by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
Top honors in this year’s jaw-dropping title category go to DeYoung and Kluck’s latest “Why we love the church: in praise of institutions and organized religion.” That’s just about the opposite of what we’re saying at NeoXenos. For example, we emphasize how the word revolution captures what Jesus and the body of Christ are all about (and this is not a metaphor, but rather a literal revolution). We eschew the religious (i.e., man made traditions of “sacred” practices, often performed in a formalized or rote manner) and the institutional (i.e., formal organization into structures in the world system that operate according to the principles of the world system) in favor of the organic and relational. So naturally, I had to read this book to see how anyone could possibly be arguing in favor of organized institutional religion.
Ultimately, I am convinced that this book is an argument against those who abandon the body of Christ in favor of some minimalist gathering that allegedly lacks essential functions of the church, such as body-life, the teaching of the word, and spiritual leadership and authority. This describes the organic/simple church people (e.g., Viola), Barna’s “revolutionaries” (i.e., lone-ranger Christians who belong to nothing and pray in the woods or on the golf course), and many emergent churches. Until reading this book, I was not aware of how widespread the “church sucks” movement has become, and I agree that fleeing the church in pursuit of autonomy, rebellion, and self-indulgence is tragically misguided. Turns out, the “church sucks” people haven’t made a clear case yet. They have an antithesis with no thesis, so it is unclear what constructive solutions they offer.
However, it still sucks to be Kevin and Ted because they are stuck in the unfortunate position of having to defend organized religion, which can easily be shown to be a kosmos-inspired perversion of the ekklesia. For example, the best they can do with the Crusades is to say “well, they thought what they were doing was right…some of the individual crusades were successful in taking back Christian land, and you just don’t understand history right…you shouldn’t apologize for someone else’s sins…” Sorry, not good enough. We have to be able to condemn atrocities committed in the name of Christ, which in this case would involve contrasting what monarchy-controlled organized religious institutions were doing with what Jesus wanted his body to be doing. Turns out we have nothing to apologize for, because the crusades had nothing to do with the body of Christ.
In preparing this review, I outlined the major arguments of the book, in order to get a sense of their reasoning. However, a point-by-point critique would be cumbersome and tiresome, as it ultimately boils down to three problems. First, they are dishing up reheated reformed/Calvinist theology. Second, they neglect the implications of the doctrine of the body of Christ. Third, they misunderstand the doctrine of the kosmos.
The authors correctly note that there seem to be two camps forming in the contemporary Christianity landscape; reformed and emergent (NeoXenos is neither). They are of the reformed theological tradition, so predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God make evangelism somewhat less urgent than it might otherwise be, as our role as God’s co-laborers is minimized. Being from the reformed tradition is actually ironic because that started as a revolt against the Catholic Church (protestant reformation, right?). Now that their organized religion is being criticized, can’t they see that any man-made institution may eventually run its course? Even Christendom’s control of Geneva established by Calvin was lost after his death by the creeping secularization of city government. One missiologist even called “churchless Christianity” the third reformation!
Still, as the authors are Calvinist, they have to argue that nothing is really that wrong with the institutions of the church, so they insult and spin the statistical evidence in such a way to show that everything is fine. Perhaps this is necessary for their emotional health, because if the God is sovereign and His church is taking over the world, then evidence of massive failure is crushing. You see, as Calvinists they are saddled with the idea that the institution of the church should seek to reform cultures and societies in order to “redeem” the world. This is based on the idea that God’s sovereignty makes him active in all areas of life; sacred and secular. Given that all of life is religious to reformed theologians, it makes sense that people should be working to extend the will of God into every aspect of culture. Therefore, Calvinists would argue that the church should be promoting justice and mercy in the workplace, in government, and in schools. This leads to a practical theology of the church that includes things like taking over the government (like Calvin did), reclaiming “Christian” lands (like the crusaders attempted to do), or even running a recycling program out of your dorm room (because it’s “good stewardship”). One problem with this theological bent is that it can be a tremendous distraction from evangelism, as virtually anything branded as “Christian” can be labeled ministry. Another problem is that it misunderstands the kosmos, which we will turn to in a moment. Finally, it should be clear that Calvinism requires a strong healthy institution of the church, as the political clout necessary to “take back culture” only comes with well-funded, well-organized structures and systems that rule over masses of people willing to do the church’s bidding.
Body of Christ
The authors neglect the implications of the body of Christ, into which all Christians have been placed by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). They do not define the church clearly, and they confuse definition and function. They also fail to appreciate the importance of the body of Christ, as institutions of men do not easily lend themselves to “body life.”
First of all, they never adequately define the church, because they confuse definition and function. For example, my wife is the person I married. Some of her functions are to support me emotionally and take care of our children when I am at work. However, any person who I look to for emotional support or trust with the care of my children may not be my wife, unless they are the person I married. In the same sense, the church does have some functions such as teaching the word, serving the poor, and exercising authority (e.g., elders). However, the authors claim that the church must be made manifest (i.e., exercise its functions) in order to “count,” and that minimalist definitions (i.e., 2 or more gathered in Jesus’ name) do not. This confuses function and definition, in the sense that a wife may not be very emotionally supportive and may not have children to care for, but nonetheless be a wife. That is, the Christians meeting in caves in China do count as churches, even though they are not “manifest” as organized visible institutions to the degree that the authors would like. Furthermore, the authors argue that salvation comes from the church to support the argument that all Christians must be “churched” (in institutions), which is simply false. At the point of salvation, the Holy Spirit places the person into the body of Christ, and they are in the church.
Secondly, the authors do not understand the mystery of the body of Christ. They are angry at the “Barna revolutionaries” who have abandoned fellowship in order to play golf, but their complaint is designed to call them back to the institution. A more biblical view is to warn Christians about the sheer folly of failing to have consistent, enduring, and meaningful involvement with other Christians. There are perhaps 50 passages in the New Testament describing the relationships that Christians are to have with one another. These are the “one another” passages (not surprisingly!) and they include words that reflect deep involvement like “submit,” “admonish,” “encourage,” and “comfort.” I suspect that many of the members in good standing of the authors’ church organizations do not have meaningful relationships with their fellow Christians at the level called for by the New Testament. To these commands of scripture you could add the protective function of the body of Christ. For example, 1 Peter 5:8 states “Be sober and alert. Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour” in the middle of a passage about living in the body of Christ. The implication is clear; it is suicidal folly to wander away from the body of Christ. To willfully refuse to live out the “one another” passages is a most heinous sin. So the authors are correct that those who abandon fellowship are misguided, but their answer is more programmed, structured, religious organizations against which the revolutionaries are rebelling. That is not what scripture teaches, as the clear teaching of scripture is that the church is the assembly of people “called out” from every nation, race, age, and gender to comprise an organic, relational group of people built up in love to be inhabited by the Spirit of God.
This brings me to my final critique, which is that the authors misunderstand the kosmos. The church is called out from the kosmos, which is the world system inspired and controlled by Satan. The authors’ misunderstanding likely stems from their Calvinism, as the absolute sovereignty of God could be construed to imply that there is no part of the universe where His will is not possible. However, the New Testament teaches that the world system is under the authority of the devil, and that the Kingdom of God will be replacing the world system, not winning it over incrementally. There are powerful admonitions against love of the world system (e.g., 1 John), and compromise with the world system is likened to spiritual adultery and enmity towards God (James 4).
Actually, the authors disrespect for the kosmos betrays them. They do dislike the shallow “meet and greet” in the church service that remind people of shallow impersonal business meetings, they don’t like singing songs from the Christian ghetto that are clearly an attempt to “Christianize” contemporary music, and they oppose middle-class American greed that is obviously compromise with the devil’s system. Furthermore, their forefathers rebelled against the Catholic Church, so why is it so bad that the youth today want to rebel against the traditions of any institution insofar as the traditions are detracting from scriptural ecclesiology?
So ultimately, the authors do not like the kosmos but are blind to the ways in which it has infiltrated their religious organizations. However, the basis of the “church sucks” movement is that the church has been compromised by man-made traditions inspired by the world system, such as the lust for power of church leaders trying to influence national politics, greed and waste (e.g., so much of the budget goes to preserve the worship service cavern and equipment), and the whole-hearted pursuit of the “American dream” by all the pew-dwellers at the expense of cultivating the loving relationships described by the scriptures.
Ralph Winter. “Eleven Fronteirs of Perspective,” International Journal of Fronteir Missions, 20,