The Trinity in the Old Testament

beckwithCarl Beckwith, a Lutheran theologian, explains a little bit about how God revealed His triune nature in the Old Testament scriptures:

What are we to make of Scripture variously identifying the sole creator of the heavens and the earth as YHWH, Elohim, Word, Spirit, Wisdom, and Father? The answer must be that the scriptural understanding of monotheism encompasses both Is 44: 24 (“ Thus says YHWH, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: I am YHWH, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself”) and Gn 1: 1, Dt 32: 6, and Ps 33: 6.

Scripture declares that YHWH by Himself made all things, stretched out the heavens, and made us from the womb. According to Scripture, however, the same may be said of the Father, the Word/ Wisdom, and the Spirit. Further, Scripture insists that we have one creation, not three, and that these three created, not that they contributed a part here and a part there. Their work of creation is one.

The only responsible conclusion according to the Scriptures is to confess the correlative and coequal working of Father, Word/ Wisdom, and Spirit, and to locate all three— equally and eternally— within the unique identity of YHWH, our Elohim.

Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 4538-4547.

The Tale of the Two Husbands

contrastOnce upon a time, in a far away land, there lived two doting husbands; Peter and George. From the outside, they were similar in every possible way. Peter was a successful businessman in the city, and George an executive at a large bank. Both were still younger men, around 40 years of age. Both had been married about 15 years. Both had two children. Each was blissfully unaware of the other’s existence.

They lived and worked in the same city, commuted to the same suburb, and, quite unwittingly, frequented the same café every Tuesday morning (at nine sharp). They moved in the same circles, in overlapping orbits, but their lives never touched . . . until yesterday.

On that day, after a particularly hard day at the office, Peter and George each found their way to a upscale florist in the city. It was an expensive place, with scandalous prices. Peter and George didn’t care – they were on a mission. Flowers and chocolates were the order of the day, and a quick trip home to the wife. Fences needed to be mended, sores patched up, an armistice signed.

You see, Peter and George had each treated their wives in a beastly fashion lately, and it was time to make amends. Battles had been fought, blood had been shed; unforgivable things had been spoken. Now, both men were prepared to surrender, and flowers and chocolates were the first tentative steps towards a cease-fire.

Home they went, fighting the same traffic, the same commuters, even (ironically) each other at one point. Finally, they arrived home, steeled themselves for marital combat, and plunged into the arena, ready to set things right so peace could reign in their households once more . . .

What happened, you ask?

Peter’s wife forgave him for his sins. George’s wife smacked him across the face, flung his dinner at him, stuffed the flowers in the toilet, and raced away to her mother’s house for the night, bringing the children with her.

Why the different reactions?

  1. Peter was genuinely sorry for his sins. He told his wife he was sorry, and outlined what, exactly, he was going to do to fix things – starting now. He didn’t just talk; he acted. He proved his sincerity by his actions, and together, they built their marriage stronger and forged ahead.
  2. George wasn’t sorry. The flowers and chocolates (hazelnut chocolate, of course) were a bribe, a holding action. He didn’t want to change at all. But, he figured he could buy some time and (why not?, he figured wickedly), some “affection” with this peace offering. It didn’t work, of course. His wife saw through him; he’d pulled this trick one too many times. George sat alone, in the dark, and thought pitiful thoughts while his wife sobbed at her mother’s.

Why the parable?

This parable illustrates two completely different approaches to a relationship with God; one Christian and the other pagan.

  1. Peter is the man who truly loves God. He admits when he does wrong (i.e. “confesses his sins”). When he says he’s sorry, he means it. Not only that, he proves his sincerity by concrete action (i.e. “repents”). He serves God because he loves Him, and when he makes mistakes (which are often), he is genuinely sorry.
  2. George is the man who doesn’t love God. He claims he’s sorry, but he lies. He doesn’t mean it, because nothing ever changes. He’s an empty suit, a man who lies out of habit. He’s never sorry. He’s just anxious to bribe his way out of trouble with false promises and false assurances.

Any wife can tell the difference between these two men. And, to extend the analogy of the parable, God can tell the difference between them, too.

The divide here is about motivation.

  1. Why do we serve God?
  2. What is our aim, our motivation, the self-conscious outcome we’re looking for?
  3. Do we seek cheap favor with God by bribery, or do we seek to serve Him because we love Him?

There is a chasm between these two positions.

What difference does it make?

It makes all the difference in the world. It certainly made a difference between Peter and George, didn’t it? Some confessing Protestants seek to blur these lines, as if they’re irrelevant. One of those people is Matthew Bates.

I’ve mentioned Bates several times in the past few weeks, because I’m reading his new book Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Bates has a PhD from a Roman Catholic institution, and teaches at a Roman Catholic school. In his book, he’s deliberately trying to build a bridge that Protestants and Catholics can cross together. He’s wrong.

Consider the Tale of the Two Husbands, and the motivation Peter and George had for their actions. They had the same outward actions, but completely different goals and objectives. Now, consider what Bates wrote:[1]

As nearly all Christians agree, perseverance in allegiance is required. If the union were to be severed by an unrepentant cessation of pistis (allegiance to Jesus as Messiah-king), then the continuing presence of the union-securing and fruit-producing Spirit would be decisively ruptured; the born-again person would experience spiritual death. That individual would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.

Christian traditions disagree about whether or not such a severance is possible. Reformed and some Lutheran Christians prefer to speak of the impossibility of rupture (“eternal security”).

Meanwhile, Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant traditions believe that it is possible for an individual to enter decisively into saving union but then to depart through an unrepentant turning away.

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

Bates says something true, and something terribly wrong:

  1. Obedience is a necessary result of saving faith. You can’t have faith in Christ, then deliberately not obey Him. Actions prove where your heart is. It did for Peter, and it did for George, too.
  2. But, Bates claims that, if a person stops being loyal to Jesus and stops being obedient to His word, then that person “would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.”

Bates advocates a scheme where the person obeys Christ in order to retain eternal life. No matter which way you “nuance” this, you have works salvation. I don’t believe you can argue otherwise.

Typically, Reformed Protestants have argued that loving obedience is a natural result of union with Christ. That is, because our hearts, minds, and souls have been changed, because we have a new nature, and because we now honestly seek to please God, we’ll naturally desire to obey His word. So, in that sense, “good works” are not meritorious for salvation; they’re just the fruit of it.

Elsewhere in his book, Bates rejected this view. I don’t want to go into his reasons here. However, I do want to argue that it does matter which position you take on “good works.” I’ll quote him again:

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

I disagree. This is about self-conscious motivation. When the Christian does what the Bible says, what is his reason for doing it? What outcome does he expect from his “good work?” What result does he expect to achieve by it?

The Protestant (i.e. the Christian) understands salvation is a present, permanent reality, and his “good works” are merely the inevitable and grateful response of the believer to God’s grace. He loves God, and wants to serve Him.

The Roman Catholic, however, sees God’s initial grace in salvation as a gift given to the Christian, which enables him to then merit for himself eternal life:[2]

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life . . .

The Protestant says a Christian simply will persevere in faith and good works until the end, because he loves God and wants to serve Him. The Roman Catholic (and, apparently, Matthew Bates) says the Christian must persevere in order to attain eternal life.

This is not a minor point of doctrine. It’s the difference between Jesus’ Gospel and “another Gospel” (cf. Gal 1). It’s a difference in self-conscious motivation. It’s the difference between Peter and George – and we all know how that turned out . . .

Notes

[1] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 190-191.  

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), Article 2010.

Framing the Gospel All Wrong?

Picture3I have a problem with many Gospel tracts. No doubt, they’re written by well-meaning, kind Christians. But, they’re often badly written, leave out the resurrection completely and invite the reader to pray a pre-scripted prayer (as if obedient recitation will actually do anything). But, perhaps the best reason why I don’t like most Gospel tracts is because they often frame the Gospel all wrong.

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is a context, a backstory, a history and a timeline that produced this Good News. Yet, most Gospel presentations are incredibly self-absorbed . . .

  • It’s all about you and your sin
  • It’s all about God desperately wanting you to join His club
  • It’s about Jesus wanting you to believe in Him, as if He’s a jilted lover, crying in the street like a pitiful damsel, hoping against hope you’ll throw open your door to your heart so He can seek shelter from the storm
  • It’s all about how you can escape hellfire and damnation
  • It’s all about how God loves you and has a great plan for your life

No. No. No.

It isn’t so much that all this is untrue. After all, Jesus did die to atone for our sins. God does desire people to be saved. The Gospel does save you from hellfire. If you’re chosen by God for salvation, then He does have a great plan for your life.

No, the problem is framing. This is framed all wrong. It’s not about you; it’s about God. This kind of presentation (above), which I only slightly exaggerated, is morbidly self-absorbed and selfish. There is no context there. It’s as if the Gospel just dropped out of heaven onto your lap; (1) you’re a sinner, (2) but God loves you and sent Jesus to die for you, (3) so just pray this prayer, and (4) you’re saved. Halleluiah! Pass the popcorn, and fill the baptistery.

I’ll write more on this later. For now, ponder this:

Christianity is all about the human response of faith, or so popular teaching and perception would have us believe. Undeniably, faith is essential to Christianity— right? Or is it? I would argue that like rot in an apple, much of the malaise in contemporary Christianity stems from a rotten core. The gospel, salvation, and the Christian life have little to do with “faith” or “belief” as generally defined or understood, and this is the decay in the interior— so much so that it would be best if these words were abandoned with regard to discussions of salvation among Christians.

The Greek word pistis, generally rendered “faith” or “belief,” as it pertains to Christian salvation, quite simply has little correlation with “faith” and “belief” as these words are generally understood and used in contemporary Christian culture, and much to do with allegiance. At the center of Christianity, properly understood, is not the human response of faith or belief but rather the old-fashioned term fidelity.

The author continued, later in his book, and explained:

My intention is not to flatten the rich multiple meanings and nuances of pistis into a bland singleness. Rather it is to claim that, when discussing salvation in generalized terms, allegiance is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis (p.78).

These are provocative words, and Bates’ book is full of provocative thoughts. I don’t agree with all of them, but I do appreciate all of them. However, he does hit upon something profound – does our modern notion of “faith” match what the Old and New Testament consider “faith” to be? Has our “me-centered” culture made us unwittingly re-frame the Gospel in a very selfish way?

We must remember that God has a kingdom, Jesus will rule over this kingdom, and Christians are His slaves whom He’s rescued from darkness, and all who reject the Gospel (i.e. reject the King) will be killed.

So, what is faith?  When we preach the Gospel to unbelievers, how should we frame the Gospel story? When we urge people to “repent and believe” and be justified “by faith,” what is faith, exactly?

  • If God has been working all salvation history towards His coming Kingdom (see Revelation 21-22)
  • and if Jesus will be the King of this Kingdom
  • and if Christians will spend eternity worshipping Him and serving Him in a new earth, in a new and better creation

Then, are we really capturing the essence of “faith” if we reduce it to “I believe in Jesus!” Isn’t there a bit more freight to the content of this belief?

Surely, whatever else may be said, “”faith” includes allegiance and submission to Christ as King. If we can get this, then perhaps we can begin to appreciate how badly we often frame the Gospel. Perhaps, too, we can begin to have a richer understanding of what faith actually is.

Pssst! Yes, I take the Lordship position on salvation . . .

Learning from Smart, Dead Guys

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaWe really don’t know everything. I know – it’s crazy. Christians stand on the shoulders of dedicated, intelligent and devout brothers and sisters from days gone by. Our very vocabulary, the categories and structures of our theology have been shaped by the controversies and issues of bygone days.

This is why creeds and confessions are such valuable tools in a Christian’s arsenal. See, for example:

  1. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith
  2. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
  3. The Belgic Confession

So, because Christians before us have already puzzled and thought until their puzzlers were sore, I’ve decided to take some time to read about Christology from some 4th century Christians. Last year, I translated the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 AD). I plan to write a short introduction and commentary on it, and basically use it as a vehicle to teach 4th century Christology.

In order to really understand what was going on in the 4th century, I need to do two things:

  1. I need to read some good history books, and
  2. I need to read what Christians from the 4th century actually wrote about Christ, and see how they responded to the Arian heresies and the controversy about the Holy Spirit.

That’s where Athanasius of Alexandria comes in. He was a key figure in the Christological controversies of the 4th century; perhaps the key player. I don’t have time to read everything he wrote (that would take a while!), but I am taking time to read some of it.

That brings me to the point. The man was a genius. It’s always humbling to learn something from really smart, dead guys. And, to top it off, Athanasius didn’t even have wireless internet!

In this short excerpt from his work On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius tackled the objection that Jesus’ death was humiliating and unfitting for the Son of God. Read what he has to say, and think about it:

For perhaps a man might say even as follows: If it was necessary for His death to take place before all, and with witnesses, that the story of His Resurrection also might be believed, it would have been better at any rate for Him to have devised for Himself a glorious death, if only to escape the ignominy of the Cross.

But had He done even this, He would give ground for suspicion against Himself, that He was not powerful against every death, but only against the death devised for Him; and so again there would have been a pretext for disbelief about the Resurrection all the same. So death came to His body, not from Himself, but from hostile counsels, in order that whatever death they offered to the Saviour, this He might utterly do away.

And just as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not pick out his antagonists for himself, lest he should raise a suspicion of his being afraid of some of them, but puts it in the choice of the onlookers, and especially so if they happen to be his enemies, so that against whomsoever they match him, him he may throw, and be believed superior to them all; so also the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, even Christ, did not devise a death for His own body, so as not to appear to be fearing some other death; but He accepted on the Cross, and endured, a death inflicted by others, and above all by His enemies, which they thought dreadful and ignominious and not to be faced; so that this also being destroyed, both He Himself might be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be brought utterly to nought.

So something surprising and startling has happened; for the death, which they thought to inflict as a disgrace, was actually a monument of victory against death itself. Whence neither did He suffer the death of John, his head being severed, nor, as Esaias, was He sawn in sunder; in order that even in death He might still keep His body undivided and in perfect soundness, and no pretext be afforded to those that would divide the Church.[1]

You’d be surprised how much you read in Christian books is really just a regurgitation of stuff somebody else said a long time ago. I’m learning a lot from Athanasius. I can also see where our understanding of theology has, in some instances, advanced beyond him – particularly in the 5th century, leading up to the Chalcedonian Creed. But, what an explanation he provided here!

You can learn a lot from smart, dead guys . . .

Notes:

[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson (New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 4:49.

Leviticus . . . and the Burnt Offering

lev 1(4)The Book of Leviticus is a strange place for many Christians. They usually avoid it. It’s strange, they think. Weird. Isn’t all that Old Testament stuff over and done with, anyway? Well, as they say, “it’s complicated.”

I’m starting a short audio teaching series through the Book of Leviticus, chapter by chapter. Every teaching lesson will be stored here.

This is the first installment, on (of course) Chapter 1 – which covers the burnt offering. I know you’re excited to hear all about it. I can tell. Take a listen; hopefully this series will be a help to you – it was to me as I studied for it!

How to Study the Bible (Part 2)

Read the series so far.

How to Begin

Studying the Bible isn’t hard. I promise. You just need to have a plan. This is how the plan begins – you pick a topic.

Genius, isn’t it!?

What Not To Do

Remember, the Bible isn’t a cookbook of individual verses. The verse numbers are made up. They aren’t there in Greek or Hebrew. Some printer in the 16th century inserted verse numbers in the text during a carriage ride. That’s not a joke. The chapters also aren’t original. Chapter and verse numbers are just a easy way for us to find and reference things in the Bible, but they sometimes stop us from seeing the context.

So, before we go any further, know this:

  • Don’t study the Bible by compiling a bunch of verses from all over the place
  • Don’t study the Bible by looking for a particular word in a concordance
  • Don’t. Do. It. Please. I. Am. Begging. You.
  • Instead, study the Bible by reading passages. More on this later.

Pick a Topic

What do you want to study? Think about it. Be specific with your question. Narrow things down a little bit. A question that is too broad (e.g. “why did Christ come?”) will probably take a while to study. If you whittle your question down a bit (e.g. “what did Christ accomplish for sinners?”), then everything becomes much easier.

Not So Fast!

I suggest you do a few things before you dive right in to gathering data.

Talk to your pastor

Ask your Pastor for his answer. Don’t just bum-rush the poor guy 30 seconds after he finishes his sermon. Schedule a time for a brief chat, and tell him what you want to talk about. Have your talk. Take some notes.

Look at your church’s doctrinal statement

This will give you a lot of food for thought. It will also give you references to didactic (i.e. teaching) passages where your church believes this is all taught. Copy the passages down. Read them. Take notes. Pray. Think. Repeat.

Look at old creeds and confessions

Look at some confessions of faith from the past, to see what other Christians from days gone by have thought about this same question. Yes, there were Christians smarter than us who lived long ago, who already pondered all of this, and already wrote down their thoughts. You can read what they thought, and learn a few things.

I’m a Baptist, so here are three Baptist confessions I’d check out, along with two others:

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession is short, punchy and very, very helpful. It’s a good place to go for a quick baseline read on what conservative Baptists have believed. This confession is the basis for the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith, and the General Association of Regular Baptist Church’s articles of faith, too. It has been a bedrock confession for conservative Baptists in America for nearly two centuries. Take a look at it.

The GARBC’s Articles of Faith are, as I said before, based on the 1833 NHCF. But, it has been updated and expanded. It is clearly premillennial and dispensational. It is the confession which best aligns with my own beliefs.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession is very, very long. This is deep theology, in a lot of detail, with a lot of Scripture passage references. You definitely want to see what this document has to say.

The Belgic Confession was produced by Reformed Christians in the Netherlands. It is also long, very detailed, and full of Scripture references. It is a good reference document. The man who wrote it died as a martyr.

The Second Helvetic Confession was produced by the Swiss Reformed church in the 16th century, and was adopted by a whole host of national churches in Europe during and after the Reformation Era. This is a very thorough, very helpful document.

Remember this – you don’t have to agree with everything you read in these creeds and confessions. Nobody will ever agree on everything. But, you should read the pertinent sections where your question is addressed, and give serious thought to what they say.

Do you still need to look further?

Maybe your question has been answered. Maybe, after:

  • Talking to your Pastor for 30 minutes,
  • Reading your church’s doctrinal statement and reading the passages it cites,
  • then reading some historic creeds and/or confessions about your topic

your questions have all disappeared! After all, you should work smarter, not harder.

Example

You want to know how Adam was originally created. He wasn’t perfect, obviously! But, he also wasn’t like us. So, what was he like?

You meet with your Pastor, and even buy him a coffee because you’re such a nice person. He tells you Adam was not like us. Adam was innocent. He was made “very good.” Unlike us, he was “kind of morally neutral,” and had the free choice to obey God or reject Him. Adam didn’t have a sin nature, and wasn’t drawn or pulled by the temptation to sin like we are. In fact, this is so strange to us that we can’t even imagine what this must have been like!

You go away, energized and ready for more. Your church doctrinal statement reads:

We believe that man was created in the image and likeness of God, but that in Adam’s sin the human race fell, inherited a sinful nature, and became alienated from God; and, that man is depraved, and, of himself, utterly unable to remedy his lost condition (Gen. 1:26-27; Rom. 3:22-23; 5:12; 6:23; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19).

This tells you . . . nothing. Thanks a lot.

Next, you turn to the confessions. The Belgic Confession reads, in part:

We believe that God created man from the dust of the earth and made and formed him in his image and likeness– good, just, and holy; able by his own will to conform in all things to the will of God.

But when he was in honor he did not understand it and did not recognize his excellence. But he subjected himself willingly to sin and consequently to death and the curse, lending his ear to the word of the devil.

For he transgressed the commandment of life, which he had received, and by his sin he separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his entire nature.

This is good stuff. This suggests Adam was good and holy. Unimpeded by a sin nature, Adam truly has a choice to follow God or listen to Satan and rebel against God. He deliberately decided to sin, and thus ruined himself and all of creation, too.

This is a little different from what you Pastor said, but it’s still in the same ballpark. In this confession, Adam isn’t neutral – he’s inclined to good and to righteousness.

The Second Helvetic Confession reads, in part:

In the beginning, man was made according to the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, good and upright. But when at the instigation of the serpent and by his own fault he abandoned goodness and righteousness, he became subject to sin, death and various calamities. And what he became by the fall, that is, subject to sin, death and various calamities, so are all those who have descended from him.

This says the same thing. Adam was good and upright, and he had every advantage one could wish for. But, at Satan’s suggestion, he made his own decision to “abandon goodness and righteousness.”

What saith the 1689 London Baptist Confession? I’m glad you asked:

Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honor;  Satan using the subtlety of the serpent to subdue Eve, then by her seducing Adam, who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given to them, in eating the forbidden fruit, which God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

It says the same thing. What about more modern stuff?

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith reads:

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.

Same thing. It’s almost as though there’s a pattern here!

The GARBC Articles of Faith read:

We believe that mankind was created in innocence (in the image and likeness of God) under the law of his Maker, but by voluntary transgression Adam fell from his sinless and happy state, and all human beings sinned in him, in consequence of which all human beings are totally depraved, are partakers of Adam’s fallen nature, and are sinners by nature and by conduct, and therefore are under just condemnation without defense or excuse.

I told you this confession is derived from the 1833 NHCF. Notice it’s pretty much the same, but they dropped “holiness” for “innocence.” I think they’re trying to get the idea across that Adam wasn’t “holy” in the sense of “divine.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Here is your data, so far:

  • Your Pastor says Adam had an innocent, holy nature, and was morally neutral
  • Your church doctrinal statement says nothing.
  • All four confessions you’ve looked at, spanning from 1564 – 2017, agree that Adam was made holy and/or innocent, but made the deliberate decision to rebel against God.
  • If Adam was holy and innocent, then temptation exerted no internal pull, tug or struggle within him. It was an external thing, and the draw for Adam wasn’t that he would gratify himself. The draw was that, by eating from the tree, he would free himself from God’s rule and be like Him. Interesting stuff. Makes you want to go back and re-read Genesis 1-3!
  • You’ve studied the Scripture references your Pastor and the confessions have given you

At this point, you need to ask yourself – do I still have questions? No worries. If you do, we go onto the next step . . . next time!

The Marks of a Church (Part 1)

churchWhen it a church not a church? It’s an important question.

What are the essential, non-negotiable elements which must be present, in order for a religious group to be considered a Christian church? These elements have historically been called the “marks of a church.”

 

  • How many marks are there?
  • What does the New Testament tell us?
  • Do each of these marks have to be present?
  • Can a few be absent?
  • If so, how many can be missing before a church is no longer a church?

This might seem like silly, ivory tower nit-picking. After all, who cares as long as you love Jesus, right?

Wrong.

Imagine this scenario:

  • A group of eager, young Christians gather at a local Starbucks every Sunday for a bible study – at 1100 sharp!
  • A different “leader” takes a turn every week reading a passage of Scripture and explaining it. The group always has a wonderful discussion. “The Spirit is, like, really moving in our lives,” one attender explains, eyes alight with joy.
  • Once per month or so (“whenever we feel the Spirit leading us”), they observe the Lord’s Supper together. But, they like being different. So, the group usually observes the ordinance with Cheese-Its and Diet Coke. They tried pita crackers and milk once. It didn’t go over so well. It was . . . gross.

One attender explains he doesn’t feel the need to go to a “traditional church.”

It’s, like, so confining. I used to go to a ‘normal’ church, but it just became, like, way too much. All the rules. All the stuff that just, you know, like, gets in the way. I like coming here better. It’s like we’re getting back to the, you know, the  . . . the purity that Jesus always talked about. Here, we just keep it simple. No rules. No judgment. Just the Word and the Spirit. I’ve grown in Christ more here than I ever did in a traditional church. When the Spirit is working, who am I to judge or criticize, ya know?

Does this young man go to a “church”? Is his Starbucks fellowship a church? Why, or why not? You see? It does matters what a “church” really is, and what it isn’t. And for that, we must turn to the New Testament.

Baptist theologian Kevin Bauder explained this dilemma pretty well:

An analogy may be helpful. A dog by definition is (among other things) a quadruped. If it loses a leg, does it cease to be a dog, or is it simply a damaged dog? How many appendages can it lose before it can no longer be called a dog? Eventually, if one lops off enough parts, the dog dies. The same principle applies to churches. How many characteristics can be lost before a church can no longer be called a church? Baptists do not have a single, straightforward answer to this question.[1]

For the foreseeable future, I’ll be systematically working my way from Acts – Revelation, trying to answer:

  1. What are the marks of a church?
  2. Can any of these marks be missing?

As I finish my review of each New Testament book, I’ll post my thoughts here. I’m not sure how long this will take, but it will surely be fun!

For now, here are some thoughts from a smart, dead guy on this matter:

When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exist, our meaning is, that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults.

Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like.

Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord?

The words of the apostle are, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you,” (Phil. 3:15.)

Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.

Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord.

Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, “If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace,” (1 Cor. 14:30.) From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order.

In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged[2]

Notes

[1] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 217.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 4.1.12.