Three cheers to The Gospel Coalition for posting two articles on church government last Friday. Congregationalist Hunter Powell and his Presbyterian friend Mark Jones put on their wrestling shoes and went after it.
Evangelicals have long been reluctant to tussle over the issues that divide us, like church government. And surely it’s right to prioritize the gospel that unites us. But if the Bible does actually address polity, we should learn how to wrestle over these kinds of issues, and then walk off the mat as friends.
9Marks does not take an official position on polity since we expect the nine marks will benefit Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans alike. Still, perhaps you will permit me a moment to join them on the mat as a congregationalist? I’ve been kicking these arguments around for a while and hope to publish on them soon.
HALF-BAKED NON-CONGREGATIONALIST CRITIQUES
What I appreciate about Mark Jones’ argument is that he doesn’t lob the typical, half-baked critiques of congregationalism one so often hears. For instance, a favorite critique is that “There is no accountability for autonomous congregational churches.” Right. And what accountability is there for an entire presbytery that goes awry? Or general assembly? Or bishopric? That one cuts both ways, friends.
In fact, didn’t both the OPC and PCA have to break from larger Presbyteries because there was no foolproof internal accountability structure? More significantly, can you name a connectional denomination that has remained orthodox for more than a few generations? I’m sure the church historians could dig out a few examples, but how many hands would you need to count them? I can think of a number of churches that have remained faithful this long, starting with my own. But the Church of England? The PCUSA? The Evangelical Lutherans? The United Methodists? What were you saying about accountability?
Then there is the whole school of worst-case-scenario critiques. A Presbyterian friend of mine recently offered a batch of these when he characterized the congregational ordination process as shallow, open to anyone who is hip and can turn a phrase in the pulpit. And then he argued that congregational churches are functionally episcopalian because of their celebrity pastors. All this, of course, is like using the example of an abusive marriage to condemn the institution of marriage. Hunter’s quip about fear being a bad motivator for polity is spot on here.
As for the critique of “voting,” don’t presbyteries vote? And the assembly of laity and bishops in the Church of England? And even Rome’s college of cardinals? Everyone holds a vote. It’s just a question of who votes.
A UNIVERSAL VISIBLE CHURCH?
But like I said, Mark Jones doesn’t go there. He instead offers a positive case for a Presbyterian form of government. The basic gist is that there is a universal visible church is the goal of ecclesiology. And to be clear, “universal visible” means an authority structure which exists between churches and which, were it not for sin and finitude, would be global.
The idea of a universal visible church “arises from the scriptural idea of church unity,” which the Nicene creed mentions and which the “Scriptures are clear about” in passages like Ephesians 4:4-5 and John 17:20-23. So says Jones.
EXCEPTIONAL ACTS 15
Of course, those two passages don’t really say anything about a unified authority structure. Take a look. No matter, there is still Acts 15 and the council of Jerusalem, where representatives of different churches make a decision about circumcision that is binding on all churches for all times.
Congregationalists like myself will typically quickly observe that the apostles were present in Acts 15, which makes it unique, not normative. Presbyterians like Jones just as quickly dismiss the point because, as Jones himself observes, the apostles had “to discuss” the matter. They didn’t simply receive supernatural apostolic guidance. Never mind for the moment that divine inspiration in Scripture typically came through ordinary means, such as Luke’s own work of research in authoring his two books.
Now, I confess I understand why people are shy about discussing polity. With a text like Acts 15, you have at least two groups of people looking at the same data, but coming to different conclusions. So the sheriff and the private detective look at the same crime scene and the same evidence, but one says the butler did it, and the other says the estranged wife did it. It’s tough.
But let me suggest this: if the Bible really did intend for there to be a universal, authority-wielding institutional body, wouldn’t we see more examples of it, and not just this one-off? Wouldn’t examples of presbyteries binding local churches be normal, not exceptional? Might not we even see occasions of it where no apostles were present? I’m arguing from silence here. Still, the absence of any other passage like Acts 15 just might make you wonder if there’s a different explanation, and whether we want to build an entire structure off one passage.
Both Jones and Powell are correct to refer to the keys of the kingdom mentioned in Matthew 16 and 18 as the decisive passages for the topic of church government. And both understand that the question of who holds the keys is what divides presbyterians and congregationalists. As a congregationalist, I believe that the apostles held the keys, that local churches hold the keys, and that the elders of a church ordinarily direct the church in its use of the keys. So what we see in Acts 15 is the apostles, together with the churches and elders, using the keys of the kingdom to establish doctrine once for all (Acts 15:4, 22).
In other words, elders as elders don’t hold the keys, per se, but they do lead churches in using the keys, and unless the congregation believes that the elders are departing from Scripture, they should generally follow elders’ leadership. Congregational authority, as I understand it, is an intermittent veto power. It’s an emergency break. How often do you use one of those to stop a car?
CASE STUDY: ISOLATED CHURCH IN THE MIDDLE EAST
But imagine for a moment a group of eight believers plus two elders meeting in an isolated house church in Saudi Arabia. So far as they know, they are the only believers within five hundred miles. Suppose then the two elders embrace heresy. What mechanism does Scripture give the eight believers?
Interestingly, Jones, like the PCA and OPC books of church order, concedes that the believers have the right to depose the leaders. And how can they do that? Two reasons: because the PCA and OPC are more congregational than they admit, and because (more to the point) you simply have to give final guardianship of the gospel to believers. Believers, when jointly gathered in congregations, inevitably hold the keys. (Yes, I’m speaking in terms of real politic here, not biblical legitimacy.) You have no split between the PCUS and the PCA or the OPC and the PCUSA unless this is true. If all the members of all the churches that became the PCA in 1973 didn’t want to leave the PCUS, they would not have left. Congregational authority, frankly, is a bit like gravity. It has an inevitability to it.
But there’s a biblical foundation for this, too: When a person is baptized into the name of Christ (Matt. 28), that person becomes responsible for the family name. And that responsibility is matched by an authority: wherever two or three are formally gathered in the name of Christ as a church to exercise the keys of the kingdom (say, through church discipline), there Christ is (Matt. 18:20). His reputation and authority stands behind it, like the authority of a king stands behind his ambassador’s declarations.
Don’t tell me that I formally wear Jesus’ name before the nations, but that I’m powerless to protect his name against false doctrine and false teachers. I’ll return to this idea below.
So again, what about those eight believers in Saudi Arabia, faced with the fact that their two elders are tearing down the family name? Are they stuck because it’s the elders who hold the keys? No, Jesus gave those eight the power to excommunicate the two.
THE INEVITABLE TENSION OF A “FINAL” AND "MEDIATING" AUTHORITY
But hold on, you say. What about all those passages that talk about submitting to your leaders, and elder oversight? Well, yes, ordinarily, the eight should submit to the two, assuming that the two are leading within the bounds of Scripture.
Which brings me to another point: We’re all anxious to establish where the “final” point of authority lies. But when we’re talking about different mediating authorities, the language of “final” or “ultimate” authority has its limitations. Jesus is the final or ultimate authority. We can all agree with that, right? But then Jesus authorizes different groups differently: parents one way, the state another way, the church another way, and so forth. The thing is, the authorizations and their jurisdictions overlap, and sometimes life in a fallen world brings them into conflict.
For instance, does God give the state “final” authority over a parent? Well, if the parent is beating the child, absolutely, because Jesus authorizes the state with the job of protecting its citizens, including that child. Suppose, however, that the state decides to protect the child by banning all proselytizing by evangelical parents. Does the state have final authority here? Well, again, yes, technically, but it’s using that authority wrongly, which means the parent should reject it, acting on their “final” authority over the child, or, more to the point, acting on their knowledge of the real final authority, Jesus, who will surely vindicate that act of rebellion against the state on the last day. In other words, both state and parent have been given a circle of jurisdiction and a set of authorizations, and both are called to do their best, knowing that Christ will either vindicate or condemn their decisions on the last day. All of which is to say, the word “final” is necessary but relative when we are dealing in the realm of mediated authorities.
Back to elders and congregations. Do congregations have the “final” authority? Well, yes, in a sense, because they have the final veto power. But on the last day they will have to give an account for every time they used that veto power over and against the elders. And if they got it wrong, Jesus will vindicate the elders.
So maybe the eight believers in Saudi Arabia are immature, ornery, and making false accusations against the two elders. If that’s the case, they retain the ability to remove the elders, but they will receive Jesus’ condemnation for that action on the last day.
STOP FIRING YOUR CHURCH MEMBERS!
Let me throw one more piece of loving polemic toward my gospel-embracing non-congregational friends: stop firing your church members. That’s what your polities are doing.
Jesus has given every member of the New Covenant the job—the office—of guarding the what and the who of the gospel. I don’t have time to make the case here, but this is how I understand the authority of the keys [see chapter 4 of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love]. Whoever holds the keys has the authority to answer the questions, “Is that a true gospel profession?” and “Is that a true gospel professor?” just like Jesus did with Peter in Matthew 16. And what every non-congregational polity does is steal that job away from church members. They tempt Christians to complacency by saying, “It’s the elders’ job to guard the what and the who of the gospel, not yours. Sit down.” In the process, elders fail to do the very thing that Paul tells them to do: equip the saints for guarding the gospel.
So ordinary Christians pull back. The church weakens. And nominalism grows. Hello, fifteen hundred years of Christendom. (No, I’m not saying this is the only cause of nominalism.)
After all, you don’t strengthen soldiers by keeping them back in the supply tent. You push them out and tell them to guard the bridge.
To use the “m” word, which I don’t typically do, I’d even say that congregationalism, aside from being biblical, is most missional. Guarding the church and reaching the world are part of the same work. Equipping your members to do one equips them to do the other.
Yes, all this is at stake in matters of polity.
To conclude, here are nine reasons why I believe the keys belong jointly to the entire congregation based especially on Matthew 18:15-20.
1. The final court of appeal is the church. The whole church must address the unrepentant sinner (“if he refuses to listen even to the church”), and then the whole church must assent to any act of excommunication in order for it to work. (Even if the pastor says, “He’s excommunicated,” the congregation simply has to agree and to participate in the decision to make it happen. Their assent simply must be involved.)
2. There is no mention of bishops or elders in the text.
3. Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly connect the keys of the kingdom to pastors/elders, and nowhere do we see pastors/elders unilaterally excommunicating someone. Since the apostles did hold the keys, we do see Peter, for instance, unilaterally excommunicating someone (Simon in Acts 8).
4. Verse 19 offers an explanation for the activity of binding and loosing in verse 18 in which Jesus refers to “two of you” asking about anything (presumably in terms of binding and loosing). This activity can occur, it seems, wherever there is a church of two or more (less than two is not an “assembly”).
5. Saying the church possess the keys makes sense of 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul does not call upon the leaders of the Corinthian congregation to “hand this man over to Satan” (5:5). Instead, Paul exhorts the church as a whole to do this when they are formally gathered together in the name of Jesus and under his authority: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan… (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Like Matthew 18, he is arguing that the Corinthian congregation is responsible to declare that this individual is no longer a citizen of the kingdom of Christ, but belongs to the world, where Satan rules (John 12:31; 14:30; Matt. 4:8-9; cf. Matt. 16:23). The same is true in Galatians 1 where he tells the churches not to recognize teachers teaching a false gospel.
6. It makes sense of 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 and the fact that Paul seems to say some kind of vote happened in an act of church discipline: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
7. This explanation has the advantage of corresponding more closely with the Greek conception of an ekklesia, which involved an assembly of citizens who shared rule together. Every citizen had a vote.
8. Moving authority of the keys away from the local church and to the presbytery divides authority from pastoral and relational care. Matthew 18’s example of discipline, for instance, could now be determined by a group of men with whom the offender shares no fellowship.
9. Keeping the keys in the hands of the congregation authorizes and equips the baptized believer to fulfill the job responsibilities he or she has by virtue of being a baptized believer and new covenant member.
Well, that’s enough time on the polity wresting mats for now. It’s time for me to go read some good theology from my Reformed and Lutheran friends.
You can follow me @JonathanDLeeman.
Throughout December, 9Marks is offering a special discount on Mark Dever's two Bible studies on 1 Corinthians. You can buy the set for $4.
1 Corinthians can be a difficult book to interpret and teach, since it touches on so many controversial issues. But it's a crucial book, since few other biblical books speak so fully and frankly to the realities of life in an imperfect church.
Each section introduces part of the book, works through key points of interpretation, and moves toward application and prayer. We hope these studies will be useful in teaching Sunday School, leading small groups, or even in one-on-one discipling.
May God use his Word to build up all of our churches in love, holiness, and unity.
As a pastor of a church in Johnannesburg, South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s death is of major significance for my congregation. How should we respond to Mandela’s death? How should Christians and churches generally reflect on the life and legacy of this great man, even if he was not a believer?
2 Samuel 1 helps answer that question. Saul was David’s sworn enemy, obsessed with hunting down David to kill him. Yet when Saul dies, David does not gloat or rejoice. Instead, he mourned, tore his garments, and composed a public lament. It is a timeless example of a generous, gracious response to the death of a state leader. It is a model of appreciation for the good he has done. David even asks that this become a national war song for the nation of Israel. Here’s a taste:
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles;
they were stronger than lions.
You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle! (2 Sam. 1:23-25)
And with David’s prayer in mind, here’s how I led Antioch Bible Church in prayer yesterday morning:
O Sovereign Lord, it is you who made the earth, the heaven, and the sea, and all that is in them. With Isaiah, we declare: “It is you who sit above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. You stretch out the heavens like a curtain and spread them out like a tent to dwell in. You reduce rulers to nothing, you make the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they planted, scarcely have they been sown, scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, but you merely blow on them and they wither” (Isa. 40:22-24).
As all these dignitaries and heads of state descend upon this city, we confess that all their power combined is nothing compared to your omnipotence.
O Lord, we read in your Word that it was ‘In the year of King Uzziah’s death that Isaiah saw you sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted. The train of your robe filled the temple. Seraphim stood above you, each having six wings. With two he covered his feet, and with two he covered his face, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:1-3).
Father, we thank you that in a time of great loss to a nation, with an uncertain future, at these times when we need it most, you show us your glory. You give us a vision of your absolute sovereignty. Your Word lifts our eyes above the mortal kings and fleeting kingdoms of this world to see you, the supreme King, the Lord of hosts, in all your glory and majesty.
Your Word tells us the king’s heart is like channels of water in your hands, you turn it wherever you wish (Prov. 21:1).
Every death reminds us that all flesh is like grass, and its glory like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but your Word endures forever (Isa. 40:8). Last Thursday night, a bright light in this world went out. But Christ, the Light of the World, cannot be extinguished (Jn. 8:10).
O God of all comfort, Father of all mercies, we ask that you comfort the Mandela family at this time of great loss. Comfort our entire nation during this time of grief and mourning.
Teach us to mourn with those who mourn, to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Indeed, how the mighty have fallen. We have lost a great leader, a father to this nation.
How merciful you have been to this land, to have given us Madiba for so long. What a display of your common grace to man that you would take a secular leader and use him to teach the world about reconciling forgiveness instead of bitter revenge. Thank you for this echo of the greatest reconciliation of all and the ultimate story of forgiveness: the message of a God who forgives, at the cost of his own Son’s life, every repentant sinner who comes to him.
Some two decades ago, when this country was on the brink of civil war and a bloodbath, you heard the prayers of your people. Your remarkable providence intervened and you sent Mandela for such a time as this. Lord, you do not treat us as our sins deserve. How compassionate and merciful you are!
Your Word tells us every human authority is established by you, and deserves our respect, submission and honour. No matter how ignorant earthly rulers might be of you and your rule over them, still we acknowledge their rule over us. Because we trust you, our sovereign, good, and wise God.
We pray for all those in authority in South Africa today, that they would learn from Mandela’s wise and humble example. And most of all, we pray that these leaders would tremble before you, submit to your Word, and come to know your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus.
We pray for the future of this great nation. We pray for peace, for law and order. We pray for real repentance for all wrongs and injustices that have been done, past and present. We pray for an end to the horrible scourge of crime. We pray for an end to the evils of abortion. We pray that the sanctity of marriage would be upheld. We pray for ongoing religious freedom.
Most of all, we pray for revival and reform in your Church, O Lord. O that you would rend the heavens and come down, and awaken your people! Strengthen your church. End hypocrisy. Purify your bride. Purge our sin. Make us a pure church. Holy Spirit, come!
As our nation grieves in the coming week and prepares for the upcoming funeral, we are reminded that your Word tells us it is better for us to go the house of mourning than the house of feasting, because death is the end of every man, and the living take it to heart (Eccl. 7:2-4).
Lord, teach us what you would have us to learn from Mandela’s death. Sober us with this public reminder of our own mortality. Sober us with another evidence that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), that it is “appointed unto man once to die, and after that to face the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). May none here today be unprepared to meet the living God.
O God, we all live on the brink of eternity, on the precipice of an everlasting Heaven or an unending Hell. Our life is but a vapour that appears for a little while, then vanishes (Jam. 4:14). Cause many to repent, lest they perish in their sins. Cause many to turn to Christ before it is too late, before their time comes (Luke 13:1-5).
In this season where we celebrate our Lord’s first appearing, we live in the hope of his second coming. We long for Christ’s final appearing, which you, Father, will bring about at the proper time. You are the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. You alone possess immortality and dwell in unapproachable light. No man has seen or can see you. To you be honour and eternal dominion (1 Tim. 6:15-16). Amen.
Tim Cantrell is the senior pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Over a century ago, speaking to the then-largest congregation in all Christendom, Charles Spurgeon said,
I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say, “Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?” You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.
Over the years, however, the message being preached in some of the largest churches in the world has changed—indeed, a new gospel is being taught to many congregations today. This gospel has been ascribed many names, such as the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, the “health and wealth” gospel, the “prosperity gospel,” and “positive confession theology.”
No matter what name is used, the essence of this new gospel is the same. Simply put, this egocentric “prosperity gospel” teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy. Listen to the words of Robert Tilton, one of the prosperity gospel’s best-known spokesmen: “I believe that it is the will of God for all to prosper because I see it in the Word, not because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not put my eyes on men, but on God who gives me the power to get wealth.” Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers to pray for and even demand material flourishing from God.
FIVE THEOLOGICAL ERRORS OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Recently, Russell Woodbridge and I wrote a book entitled Health, Wealth, and Happiness to examine the claims of prosperity gospel advocates. While our book is too wide-ranging to summarize here, in this article I’d like to review five doctrines we cover in our book—doctrines on which prosperity gospel advocates err. By discerning these errors regarding key doctrines, I hope readers of this article will plainly see the dangers of the prosperity gospel. The doctrines that I will cover are the Abrahamic covenant, the atonement, giving, faith, and prayer.
1. The Abrahamic covenant is a means to material entitlement.
The first error we’ll consider is that the prosperity gospel views the Abrahamic covenant as a means to material entitlement.
The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22) is one of the theological bases of the prosperity gospel. It is good that prosperity theologians recognize that much of Scripture is the record of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, but it is bad that they do not maintain an orthodox view of this covenant. They hold an incorrect view of the inception of the covenant; more significantly, they hold an erroneous view concerning the application of the covenant.
Edward Pousson best stated the prosperity view on the application of the Abrahamic covenant when he wrote, “Christians are Abraham’s spiritual children and heirs to the blessings of faith. . . . This Abrahamic inheritance is unpacked primarily in terms of material entitlements.” In other words, the prosperity gospel teaches that the primary purpose of the Abrahamic covenant was for God to bless Abraham materially. Since believers are now Abraham’s spiritual children, they have inherited these financial blessings.
Prosperity teacher Kenneth Copeland wrote, “Since God’s Covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs to you now!”
To support this claim, prosperity teachers appeal to Galatians 3:14, which refers to “the blessings of Abraham [that] might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus.” It is interesting, however, that in their appeals to Gal. 3:14, prosperity teachers ignore the second half of the verse, which reads, “…that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” In this verse Paul was clearly reminding the Galatians of the spiritual blessing of salvation, not the material blessing of wealth.
2. Jesus’ atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty.
A second theological error of the prosperity gospel is a faulty view of the atonement.
Theologian Ken Sarles writes that “the prosperity gospel claims that both physical healing and financial prosperity have been provided for in the Atonement.” This seems to be an accurate observation in light of Kenneth Copeland’s comment that “the basic principle of the Christian life is to know that God put our sin, sickness, disease, sorrow, grief, and poverty on Jesus at Calvary.” This misunderstanding of the scope of the atonement stems from two errors that proponents of the prosperity gospel make.
First, many who hold to prosperity theology have a fundamental misconception of the life of Christ. For example, teacher John Avanzini proclaimed, “Jesus had a nice house, a big house,” “Jesus was handling big money,” and he even “wore designer clothes.” It is easy to see how such a warped view of the life of Christ could lead to an equally warped misconception of the death of Christ.
A second error that leads to a faulty view of the atonement is a misinterpretation of 2 Corinthians 8:9, which reads, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.” While a shallow reading of this verse may lead one to believe Paul was teaching about an increase in material wealth, a contextual reading reveals Paul was actually teaching the exact opposite principle. Indeed, Paul was teaching the Corinthians that since Christ accomplished so much for them through the atonement, they should empty themselves of their riches in service of the Savior. This is why just five short verses later Paul would urge the Corinthians to give their wealth away to their needy brothers, writing “that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack” (2 Cor. 8:14).
3. Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God.
A third error of the prosperity gospel is that Christians should give in order to gain material compensation from God. One of the most striking characteristics of the prosperity theologians is their seeming fixation with the act of giving. Students of the prosperity gospel are urged to give generously and are confronted with such pious statements as, “True prosperity is the ability to use God’s power to meet the needs of mankind in any realm of life,” and, “We have been called to finance the gospel to the world.” While these statements appear to be praiseworthy, this emphasis on giving is built on motives that are anything but philanthropic. The driving force behind this teaching on giving is what prosperity teacher Robert Tilton referred to as the “Law of Compensation.” According to this law, which is purportedly based on Mark 10:30, Christians need to give generously to others because when they do, God gives back more in return. This, in turn, leads to a cycle of ever-increasing prosperity.
As Gloria Copeland put it, “Give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000…in short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.” It is evident, then, that the prosperity gospel’s doctrine of giving is built upon faulty motives. Whereas Jesus taught his disciples to “give, hoping for nothing in return” (Luke 10:35), prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because they will get a great return.
4. Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity.
A fourth error of prosperity theology is its teaching that faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity. Whereas orthodox Christianity understands faith to be trust in the person of Jesus Christ, prosperity teachers espouse quite a different doctrine. In his book The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland writes, “Faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy, a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes the laws of the spirit world function. . . . There are certain laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith causes them to function.” This is obviously a faulty, perhaps even heretical, understanding of faith.
According to prosperity theology, faith is not a God-granted, God-centered act of the will. Rather it is a humanly wrought spiritual force, directed at God. Indeed, any theology that views faith solely as a means to material gain rather than justification before God must be judged faulty and inadequate.
5. Prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity.
Finally, the prosperity gospel treats prayer as a tool to force God to grant prosperity. Prosperity gospel preachers often note that we “have not because we ask not” (Jas. 4:2). Advocates of the prosperity gospel encourage believers to pray for personal success in all areas of life. Creflo Dollar writes, “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass. . . . It is a key to getting results as a Christian.”
Certainly prayers for personal blessing are not inherently wrong, but the prosperity gospel’s overemphasis upon man turns prayer into a tool believers can use to force God to grant their desires.
Within prosperity theology, man—not God—becomes the focal point of prayer. Curiously, prosperity preachers often ignore the second half of James’ teaching on prayer which reads, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:3). God does not answer selfish requests that do not honor his name.
Certainly all our requests should be made known to God (cf. Phil. 4:6), but the prosperity gospel focuses so much upon man’s desires that it may lead people to pray selfish, shallow, superficial prayers that do not bring God glory. Furthermore, when coupled with the prosperity doctrine of faith, this teaching may lead people to attempt to manipulate God to get what they want—a futile task. This is far removed from praying that God’s will would be done.
A FALSE GOSPEL
In light of Scripture, the prosperity gospel is fundamentally flawed. At bottom, the prosperity gospel is actually a false gospel because of its faulty view of the relationship between God and man. Simply put, if the prosperity gospel is true, grace is obsolete, God is irrelevant, and man is the measure of all things. Whether they are talking about the Abrahamic covenant, the atonement, giving, faith, or prayer, prosperity teachers turn the relationship between God and man into a quid pro quo transaction. As James R. Goff noted, God is “reduced to a kind of ‘cosmic bellhop’ attending to the needs and desires of his creation.” This is a wholly inadequate and unbiblical view of the relationship between God and man.
David W. Jones is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
 Tom Carter, ed., 2,200 Quotations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 216.
 Robert Tilton, God’s Word about Prosperity (Dallas, TX: Word of Faith Publications, 1983), 6.
 David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge, Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010).
 Edward Pousson, Spreading the Flame (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 158.
 Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1974), 51.
 Ken L. Sarles, “A Theological Evaluation of the Prosperity Gospel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (Oct.-Dec. 1986): 339.
 Kenneth Copeland, The Troublemaker (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1996), 6.
 John Avanzini, “Believer’s Voice of Victory,” program on TBN, 20 January 1991. Quoted in Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 381.
 Idem, “Praise the Lord,” program on TBN, 15 September 1988. Quoted in Hanegraaff, 381.
 Avanzini, “Believer’s Voice of Victory.”
 Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, 26.
 Gloria Copeland, God’s Will is Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1973), 45.
 Other verses that the “Law of Compensation” is based upon include Eccl. 11:1, 2 Cor. 9:6, and Gal. 6:7.
 Gloria Copeland, God’s Will, 54.
 Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, 19.
 Creflo Dollar, “Prayer: Your Path to Success,” March 2, 2009, http://www.creflodollarministries.org/BibleStudy/Articles.aspx?id=329 (accessed on October 30, 2013).
 James R. Goff, Jr., “The Faith That Claims,” Christianity Today, vol. 34, February 1990, 21.
Over the past year of ministry I’ve come to recognize a troubling tendency in myself. It’s a tendency toward what you might call vicarious faith. My confidence in the power of God's Word—of its truth, its beauty, its relevance—is far too closely tied to the visible faith of those I serve as they respond to the Word.
When people connect with what I preach or teach or counsel from Scripture—when they get it and love it—my faith in the Word is strong. When what I say doesn’t seem to resonate—when it comes off as abstract, unbelievable, impractical—my faith in the Word tends to shrink.
I call this vicarious faith because it’s mediated and indirect. It’s not faith rooted in the Word itself. It’s faith tethered to the results of the Word I can see with my eyes in the faith of others.
I was especially convicted of this problem by a fresh reading of 2 Timothy a couple months ago. It's one of Paul’s most personal letters. As perhaps his final letter, it has a clear retrospective feel, and it’s deeply introspective. Given this context, one phrase in particular stands out: “All who are in Asia left me.”
Was the apostle being hyperbolic? Almost certainly. But this hyperbole reveals his state of mind. Paul’s statement has been described as the “sweeping assertion of depression” (Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, 135). It is the statement of a man who knows what it is to be disappointed with the results of one’s ministry.
The rest of the letter offers a few examples of what he’s experienced. He writes of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who “swerved from the truth” and opposed Paul’s message with their own speculative babble (2:16-17). Then there’s Demas, a colleague in ministry who fell “in love with this present world,” deserting Paul for the greener grass of Thessalonica (4:9). Alexander, a coppersmith, somehow caused the apostle “great harm” (4:14). And when Paul stood trial, he stood alone—“all deserted me” (4:16).
These are remarkable words, aren’t they? In a way they’re encouraging for all of us who’ve felt the sense that our work is in vain. Even the great apostle himself knew what it was to labor with disappointment. Here in this letter Paul is near to death and he knows it (4:6-8). He’s all alone. And he’s living with the realization that much of what he’d taken for fruit has withered on the vine.
The truly remarkable thing about this letter and its context is that it’s here, from this man in this condition, that we receive perhaps the Bible’s clearest and most definitive statement on the all-sufficiency of Scripture. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable...” (3:16-17).
And it’s here that Paul draws his unflinching methodological conclusion: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season” (4:2).
The Word is profitable, Paul insists, even when the results have been discouraging. So there’s nothing to do but to keep on preaching that Word, in season and out of season. When Asia responds well and when Asia turns away.
Paul’s faith is in what God has said and not in what he sees. He knows the power of the Word is never under our control, like a genie in a bottle. The source of its power is the Spirit who, like the wind, blows where he will, subject to no man’s fancy. But however unpredictable, the Word is still the only power that can bring the sort of transformation people really need. I’m reminded of Peter’s words, when Jesus asked him if he too would leave: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Even when it doesn’t work according to our desires, or in a way perceivable by our senses, the Word is still the only thing that works. That’s the implication of Paul’s final charge to Timothy. Do you believe it? I wish I believed it more.
On the one hand, I’ve seen beautiful evidence that the Word’s power is what Paul claims it to be. On the other hand, I’ve also noticed this troubling temptation to allow my confidence in the Word to rise and fall with the extent to which others find it compelling, relevant, or trustworthy.
Surely I’m not alone. Does your personal conviction of what you preach depend on whether people connect with what you preach? Does your love for the Bible’s message vary with whether others seem to love that message or not? Do we believe the promises of Romans 8 when they seem cliché or unrealistic to the one who is suffering? Are we convinced of the power of those gospel-centered “one anothers” when the relationships aren’t restored, when the marriages don’t improve, when the anger or resentment doesn’t go away? Do we believe that God’s Word won’t return void even when our churches aren’t growing as we’d like? Too often, I wish my answers weren’t what they are.
What I’m praying towards—what Paul models for us in 2 Timothy—is what you could call a promise-driven pragmatism. It’s entirely appropriate that we should be fixated on what works in ministry. But how do we define what works? Our desire is to see individuals and communities transformed, which is to say our goals are supernatural. Only God’s power can accomplish what we want accomplished, and often, only God can see what he’s accomplishing. This means the primary measure of what works must be the promise of God, not the results we see from our perspective. His promise is that the Word is profitable, powerful enough to secure everything we really need—whether we see it or not.
[For more on the power of God’s Word to bring life and change, see Jonathan Leeman’s Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People.]
Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming).
Here’s an interesting reality: lots of people want to love God today. That’s what they say. Check out the polls regularly printed in USA Today, for example, and you’ll find that most people are not in fact hardened secularists waiting to pounce like a hyena on any Christian they can find. You may pick up that impression from the news media or talking heads on TV, but that’s not how many people represent their desires. Many folks want to get in touch with God. Of course, they don’t know how, and many don’t really follow through. Without God’s redeeming grace, our sin gets in the way of our best intentions.
But the point stands: a good number of folks would at least say that they want to love God. I think you would baffle many people, though, if you extended the question to this: “Do you want to love the church—an actual, real, existing local church in your area?”
It’s at this point that a lot of people would drop out. They would argue that they’re “spiritual,” but not really religious. They believe in a living relationship with the Lord, not a ritualistic one. They can worship God anywhere, and they don’t need to be confined to a building.
Perhaps, in fact, this voices your perspective. Maybe you’ve been burned by a church. You don’t associate the local church with a place of joyful worship where you encounter the transcendent Lord of heaven and earth. In fact, there are so many people who have had negative experiences that I think it’s worth saying what the church is not:
- The local church is not a social club for gossip, albeit with pews and a slightly odd smell.
- It’s not a place where you go to observe a whole bunch of weird rules that have no connection to everyday life.
- It’s not a political organization dedicated to the preservation of “what America used to be” or to a social agenda overturning traditional American ideals.
- It’s not primarily about feeling better, thinking more positively, achieving your best self, spiritually “winning,” or getting healthier.
- It’s not a building, a place where some people go during the week to observe some old rituals that nobody really understands but that are considered valuable because they create togetherness and make people feel spiritual.
- It’s not a place where people who look like one another congregate and do all they can to keep others who aren’t like them out.
- It’s not a spiritual smoothie bar where you go when you have a sudden and unexplainable rush to get close to God, only never to return.
- It’s not a money-raising organization or a series of weekly seminars on success. The church is not a personal improvement organization such that you can climb the economic ladder, get better jobs, and become fabulously wealthy just by going there.
These are eight ways of thinking about the church that people adopt today. They all fall short in different ways of what it actually means to love God and his church. You may have experienced some form of these conceptions of the church. You may have gone to a church that was all about rules, for example, or that never really preached about the Bible.
A church may have legitimately angered you, offended you, hurt you, confused you, or bored you. I don’t know where you’re coming from, but I know that no local church is perfect, and that there are many places that are not true churches that nonetheless call themselves by this weighty name.
But what is the local church, then? Well, first and foremost, it’s a group devoted to worshiping the living God according to his inerrant Word, the Bible. It’s an outpost for weary people burdened by sin to meet God and be transformed by him. The church building may not look exciting from the outside, or it may be an aesthetic masterpiece. Whatever the building looks like, though, I can assure you that the local church truly is exciting, because when it’s devoted to God’s Word, it is the body of Christ. It’s a tangible, visible sign that God is real and working and moving in our world.
You could say it this way: the church is created by the gospel, and the church is edified by the gospel. God loves the local church. He made it, after all. It’s his brainstorm. God is super-creative. He’s the ultimate aesthete. He loves beauty and full-orbed, surround-sound faith. He wants all our senses and emotions to be engaged in weekly worship. So we pray, sing, hear the Word read and preached, eat the bread and drink the wine, and share fellowship together.
The Lord wants these blessings for us. We experience them when we join local churches (see 1 Cor. 5 and its discussion of those “outside” and “inside” the Corinthian congregation). What’s called “church membership” is very important in Scripture. Our redeemer wants every born-again Christian to be in fellowship with others so we can build one another up in the faith. He wants us to be baptized as our public declaration that we’ve passed through the waters of judgment and have risen from spiritual death through Christ. He wants us to partake of the Lord’s Supper to remember Jesus’ death on our behalf.
I didn’t grow up in a massive congregation. I grew up in a small church on the coast of Maine. There weren’t many believers around. But I was trained to see the church as an inherently dignified gathering regardless of how many people attended on Sunday. My father was steadfastly committed to the First Baptist Church of East Machias. He went every week to prayer meeting; he and my mother were faithful to the church even through troubled times. They modeled covenantal commitment to their church. I am grateful they did.
It made a mark on me.
Church was a natural part of my youth; without really knowing it, I was formed in the worldview we’re discussing here. I was being trained in the holy rhythms of a Godward life. I heard the preaching; ate the tiny little communion crackers barely visible to the human eye; sang in the Christmas choir. We weren’t a large body, but we were devoted to the Lord.
More important, he was devoted to us.
He is devoted to every church, to every local expression of the global people of Christ, however humble, however popular. So should we be.
Owen Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky and the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.
Editors' Note: This is an excerpt from Owen Strachan's Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson), which releases today. You can check out the book's website and watch a trailer here.
We need the church. It’s the ultimate community, created by almighty God so that people like you and me can flourish, laugh, learn, grow, weep, and love Christ together.
We’re not meant by God to be lone rangers. We’re made to plug into the fabric of a living body, one aimed not simply at life change or communal uplift but at the glory of God.
Coming to a church, a group of believers covenanted together in the name of Christ, is like happening across a crowd of people on a sidewalk. They’re all staring upward. They see something that is clearly blowing their minds. Maybe their hair is standing on end. You ask them who they are and what they’re doing, and they reply, “Seeking God.” Okay, so the analogy’s mildly weird, but that’s the point: this is a group of people who are zeroed in on transcendence. They’re not content to talk about it in their dorm rooms or book club. They can’t just name-check the Lord or wear a “Jesus piece,” as Kanye West does. They are compelled by something in them, something mysterious, to worship God.
But that’s the crazy thing: they don’t want to do it by themselves.
They have an insatiable appetite to get together with other people and worship God. Is that merely a natural instinct? You know: if we’re going to be outside burning sticks, trying to heat our dinner over an open flame, we may as well congregate?
We’re by nature sociable as humans, but there’s something more happening in the church.
Our instinct for togetherness comes directly from that same source we were just talking about: God, more specifically, a Trinitarian God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are the central reality of Christianity. The three persons of the Godhead are each fully God. There is nothing lacking or incomplete in any of them. Yet in a way that is thoroughly brainbending, they want communion with one another. They don’t each rule a separate part of the universe; they live in perfect harmony with one another, loving one another, agreeing with one another, manifesting their glory together.
Maybe you’re thinking, Whoa! We just went from 0 to 60, dude. First we’re talking about some church; now we’re on the deepest mysteries of the universe? Yeah. Kind of. But this link makes sense. We want to be together as humans because the persons of the Trinity are together as God. We’re the image of God, remember? The society of heaven has created a society on earth. We were made for communion and friendship and happiness and perfect love, because that’s what the Trinity experiences.
So that, my friend, is why we want a church. We’re social beings, like the Father, Son, and Spirit. We’re made for the church. We don’t just want togetherness; we want togetherness based on the best thing there is: God. We want to worship something. We were made for this purpose. God didn’t just want his creatures to scurry all over the place like human ants. He made us to crave, love, desire, yearn, delight in, and enjoy him.
Passion is infused in us. Love is hardwired in us.
We’re made to adore, celebrate, and shout as loud as our lungs will allow, “I LOVE YOU!” And we’re made to do it together, as a church.
Owen Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky and the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson).
Note: This post is an excerpt from Risky Gospel, posted here with the publisher's permission.
Robby Gallaty is a personal friend of mine and a godly man who loves Jesus and wants others to love Jesus. His passion to help people live out the glorious Commission of our Lord is evident in his life and in this book. But friendship aside, I read his book Growing Up as a pastor looking for a good resource to challenge me and those I’m discipling. In fact, I read it with a few guys from my church (Tim, Dan, Luis) and spent an early Friday morning talking through things we liked about the book as well as things we felt were lacking.
We all agreed that Robby’s personal touch and well-illustrated writing make for an easy read. Growing Up is a resource that is accessible for just about anyone, and each of us were able to read it in a few days. It is filled with quotable lines from both Robby and others.
Growing Up is organized in two sections. The first four chapters lay out our Lord’s call to be disciples that make disciples. These chapters highlight Robby’s personal transformation through discipleship, his recommendation to be in a discipleship group (aka “D-Group,” 3-5 people committed to 12-18 months of weekly discipling meetings), and the call to train ourselves for godliness in the context of discipleship relationships.
The remaining six chapters give practical prescriptions that should mark the lives of growing disciples. These chapters follow the acrostic C.L.O.S.E.R., each letter representing a spiritual discipline that helps us develop a closer walk with Jesus.
Click here to continue reading.
Have you ever seen someone gawk at an evangelical? I don’t know if the phrase is unique to him, but I’ve often heard Al Mohler refer to this as the “National Geographic effect.” What he means is that secular Westerners—especially elites—sometimes respond to evangelical Christians about like they’d respond to rumors of cannibalistic tribes in the South Pacific: “Wait—there are still people like that out there!?”
If life can imitate art, it can certainly imitate the good Dr. Mohler’s verbal art. Enter the National Geographic Channel’s new niche reality show Church Rescue, which premieres tonight.
Think Extreme Home Makeover: Church Edition. The show features three church consultants who run an outfit called Church Hoppers: Kevin “Rev Kev” Adams, their business analyst; Anthony “Gladamere” Lockhart, the marketing specialist; and the spiritual counselor, Jerry “Doc” Bentley.
The first episode features New Hope Baptist Church outside Charlotte, pastored by Larry Roseboro. This largely African-American congregation is described as “Bapticostal”—a Baptist church where people get “slain in the Spirit” and the service lasts four hours.
The pastor’s dream, which his late wife shared, is to exchange the church’s cramped, shabby building for a more expansive facility that will draw more people. But like so many dreams, this one comes with a price tag: $1.4 million to be precise—a hefty sum for a small, rural church with only $40,000 in the bank.
The Church Hoppers begin their work with an unannounced Sunday morning audit. After experiencing all there is to experience in the morning worship service, they talk with Pastor Roseboro about his dreams and frustrations. Among the latter are a host of problems with the building: torn carpet, no air conditioner, rainwater flowing in the back door. But, Pastor Roseboro wonders, why throw money at the old building when it could be put toward a new one?
Not only that, but we learn from Roseboro and some of his congregants that he’s bearing the pastoral load alone. A deacon formerly assisted him, but Roseboro and Brother Curtis fell out some time ago.
Here a Southern, spiritualized spin on the standard consulting script kicks in. Our three consultants assess New Hope’s problems over lunch, hatching a three-point plan. On Monday they sit down for “the hardcore truth meeting” with Pastor Roseboro. If Roseboro wants his church to grow, he needs to invest in the current building, reconcile with Curtis and reinstate him as deacon, and split his four-hour service into two shorter ones featuring more focused, concise sermons.
What does Pastor Roseboro make of these recommendations? You’ll have to watch to find out.
In one sense, the National Geographic effect is up and running. The choice of a “Bapticostal” church for the first episode is evidence enough. And future episodes promise a biker church, a cowboy church, and a synagogue. Yes, a synagogue. The Religion News Service article on the show reports that the three protagonists hail from the Southern Baptist Convention, and they certainly sound like evangelicals. Yet the fact that a synagogue is in line for a “church rescue” tells you all you need to know about the show’s theological acuity.
Happily, a few moments of spiritual perception shine through. For instance, Doc remarks that the pastor’s problem is that he’s as passionate about getting his way as he is about spreading the Word. But the following comment by Gladamere is more typical: “We’re in the Bible belt, where there’s a church on every corner. To stand out, you’ve got to improve your curb appeal, so when people drive by, the church is beautiful and inviting.”
The show is well-produced and the protagonists are likeable. Somewhat despite myself, the first episode kind of made me want to see the others. And to their credit, National Geographic lets the Church Hoppers tell their own stories.
But I actually wish the National Geographic effect were in fuller swing. The problems New Hope Baptist Church faces are problems anyone can understand: soured relationships and a run-down building. So also the solutions: extend an olive branch and install new carpet. Any consultant can tell you that.
But every church’s problems run deeper. Sure, their symptoms show up in ways everyone can relate to, but the causes lie hidden from unredeemed sight. Ultimately, there’s only one church Rescuer, the eternal Son of God who became a man and died on the cruel cross to purchase and perfect his people. And the message of his rescue repairs and refreshes his church all the way to its roots.
As it is, Church Rescue is a friendly, innocuous, late-period artifact of the shrinking Bible Belt. But if the show were about the real rescue, it would give people a reason to stop and gawk.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
Editor's Note: this piece is cross-posted from Schaeffer's Ghost with the kind permission of its editors.