Yesterday, I began a conversation with Ken Easley and Chris Morgan, the editors of a new biblical theology of the church, The Community of Jesus. We talked about the importance of the church in the plan of God to display His glory, and whether or not the vision of the church we find in Acts is descriptive or prescriptive. Today, we continue our discussion.
Trevin: It’s popular nowadays to talk about “loving Jesus” but “leaving the church.” What is it about North American culture that leads us to dichotomize Jesus and the Church, and what are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
Ken: This trend meshes well with the current American notion that we favor spirituality but not religion.
We think that loving Jesus can be done on an individual basis, and there is no accountability to anyone else for our individual spirituality (This, of course, is one reason there are so many different versions of “Jesus” out there: “My Jesus would never condemn you.”). Because spirituality is privatized, there’s no way to judge it true or false, only personally helpful or not.
When we think of “church,” however, we immediately envision structures (both buildings and bureaucracies). Further, “church” implies something public and organized—open to observation and either praise or criticism. In this way church may be compared to government: once it gets big enough to notice, it’s the flaws more than the benefits that get our attention.
Chris: First, I think we have inadvertently been telling people the church does not matter by highlighting “my personal relationship with Jesus.” Of course, salvation is personal and individual, but we have almost privatized it as Ken mentions. Or “it’s about a relationship, not religion.” We all agree in one sense, but Christianity is about a covenantal relationship with God and thus a covenantal relationship with God’s people, too.
Second, a sound theology of sin reminds us that many of these folks really do not like the Jesus of the Bible either. He is much too demanding. They prefer a version that fits well with their sensibilities. But it could also be that we have so packaged the church into dated cultural forms, that people are rejecting the cultural forms but not really the community of Jesus. They could be rejecting us, our culture, not really the church.
Further, your original question might indicate that the church has not been living up to its calling as the display people. Are we marked by love, unity, holiness, truth, and goodness? Jesus is, but are we? Yes and no. Yes, we are these things in Christ (Eph 2:11-22; 4:1-6). And we are also growing in these areas (Eph 4:1-16).
The church, just like the kingdom, exists in the already and not yet. But it seems there is a severe lack of health in some churches, to the point that many feel the need to “detox” from them after the dysfunction they have experienced. It is not hard to understand why many are repulsed by such churches.
Trevin: What is it about the doctrine of the church that has piqued your curiosity and captured your interest? How can we as evangelicals grow in our knowledge of biblical teaching about the church and our love for the local churches we belong to?
Ken: My interest has been recently captured because of the changing landscape in North American evangelical Christianity over the past 40 years (my adult life), and because of the even more rapidly changing political and cultural landscape. When I graduated from seminary in the late 1970s, evangelical Christianity was seemingly “on a roll.”
“Liberal” churches were in decline; conservative churches were growing in numbers and influence. There would be success in eliminating abortion and promoting traditional marriage. Among Southern Baptists, with the “conservative resurgence” and the battle for inerrancy won, it was believed we would become more missionary-minded, give more generously, keep growing rapidly, and exert wider influence. Things haven’t turned out so optimistically.
At the same time, Christianity lost whatever place of prestige and prominence it had had in American society. The churches—especially those of a more conservative or evangelical bent—often did not know how to respond well to this change. Should we retreat into evangelical ghettoes? Should we keep fighting the (apparently lost) culture wars? How do we disengage ourselves from the God-and-Country outlook that was easy for the World War II generation to embrace, but usually makes little sense to millennials?
Our book is a call for us to look at the church as it appears in Scripture and to recapture the biblical vision of church.
Chris: My story is quite different.
As a young pastor and seminary student, I loved the church but hated ecclesiology. Important but not ultimate questions about the church dominated my perception of ecclesiology—the views and arguments related to baptism, Lord’s Supper, Israel and the church, church discipline, foot washing, denominations, ecumenism, and so on.
And it was because my first exposure to discussions of ecclesiology was in a church whose pastor made obscure ecclesiological debates his specialty. His passion and certainty about odd questions astounded me. Should a Southern Baptist church accept the baptism of a person who was immersed as a believer by a non-denominational church whose theology is baptistic? After all, was that really a church, and could that be baptism?
Or consider this scenario: when a missionary Baptist church wanted to join our local Southern Baptist association of churches, my pastor contended that the missionary Baptist pastor and all the members must be baptized (not kidding). As some pastors go overboard with their view of Calvinism or eschatology, some do with their particular ecclesiologies.
But as I had the privilege of serving as the pastor of churches in Catron, Missouri, and Barstow, California, and as I was teaching ministry students courses in systematic theology, pastoral leadership, and preaching at California Baptist University, I found myself drawn to ecclesiology. It was not to the obscure, though. I kept seeing how central the church is to God’s eternal plan.
I began to see the church in conjunction with the glory of God, salvation history, the kingdom of God, the attributes of God, the image of God, the mission of God, and the call to love, holiness, unity, and truth. The Sermon on the Mount, Acts, Ephesians, and James came alive. Seeing the NT as written by church leaders for the sake of helping churches captured me. Seeing how a careful, biblical view of the church drives pastoral leadership, ministry, evangelism, and preaching has clarified my thinking and honed my approach to ministry.
I now see the importance of the disputed questions, but in a healthier theological and pastoral perspective. Baptism, Lord’s Supper, church discipline, the identity of Israel and the church, denominations, ecumenism—their importance, in my experience, is best viewed from a broader, salvation historical lens on the theology of the church framed by a context of the nature and mission of God.
Further, I have found that seeing the church this way recasts our perspective on pastoral ministry, preaching, leadership, worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, youth ministry, counseling, church planting, missiology, social justice, denominations, ecumenism, hermeneutics, theological method, and theology.
Indeed, I am becoming more and more amazed by the astonishing significance of the church in God’s eternal purpose and sensing the great privilege it is to be a part of Christ’s church.