The Doctrine of the Church in a Post-Indiana America 


Simply as a practical necessity, Christians have always paid closer attention to the doctrine of the church in times of rising cultural opposition. It’s like being a homeowner in coastal Florida when the news forecasts another hurricane. Is that homeowner’s insurance policy up to date?

Historical examples are easy to recount. The third and fourth century church long debated how to deal with the “lapsi.” These were the Christians who renounced Christ and sided with Caesar under persecution, but then repented and wanted back into the church. In the years following the Cultural Revolution, house churches in China, for the sake of protecting themselves, sometimes erected more hurdles to membership than anything you will find on an Olympic track.

Evangelicals in America today, too, recognize that the cultural and legal landscape is shifting beneath their feet. Last week’s gunslingers’ dual between religious freedom and sexual freedom in Mike Pence’s Indiana left religious liberty with a bullet in the gut, if not in the heart. The question is, do evangelicals realize that it’s past time to pull those by-laws and statements of faith out of the file drawer and re-read the fine print?

Rod Dreher posted these reflections from an “elite” law school professor about the legal challenges churches could face in coming months and years:

. . . if you are an Evangelical church that has a more general statement of faith, and depends on a shared assumption that its non-married members will live a chaste life, I’m not so sure that’s going to hold [in the courts] . . .

Even Reformation churches that have specific doctrines that they police, they’ll probably be okay. . . . But again, if you define yourselves by a very general statement, even if your ethos is culturally conservative, it’s going to be harder. The low church people may wind up in a position where they have to start policing their churches much more closely in terms of doctrine.

I hope churches are paying heed.

At the same time, the ecclesiological challenge at hand goes deeper than a few documents can address. It goes to the very nature of a church, particularly as the church relates to the broader public.

For instance, is the church a “political” entity? Some of my closest theological friends insist the answer is “no.” But I’d say the protests in Indiana would have never happened if the church isn’t political. Either way, you can expect more and more evangelical chatter over the relationship between the “political” and the “spiritual” in coming years. The answer will impact the arguments we use for religious freedom in a society that regards itself as religiously indifferent or even disdainful.

Mounting cultural opposition will also force Christians to think more carefully about matters that blend the theological and the practical like church membership. How do we regard Christians who actively promote something we regard as sin, like homosexuality? How would this affect their membership status in a local church? My own church would discipline someone who resigns to join a gospel-denying church. Should we discipline someone who leaves for a homosexuality-affirming church? Membership and discipline questions like these will require care and courage in the days ahead.

Evangelicals should probably think more carefully about the nature of elder authority, congregational authority, and the relationship between the two. On the one hand, do-it-yourself evangelicals will need to learn how to lean on the elders’ wisdom and counsel for new ethical questions: “Do I attend my lesbian daughter’s wedding?” “What if the principal and the parents both insist that I call the girl student in my class a boy?” “What if the company forbids me from sharing the gospel?” On the other hand, it’s nothing short of a travesty (at least in my congregationalist’s mind) that a group of elders can simply inform their congregation that “the church” now affirms same-sex marriage. Whether you agree with my polity or not, the point is, we must all think more carefully about the relationship between congregational and elder authority, and what space to give to each in one’s personal and corporate life.

Or think about Henrik Ibsen’s play “An Enemy of the People.” Whether you’ve read it or not, here’s an important take-away: When social forces make it dangerous and costly to hold a view, people go looking for reasons to adopt the contrary view. They don’t need good arguments. They just need any arguments, even bad ones.

I’ve read the arguments for affirming homosexuality from a biblical perspective. They are not sound, but they are clever. And cultural Christians who want to save their skin will find them sufficient. The only thing in human terms that stands a chance of keeping people on the side of righteousness is a firm commitment to Scripture and a thick counter-culture of social reinforcement. If there are two kinds of evangelical congregations in this country, those with “thick” and those with “thin” commitments to biblical exposition and application, I expect only those churches closer to the thick end of the spectrum will still be standing after this cultural hurricane blows through. Congregations that have built themselves on shallow “theotainment” preaching over the last several decades will quickly drift in a progressive direction in matters of marriage and sexuality.

For the Christian who is not intimately joined to a healthy local church, I fear you’re self-deceived and foolish if you think you can stand alone. Even Luther needed supporters.

For pastors, I have two questions: One, have you spent the last two decades teaching all of Scripture, including the promises of hardship for the people of God? Two, what kind of commitment to studying and living by the Scriptures have you sought to cultivate in your congregation? We will find that out in the coming years as many of your members encounter their own Indiana moments.

The doctrine of the church is about to prove itself as important as ever in the history of America. Churches where that doctrine is weak, I fear, will soon look like what Proverbs calls a city without walls (see Prov. 25:28).


P.S. I just saw this posted yesterday at The Gospel Coalition. A good first step!

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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