A guest blog by a precious friend…..
After rising from the dead and showing himself to his first disciples, one of the most important things Jesus did was to give them the much-quoted “Great Commission” (Matt 28.16-20). Jesus told his followers that as they were going into the world, they were to “make disciples of all nations”. Note that word disciple. Jesus is looking for committed followers who will be actively involved in the daily life of his Church and of the proclamation of his Kingdom message here on earth, both in words and in deeds.
These disciples were to be baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, and their explicitly Trinitarian faith and spiritual walk required that they should be taught “all that I have commanded you”. The worst aspects of our churches today speak volumes for our failure and disobedience. I’d like to examine four ways in which some evangelical churches and ministers have so neglected the Great Commission that they have contributed to today’s fundamental dissensions, rising crisis of confidence, and impending divisions. Fortunately, all the issues below can be prayerfully addressed and remedied.
1) Failing to present the Christian faith as Trinitarian in both form and function.
Too many Christians today are Trinitarian in form only. They know the Bible teaches that God is a Trinity. They may be able to quote part or more of the Nicene Creed to that effect. But what they often don’t understand is what practical difference it makes to them to recognise and worship God as the Holy Trinity. For example, I recently pointed out to some Christian friends that in a sample of eight separate evangelistic tracts I’d read, only two of them even mentioned the Holy Spirit.
Failure at this point can leave believers and even whole congregations vulnerable to false doctrines and wrong attitudes. This might seem like an overstatement, especially if you feel comparatively secure in your understanding and acceptance of the Triune God as both the Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. But let’s consider some of the problems which might arise from neglecting to teach new believers about the Person and work of the Holy Spirit in Christian life.
It was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost upon a group of about 120 Jews at prayer which created the Church. This coming was so important that Jesus told his disciples it was better for him to die and leave them so that he could send the Holy Spirit (Jn 16.7). The Holy Spirit is our bridge to the ascended Christ. He is God’s practical answer to the question “How does Jesus convey his life, his power, and his will for me from where he is now (at the Father’s right hand) to where I am now?”
Without this understanding of the Holy Spirit, I suggest that the earthly aspect of conversion to Christ becomes essentially a matter of human decision instead of human entrance into a joyful Divine welcome – regardless of the new believer’s home church denomination. Ignorance of the Spirit’s Person and roles robs new Christians of the important truth that the assurance of their salvation rests ultimately in God’s strength and character. This may leave them vulnerable to either works-based Christianized legalism, or to so-called “cheap grace” and moral laxity based on a false understanding of the role of Christ’s righteousness in our salvation.
But the current ignorance and neglect of the Holy Spirit’s Person and work in the Christian life has another vital consequence for us all. Notice that according to Jn 16.8, Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come in order to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment”. In other words, the Church cannot carry out the Great Commission without the Holy Spirit. Arguments, explanations, and godly examples all have their parts to play, but neither together nor alone can they carry out the Holy Spirit’s convicting work as described by Jesus.
Failure to teach God’s Trinitarian roles and actions is a great way to produce a congregation of permanent spiritual babies which can’t explain why the Christian God reveals himself to be Triune. Worse still, some may misunderstand the Christian faith so badly that they fail to become Christians in the first place. Does this sound like any church you’ve ever heard of?
2) Failing to preach through the whole Bible regularly in church.
Remember that bit about “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”? If the Bible is the Word of God, if 2 Tim 3.16-17 is true, and if all the events recorded in Scripture were written down as examples for us, how can we hope to teach the whole counsel of God from only the bits of the Bible featured in a lectionary? And is the situation likely to be any better in a church where the speakers do not follow any kind of structured preaching scheme at all?
The usual reason offered for teaching only sections of the Bible from the front is that the book is too long to be able to teach right the way through in a reasonable time frame. Another common observation is that in the apostolic era, the Church could only use the Old Testament for most of the first century because the New Testament had yet to be completed and collected.
My response is two-fold. First of all, neither of these arguments directly addresses my remarks based on the unity of the Scriptures and their role in the life of the Church. In the second place, the early church clearly made extensive use of the written Scriptures it did have. We can see this from the quantity and range of Old Testament quotations and allusions in the New Testament.
Preaching carefully through the whole Bible forces ministers and their flocks to confront the verses which may challenge and therefore refine their pet church traditions, their theological views, or their personal assumptions about living Christian spirituality. It also forces them to explore different forms of biblical literature together in different ways.
Sometimes, for instance, the traditional expository format may not be the best way to explore a given passage memorably. Nor have I mentioned the prospect of mining undiscovered riches from previously neglected seams of the Bible’s great story arc. Faithfulness to Jesus demands our thorough, prayerful exploration of all God’s words as part of faithful living and retelling.
So, what about churches and ministers who refuse this approach in order to keep grazing their way through “The Bible’s Greatest Hits”, or what one radio interviewee some years ago called “the condensed milk of the Word”? I suggest the longer-term results of this approach already include stunted spiritual growth in the whole church, doctrinal divisions among members produced by fragmented and distorted understandings of God’s Word, and a detachment of the Lord’s army rarely more than half-trained and half-dressed for spiritual warfare (Eph 6.10-18). Does this sound like any church you’ve ever heard of?
3) Failing to teach the Bible’s contents systematically.
I’m thinking here about the need for “ordinary” Christians to learn basic Christian theological truths, together with learning how to spot and use essential Bible study tools for themselves. As I’ve written elsewhere, a defensive over-reliance on expository preaching has robbed several generations of evangelical Christians of this ability. Expository preaching is an important tool, but it shouldn’t be the only one in the ministry toolbox.
A lot of Christians are quite suspicious of, and hostile towards, systematic presentations of biblical truth. They think it’s too vulnerable to theologians justifying poor doctrine on the basis of cherry-picked proof texts. In fact, well-developed understandings of both systematic and biblical (chronologically unfolded) theology complement each other well. Each discipline checks the other’s most common pitfalls.
Biblical theology is useful for reminding systematic theologians of the importance of context in the process of interpretation, and for offering particular texts which may challenge an incomplete topical presentation. Systematic theology is useful for reminding biblical theologians that the unity of God’s Word demands that we take the whole Bible as the ultimate canonical context for any given portion of Scripture, and to avoid interpreting any one Bible passage in defiance of the plain teaching of another.
Equip a congregation with foundational truths of biblical and systematic theology, together with the basic tools and skills needed to weigh up what they read and hear in the future, and I suggest its members will be much better motivated to read and probe the Bible with their own families at home. Such a congregation will also be better able to spot serious errors in local church ministry teaching and practice, and better able to address them.
By contrast, failure to equip a congregation in this way undermines mutual spiritual accountability and so increases the danger that a pastor or Bible teacher will become what the eminent American Baptist theologian A.H. Strong described as a sort of mini-pope. Does this sound like any church you’ve ever heard of?
4) Failing to prepare Sunday School and Youth Church members for Christian maturity.
This involves considerations of both style and substance. For instance, there’s no point making Sunday School and Junior Church entertaining and interactive, if the main church services are often neither. This is an easy way to persuade younger adults that church is boring and has no future to offer them. It would be wise to avoid making all youth work exactly resemble Sunday morning main services. Nor is it sensible to turn all Sunday services into thinly Christianized multimedia entertainment sessions for biological adults. Sadly, too many churches are already heading down the second path.
Dismissing this pitfall with a comment like “They’ll come back when they’re older” involves making dangerous assumptions about the future. It also ignores both the highly interactive nature of New Testament era church services (e.g. 1 Cor 12-14), and Jesus’ words of warning to those who cause little ones among his followers to stumble (Matt 18.6, NIV2011). There is something especially poisonous about failing to train up mid-teens for church life, and then trying to justify the ensuing exodus by saying “they would have left in any case” and pointing at 1 Tim 4.1-5.
Another way in which young people may be badly prepared to follow Jesus is by depriving them of the skills and confidence they crave to show to the wider world the reasonableness of the basis of the Christian faith. There are already too many stories of young Christians heading off to college, only to find themselves intellectually helpless and spiritually shaken while taking first year courses in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), philosophy, or even world history. Do these sound like any young people you’ve ever heard of?
There’s a growing range of good quality literature and websites devoted to the subject of Christian apologetics (the examination of evidence and arguments offered against the Christian faith, and the offering of evidence and arguments in its favour). Parents and churches together need to equip children with fundamental skills in Bible interpretation and reasoning. Even if college isn’t best for everyone (and it isn’t!), Christian leaders and parents can’t and shouldn’t forever try to cocoon older children and adolescents from “the world”. Besides, didn’t Jesus talk about going out into the world (Mk 16.15-16)?
The good news is that Jesus is still Lord, and it’s not too late to reverse much of the damage done so far. Granted, prayers and tears of repentance may be in order, but if these prove to be the beginning of real spiritual transformation and growth, what a small price they will be for the present and future health of the Church of God! It is time to start becoming the Christian you know the Lord is calling you to be. May the Lord Jesus watch over you, and the Holy Spirit feed and guide you in accordance with the Holy Scriptures as you rise in His strength to this challenge. Amen.
© 2015 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer.
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