said...

Alycelee,

From everything you are telling me so far about this "home church," just as I said in my post, "I see no inherent incompatibility with this and the guidelines given above." I think "house church" can be a very wonderful, and in many ways, perhaps even the most biblical expression of church. The problem I have, once again, is when you try to "cut corners" with New Testament ecclesiology.

Alan Knox said...

David,

I agree that we always run into problems when we try to "cut corners" with New Testament ecclesiology. The problem, as I see it, is that many people do not know what the New Testament says about the church. So, we don't know when we are cutting corners and when we are not cutting corners.

I think that you, and many others, are encouraging further thought about what the New Testament says about the church. The question that all of us have to answer is this: What are we going to do when the New Testament does not align with our traditions?

Thanks again,

-Alan

Les Puryear said...

David,

Thanks for this post and the link. :)

I am very surprised by Barna's remarks about the local church. I agree wholeheartedly with your view.

Les

GuyMuse said...

I too read Barna's "Revolution" with much interest. My take on what he is saying (and some of your quotes) is not that he is AGAINST the local church, rather a reaction to the stucture and current expression of the local church as most of us know it, especially in the USA. I do think he is right on in describing what the local church will look like more and more in the coming years. Much of what he describes is very close to our own local experience with planting house churches. While we could debate the various points, and can understand people's reactions, THE point is there is a "global revolution" taking place in the church. It is not the "same ol', same ol'" church as we have known it. Hopefully this revolution will stay under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and not get caught up in itself. Just my 2-cents...

David Rogers said...

Guy,

As I mention in my post, I had hoped that upon actually reading Barna's book, I would find it to be saying something like what you are saying here. With that, I have no problem.

However, after reading carefully, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that, while Barna is not against the local church, he definitely does not see it as a necessary part of responsible Christian discipleship. I kept hoping to find that, in saying this, he was giving a narrower definition of "local church" than I would. But, it looks like to me he is not.

From what I have read of the house churches in Guayaquil, for instance, it looks like you are taking biblical ecclesiology, and a commitment to being church in a covenant relationship, with defined accountability structures, quite seriously. Not that Barna would be against that. But, as I read him, he would be completely comfortable with something much more loosely defined than what you are doing there in Guayaquil.

If you see another part of the book, or another reference by Barna somewhere else, that would refute this, I would be more than happy to know about it.

As always, loads of blessings,

David

Ken Sorrell said...

David,

I too have read Barna's book and did so with much interest and surprise. I felt he vacillated between wanting to toss out the current church and start over with a desire toreform the church. As I read I also kept reminding myself that for the pendulum to move to the center, usually someone has to speak from an extreme position. On page 36 Barna does state,

"And despite its faults and flaws, a spiritually healthy local church will always have a valid and valuable role in God's Kingdom on earth."

Now I'm not saying that I accept hook, line, and sinker all that Barna proposes in his work, but he does raise some important questions for the "church" to seriously examine.

For me, the most powerful pages of his book and what I have great difficulty arguing with are found on pages 29 - 35 where from his years of research he examines the effectiveness of our current expression of the local church. Whether or not we accept his conclusions or his solution to these challenges, the fact remains, that we have many serious issues facing the U.S. model and function of what it means to be a local, biblical New Testament church.

David Rogers said...

Ken,

I would agree that Barna's description of the state of the "church" in the US (and this is no doubt applicable to other places, as well) is valid and a cause for concern. My problem with "Revolution" is that he seems to prescribe solutions, without taking seriously enough New Testament ecclesiology.

As cross-cultural missionaries, I would hope we would all be in agreement that there are many cultural accoutrements that are non-obligatory, and that sometimes even get in the way of NT church. But to say "local church," in and of itself, is entirely optional (as I understand Barna to do), in my opinion, puts you on awful thin ice (or maybe even leaves you already in the icy water below) biblically.

What concerns me most of all is that Barna says, on p. 30: "And, most importantly, I have studied God's Word regarding the Church." Yet, he never bothers to do any systematic exposition of NT ecclesiology. While I do not like academic elitism, I am afraid that Barna may have over-extended himself, speaking with authority on matters on which he does not have the sufficient expertise (i.e. theology & hermeneutics). And, many who are legitimately concerned about the needy state of the American church, and the unnecessary and cumbursome cultural baggage it often brings along with it, due to their sympathy with many of his initial theses, are quick to buy into Barna's superficial solutions.

This is where I think our IMB guidelines are helpful. Yes, let's think critically and creatively about the church. But let's not throw out the baby with the bath-water.

Alan Knox said...

David,

You said: "But to say 'local church,' in and of itself, is entirely optional (as I understand Barna to do), in my opinion, puts you on awful thin ice (or maybe even leaves you already in the icy water below) biblically."

What do you mean by 'local church'?

Thanks,

-Alan

David Rogers said...

Alan,

I am comfortable with the following, lifted from the BFM 2000, as a descriptive, but not proscriptive, definition:

"A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

I say "not proscriptive," because there may be some groups that don't technically meet all of these qualifications (e.g. "democratic processes," "pastors and deacons") that I am not ready to necessarily banish to "non-church status" quite yet.

Alan Knox said...

David,

I agree that the BFM2k describes one idea (that is, the SBC idea) of the local church, but as you suggest (without stating it) the BFM2k does not define the local church.

If we treat a group as a "non-church" because they do not follow the "democratic process" or because they do not have "pastors and deacons", I believe we run into problems with Scripture. If we treat a group as a "non-church" because the do not meet every week in a building, I believe we run into problems with Scripture.

These are a few of the reasons that I am having problems with the "local church" designator.

Thanks for continuing this discussion. It is very thought-provoking, and forces me to return to Scripture.

-Alan

David Rogers said...

Alan,

You will notice that neither the BFM2k, nor I, say anything at all about a "building" or frequency or time of meetings. I would throw in, though, that a "church" that does not meet together on a half-way regular basis (admittedly and intentionally subjective phrase) hardly could be accurately termed an "ekklesia."

Alan Knox said...

David,

Yes, I know that you did not mention buildings. The first sentence was from the BFM2k, that second one I added.

I agree that the ekklesia will come together regularly.

-Alan

David Rogers said...

Alan,

I hope I'm not getting overly laborious (or boring) with this. But, maybe this comment will be helpful in my discussion here with Alycelee, Guy, & Ken as well (if any of them are still checking in)... :^)

As best as I can make out, Barna sees no problem with the "meeting together" of the "ekklesia" being hap-hazard or random, nor with what appears to me to be a hap-hazard or random accountability structure. And, that is precisely where I have a problem with Barna.

Alycelee said...

I'll follow this thread to the end, however the best thing for me to do is get the book and read it :)

David, I could not personally use the BF&M as a guide for the local church for example as I do not believe in a "democratic" form of government.

Also, I think the majority examples of church life as we know it, particularly in SBC life are a far cry from a scriptural mandate.
Have I seen one? I'm not sure. But I want to :)

David Rogers said...

Alycelee,

Agreed. As I said to Alan above, I take the "democratic" part of the BFM statement as descriptive (specifically, in this case, of Baptist churches; and even at that, depending on how you codify the "democratic" process) and not proscriptive.

You are not saying, though, that a "church" with a "democratic form of government" is not a church, because of that, are you?

Ken Sorrell said...

David,

I am very comfortable using the IMB church definition and guidelines. I also agree with you that the "local church" or local expression of the body of Christ does have strong biblical support, so I do not think we are too far apart.

I may need to re-read the book again but I guess my impression was less of an attack on New Testament ecclesiology and more of an attack on the current form that the church has evolved into. I will admit that I may have forgotten some key comments that would blow this impression out of the water.

I have gone back and re-read some key passages and his use of local church does not seem to be defined as NT church but current church form. If he were to come out and say emphatically that what the Bible describes as NT church is optional for believers, then I would also have serious issues with his position.

On pages 128-129 he goes through what he calls, "The Affirmations of a Revolutionary." One of his statements says, "I am not called to attend or join a church. I am called to be the church."

My question is what is the difference between this and what we mean when we say, "church is not where we meet, rather church is who we are." Or "being a member of a church does not save you."

I agree that he has probably pushed the edges and would have a difficult time defending biblically some of his statements, but still I like the way he has generated a lot of discussion about church and its place.

I may be extending myself a little too far on this one as well. But I don't think we are that far apart in what we are saying.

Thanks for the discussion.

Alycelee said...

David, no I'm definately not. I can't "define" the church, I only hope to see it and not simply with the limitations of what we see now.
Perhaps, that's what he is trying to say in this book (having not read it, but boy have your guys perked my interest) I will say boldly it is NOT exhaustively what we have seen in the past and I confess when I see someone kicking at the doorpost of conventionalism and tradition I usually welcome it :)
The concept that "we are the church" is far more than a concept, it is indeed scriptural and steers us away from a literal building to a santuary built by God. I welcome that kind of revolution.
I've looked at, for example the church where Voddie Baucham is an elder. To me, the structure of this church (plurality of elders, fathers teaching children at home) no systematic age segregation. This is different and in my opinion offers opportunities to in a real way disciple.
I look for change, welcome change, I think we need change. I don't have the answers-but God does and will send them to us if we remain open to Him to receive them.
Thanks for alerting us to this book. I will read it with an open mind :)

David Rogers said...

While you do not necessarily need to go along (remember, I do not like academic elitism), here is a link to a post with links to what several other noteworthy folks have had to say about Barna's book.

David Rogers said...

By the way, (regarding the last comment) I especially like what Sam Storms had to say.

Alycelee said...

Well now David, now you've gone and done it.
Sam Storms - Yes I read his review.
My husband and I recently went to a reformation conference where he was the keynote speaker. We were able to talk with him for sometime and came away with great respect for him as a teacher in the Church. I've also read some of his books but he isn't a quick read for me.
I need more reading time!
Blessings on you and yours this Christmas and all year.